July 18, 2003

British Airways strike at Heathrow

Brian Micklethwait | Airlines UK

British Airways has been hit by a strike. Flights cancelled. Thousands of passengers stranded with nothing but a permanently engaged phone line to tell them what the hell is happening.

What does this mean? I know almost nothing of the details of the dispute. Something to do with more tight monitoring of working time. Something like that.

But there's more to it than this, I believe. The feeling in Britain for some months now has been that we are back to the days of strikes and stoppages.

Basically, after years of self-abnegation, Britain now has an old fashioned tax-and-spend government. They decided a few months ago that the Opposition was permanently dead, and that they could tax and spend with impunity. The trouble is that hinting at infinite government largesse, which is actually still fairly finite of course, means that there is now massive room for public sector institutions (or even are-they-or-aren't-they-public-sector? institutions like BA) to disagree wildly about whether or not there is more money in the pot. Managements may protest in all sincerity that that's all there is, or that this or that new and more irksome work practice is essential. And Unions (or as in this case just gangs of unofficial strikers) may be sincerely convinced that they are lying, or mistaken, and that a little more pressure will get a Minister down from the political mountains with a suitcase full of more money to pay them more or to enable them to go on not being irked. That's the climate we have now entered, or rather gone back to.

But whether that has anything directly to do with this strike, I can't say. No doubt there'll be more links here, in the next few hours and days.

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Comments

I would say that an organisation that (if I recall correctly) made redundant several thousand workers and abandoned dozens of routes is not part of the government. Not even of the pretend private sector variety.

I can't help thinking that a couple of other factors are at work here. One is the increased militancy of trade unions. The other is (again I not quite sure on the details) an obscure change to the law which meant that (once again) employers couldn't sack strikers.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on July 19, 2003

I don't know. I significant portion of the government bureacracy still behaves like BA is part of the government. See the repeated failed attempts between the British and Americans to negotiate a new treaty concerning airline landing rights between the two countries, in which a deal that would be good for the travelling public but bad for BA (although still somewhat one sided in favour of the Americans) gets repeatedly refused by British negotiators.

Posted by Michael Jennings on July 19, 2003

It takes two to make an industrial dispute.

Knee-jerk ideologues of the left and right like to blame all disputes on heavy-handed management or bloody-minded unions respectively, but the truth is often more complex.

Don't know the whole story about this dispute, but it doesn't seem to be about money. I wonder if BA management overreacted by cancelling all flights the way they did, hoping the public would blame the unions and not the management. Other organisations (such as rail companies) have drafted in managers to run a skeleton service.

On the other hand, I remember 'Thiefrow' in the 70s.

I will certainly not be travelling by British Airways in the forseeable future.

Posted by Tim Hall on July 21, 2003

Tim

You're of course right that it takes more than one to make an industrial dispute. My point is that it helps if you have more than two, with the government joining in, if only by changing the rules somewhat, maybe.

And yes, this doesn't seem to have been about money. But you can well imagine the government leaning on BA, or for that matter the strikers, to settle. Both sides might now be inclined to hope that the government might intervene on their side and against the other guys.

The free market may be often a cruel and faceless mechanism, but it can at least introduce an element of objective agreement from both sides about the facts of their relative power, however disagreeable those facts may sometimes be.

But then I'm a free market ideologue, and I would say that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on July 21, 2003

What is the dispute about?Suerly not just the introduction of a swipe card system.Is there something a little more under the surface.

Posted by John Brierley. on July 23, 2003

I spoke for a friend of mine that works for BA (and is a GMB member). He'd been told by a union rep weeks ago that "There's trouble brewing with the terminal staff", but said union rep stated that he'd be fired for telling any more at the time.

{{What follows is heresay and unsubstantiated rumour. I also refuse to name my source}}

It seems there's been a lot of staff working extra hours when things are busy in return for going home early during quiet shifts, all arranged informally by shift supervisors.

What the staff fear is this will become normal working practice so that.

(a) People will turn up for work at the start of their normal shift only to be told to go home again (without pay) and come back in two hours because things are quiet.

(b) People will be required to work extra shifts at busy times with little or no notice, playing havoc with family life and people's social lives.

BA may be denying this, but it's clear that there's no trust between management and workers.

Posted by Tim Hall on July 23, 2003

Tim

I vaguely remember reading something along those lines, but can't recall where. Which, vaguely, supports your account.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on July 23, 2003

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