A summer of discontent?

The summer of 1997 has seen a number of industrial disputes involving Barclays, British Airways, BT and some of the recently privatised train operators, leading to speculation about a possible upsurge in militancy, following the return of a Labour Government in the general election in May. We review in particular the dispute at British Airways, explore the reasons for the dispute and comment on its conduct, before seeking to draw some general implications.

The two disputes at British Airways (UK9706137N) - one involving catering staff and the other cabin crew - have been among a number to have occurred this summer (UK9707144F). Notable among the others have been those at: Barclays, involving staff in the retail bank (UK9707147N); BT, where it is a question of service engineers working on telephone repairs and installation in London; and some 20 of the 25 newly-privatised rail operating companies, involving train guards. It is the disputes at British Airways, particularly that involving the cabin crew, which have attracted most attention, however. A three-day strike of several hundred cabin crew in early July, coupled with a dramatic rise in sickness rates, is reported to have cost the company GBP 124 million in revenue as well as, it is accepted, considerable damage to is image.

The background to the British Airways cabin crew dispute

The immediate cause of the BA dispute was a failure to reach agreement over a package of measures which the management claims was vital to the continuing success of the airline. These included significant changes in basic pay along with overtime and other allowances. A number of other issues quickly came to the surface, however. One is the presence of a breakaway union for cabin crew to which management had conceded separate negotiating rights. A major reason for their tough stance with the cabin crew's main union, the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), the management claimed, was that, having reached agreement with this union on the package, they had to do the same with the TGWU. The TGWU, for its part, was worried that the breakaway union was being used to undermine its own position.

Another issue is the long-term strategy of the management, which also helps to explain the involvement of the catering staff. The chief executive of British Airways, Bob Ayling, has been associated for some time with promotion of the idea of the "virtual" airline, which would employ the minimum number of staff directly, in order to reduce overheads. The reason for the dispute with the catering staff was the proposal that the airline's catering operations should be subcontracted. Claims that management was recruiting new staff to take over in the event of a strike, as well as training managers to do cabin crew jobs, were also significant. There were worries that the management, taking a leaf out of Rupert Murdoch' s book at The Times and Sunday Times newspapers at Wapping in London in the 1980s, might be planning to withdraw recognition from the TGWU.

The conduct of the dispute

The conduct of the BA dispute was notable for two reasons. The first is the extent to which the management went to pressurise individuals not to take strike action, even though it had been formally sanctioned in a ballot, leading to accusations of bullying tactics. There were warnings about dismissal, loss of promotion, and the withdrawal of pension rights and travel benefits. Extensive use was also made of letters, videos and cassettes, as well as the mass media, to get the message across.

The second was the significance of the unexpectedly high levels of sickness which occurred among the cabin crew during the period of the strike - around 350 BA workers went on official strike, but another 2,000 (at least four times the normal number) went sick. It is still not entirely clear if this was a deliberate tactic or a response to the stress caused by the management actions. In any event, the "mass sickie", as it has come to be known, proved to be a remarkably effective weapon. The strike lasted three days, but the impact of the high levels of sickness carried on much longer, causing substantial changes to schedules and loss of revenue.

There is as yet no resolution to the dispute, but talks are ongoing and the signs are that both sides feel under pressure to reach a settlement. Looking back, it seems that the management did not have the grander design attributed to it or, if it did, it badly miscalculated. Certainly the management admits that it made mistakes, while many commentators have expressed surprise that a company with so much acknowledged expertise in the area should have handled the public relations of the dispute so badly. The one saving grace, according to management, is that the TGWU has agreed to formulate its own proposals for savings.

Commentary

After years of relatively low levels of industrial action reflecting the decline in the coverage of collective bargaining and a very unfavourable economic and political environment, it obvious makes good news headlines to see the cabin crew dispute, along with those at Barclays, BT and the train operators, as evidence of an upsurge in militancy. Yet such a judgment is almost certainly wide of the mark. Most of the groups involved are hardly renowned for their militancy and many are likely to have voted Conservative at the general election. If there is a common thread, it is over the handling of the management of change. In each case, the breakdown has resulted from what trade unions have described as a management attempt to impose changes in pay structures and working arrangements without serious negotiation. Management, for its part, has complained that trade unions have not been sufficiently responsive to the need for change and/or have been too slow to put forward proposals of their own. The disputes could be no more than a series of isolated events - or they could be the beginning of a trend, as management finds itself having to adjust to a changing mood in which expectations about partnership being more than rhetoric take hold. Either way, it could that the cabin crew dispute leaves one lasting legacy - the use of the "mass sickie" as a significant weapon of industrial action. (Keith Sisson, IRRU).

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