Britain’s airports have been in a state of chaos for months, with thousands of flights canceled and travel plans ruined. Now, with the summer of strike action heating up, disruption is set to deepen as over 700 British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow have voted to walk out in a dispute over pay.
GMB and Unite announced last week that British Airways staff at Heathrow, mostly check-in, had voted by ninety-five percent in favour of strike action on turnout of more than eighty percent, setting the stage for walk-outs in the peak period for Britain’s busiest airport.
Government and industry have sought to explain the dysfunction unfurling at airports as the natural result of rebounding passenger numbers after lockdowns. But the truth is that the months of disruption and the impending strike action is a crisis of their own making caused by profiteering and attacks on the livelihoods of staff. The British Airways dispute is just one example.
BA workers are demanding that a ten-percent pay cut implemented during the pandemic be reversed. BA were one of many companies who used the pandemic as cover to force through contractual changes with the use of fire and rehire, telling workers to ‘voluntarily’ accept inferior terms and conditions or be fired then rehired on a worse contract, and reducing salaries to around £20,000. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, one worker told Tribune they took the pay cut with ‘a gun to the head’.
Another worker described the urgent need for the cut to be restored in the face of a cost of living crisis, describing how soaring prices mean they can ‘barely afford to travel to work’ and that staff are ‘having to skip meals just to feed their children’. Although the cut came off the back of years of attacks on staff and the whittling away at staff pensions and terms and conditions, when the economy was in lockdown and the aviation industry faced uncertainty, there was acquiescence among staff to demands for pay restraint or cuts.
As passenger numbers have rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, though, so has the company’s profitability and the pay packets of bosses: the chief executive of BA’s parent company IAG, Luis Gallego, is in line to earn £4.9 million this year alone. But BA is digging its heels in over workers’ pay. Staff feel that they made a sacrifice and are frustrated with the lack of gratitude, with one worker describing it as ‘being victimised and bullied for our loyalty. We were the ones on the frontline during the pandemic, not only putting ourselves at risk but our loved ones too. And this is how they repay us.’
In the coming months, Britain’s media will no doubt seek to portray striking workers as the villains of the dispute while letting management off the hook for their responsibility for cancellations and disruption. The reality is that it is airport workers who have had to bear the brunt of recent travel chaos and irate passengers, with one worker describing feeling ‘unsafe’ and like ‘a lamb to the slaughter whenever I enter the terminal’. Others reported enduring ‘daily physical and verbal abuse, being spat at and pushed’ and homophobic abuse directed towards LGBT workers ‘all because of BA management and their cuts’.
The main driver of the chaos at airports so far is a labour shortage across the sector, itself the result of short-term profiteering. Companies made staff redundant during the pandemic or attacked terms and conditions, leading to an exodus of workers and difficulties in recruiting. Trade body Airlines UK reported more than 30,000 job losses announced by just their members since the start of the Covid pandemic.
The impact of Brexit and barriers to recruiting new staff in aviation, such as the time it takes for training and security vetting, have compounded those shortages, as have poor conditions across the sector. At a time when there are too few workers across the economy, the prospect of poor work-life balance, low pay, and abusive customers are preventing airports from retaining or recruiting the staff they need.
Describing corporate greed’s role in the ongoing chaos and abuse, GMB National Officer Nadine Haughton encouraged workers to recognise their increased leverage in industrial disputes. ‘Workers have gone on a journey from thinking that they are lucky to have a job to realising that there is pent up demand and recognising their value,’ she explains, drawing comparisons with HGV drivers who have been able to win improved deals because of the national driver shortage.
Trade unions have also contextualised the most recent round of corporate myopia within a much larger pattern. The year before the pandemic, BA paid out a staggering £1.9 billion to shareholders—money could have been used instead to upgrade faltering IT systems, or retained as company reserves to be used in a time of crisis, to avoid redundancies or attacks on staff pay.
Similarly, the financial support provided by the government during the pandemic—some £8 billion—could have been conditional on protecting the terms and conditions of staff. But it was not, and therefore gave the green light to the use of brutal industrial practices like fire and rehire. Little thought was paid to what would happen when lockdowns ended and passenger numbers edged back up toward pre-pandemic levels, despite repeated warnings from trade unions—and it is the traveling public and staff now paying the price.
With the government decidedly in favour of ‘pay discipline’ and the Labour Party vacillating between fence-sitting and condemnation of industrial action, workers are lacking political leaders in Westminster to champion their cause. But staff and BA and elsewhere are undeterred. ‘This isn’t about the Labour Party,’ Nadine Houghton told Tribune. ‘Working people have their own ideas, and they’re developing a strategy.’
In the face of soaring inflation, workers are taking matters into their own hands. Some trade unions in the aviation sector have already won pay increases, while others balloting in airports will be keeping a close eye on what happens at Heathrow and in other industrial disputes across the country. Working people are already taking action in numbers not seen in years, and the success of the BA staff in their dispute will only encourage others to agitate for what they deserve. As one worker put it, ‘nobody wants to strike—but we have all come together to fight for what is rightfully ours.’