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Workers Win Against BA Bullies
A SENIOR shop steward at British Airways (BA) spoke to the socialist about the settlement reached with the company after the spontaneous strikes by check-in staff at Heathrow airport.
The company had tried to impose an automated time management scheme, using swipe cards linked to a computer system.
How would you describe the settlement?
The settlement is a good result for the check-in staff. But it's also good for other groups of workers on the administrative scales within British Airways.
It has reinstated the principle that when the company want to make changes they have to do it by negotiation. It's now agreed that the swipe cards will be used from 1 September and all the other aspects of iARM (computerised time management) will be negotiated and will only be introduced with the agreement of the reps.
The company has already said openly that it won't introduce three of our biggest concerns, so what exactly they're going to be monitoring with iARM is difficult to see.
Also, it's an important victory that we got strings de-linked from pay. In the past we've always defeated strings, we've never recognised strings being part of the pay claim and this year the company tried it on again.
Why all the fuss about swipe cards?
The workers who walked out were 75% women of which around 80% have children at school. So they're trying to balance childcare, picking kids up from school etc, with shift work.
The flexibility to be able to swap shifts when you want to rather than when the company wants is important. Otherwise you could end up paying hundreds of pounds a week in childcare.
The use of swipe cards alone was never the problem. But linked to a computer system (iARM) they would have allowed BA to cut costs by making staff come to work when it's busy and go home when it's not.
At the moment, in the morning there's a half-hour window where you can be half an hour late for your shift and not lose any money, and there's an hour and a half at the end of the shift.
So there's a two-hour window in an eight-hour shift.
The reason people could be going home early is because the shifts are designed to allow the flying schedule to 'go late'. Obviously if there's Air Traffic Control problems in the morning all the aircraft that come in and out will slowly 'go late' throughout the rest of the day.
It's only when the schedule has gone to plan that all of a sudden you find there's no planes coming in and everyone can go home. It's a long-standing arrangement and it's never been about anybody signing anybody else out.
Your supervisor would sign out a whole team when there was no more work to do.
How do you see things developing at BA now?
Winning a battle like this puts the company agenda backwards. There's bound to be a bit of infighting amongst the management now about who made the decision to impose the new system, and who's going to take the rap.
The company lost £40 million in 36 hours.
There's a huge credibility gap now. When the company come to us and says: "we can't meet your pay claim or your demands for extra leave because it's going to cost five or six million", we'll say: "well you've just managed to lose £40 million in a day and a half through incompetence".
Or when they come to us and say: "we've got to compete more we've got to cut your money". People will say: "well you're the ones losing the money".
The workforce is very confident. All action, particularly when the workforce sees it resulting in victory, draws workers together and makes them feel more ready to struggle for other things.
What the company will try to do now is go off and pick on another group of workers and they'll leave these staff alone for some time. BA is under pressure.
The new management team are looking at the competition from EasyJet, Ryanair and so on. That will bring them back to the negotiating table.
I suspect there are managers who want to attack the staff to get certain things in place before the company moves into Terminal 5. When we move there it will bring the long haul and the short haul - the whole British Airways operational staff together in one terminal.
It will make BA staff potentially very powerful.
Now, sometimes the company reach a deal in one terminal which they might try to bounce on the staff in the other terminal, or vice-versa. So it sees dangers in putting all the staff together.
The problem for pay is that in 1996/97 as part of the transport union TGWU partnership agreement with BA, the TGWU agreed New Starter Rates.
An experienced worker on a check-in desk could maybe earn £20,000 a year. But the new Starter Rates allowed the company to employ people on £10,000 - half the wages.
You can work up to about £12,000. Over time, with staff turnover, the percentage of people on these low rates has increased.
There'll be new battles to get everybody on the higher rates. Some of the new reps are on these low rates and they are planning for taking a more offensive posture towards the company.
In The Socialist 9 August 2003: