The BA Cabin Crew Dispute: Why Academics ‘Take Sides’
24 March 2017
By Ralph Darlington, Professor of Employment Relations, University of Salford
When 67 industrial relations academics based in Business Schools from across the UK recently signed their name to an open letter published in The Guardian backing British Airways' (BA) cabin crew who have been taking strike action over the issue of pay, it provoked predictable objections on the basis that they were 'biased' and engaging in 'partisan' behaviour linked to the trade unions. This raises an interesting and important question – is it justifiable for industrial relations academics to 'take sides' in researching the nature of the employment relationship and in the face of industrial disputes?
Let's start with the BA dispute. Over a number of years now, in response to the competitive challenges posed by budget airlines (such as Ryanair and easyjet), BA have been attempting to cut labour costs. So back in 2010 its chief executive, Willie Walsh, imposed worse pay and more flexible working practices on its cabin crew in what was widely perceived to be a full-scale 'macho-management' strategy of 'union busting'. BA's intransigence led to 21 days of strike action organised by the British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa) in one of the most protracted and bitter industrial disputes in recent British history. Alas, despite some concessions, the eventual settlement conceded the introduction of a new 'mixed fleet' category of cabin crew who have subsequently been hired on a two-tier arrangement on the basis of inferior terms and conditions to BA's 'legacy' fleets.
The basic starting salary of the new cabin crew is as low as £12,192, with an additional £3 an hour flying allowance, amounting to an average of only about £16,000 with allowances. Meanwhile BA's parent company, International Airlines Group, recently reported £2b pre-tax profit (an increase of one third on the previous year), while its boss was awarded a pay package of £6.5 million.
It is against this background, and in a bid to improve their 'poverty pay', that some 3,000 mixed fleet cabin crew, members of Unite, have embarked on a series of 3-day and 4-day strikes, amounting to no less than 26 days of strike action so far since January (despite BA taking away staff travel for two years, and holiday concessions and bonuses for 2017 as punishment for striking). From their base at London's Heathrow airport, coachloads of strikers have been sent to picket BA hubs and attend meetings at both Manchester and Glasgow airports. Although Unite's legal mandate for strike action runs out on 03 April, it seems highly likely a re-ballot would produce an overwhelming majority in favour of action similar to the previous 79 per cent support on a 60 per cent turnout (well above the strike ballot thresholds ushered in by the Tories' 2016 Trade Union Act).
So in the light of all this, the industrial relations academics' statement expressing unequivocal support for the BA cabin crew should actually be welcomed, not condemned. Arguably it is rather ironic for those in Business Schools who are effectively committed to neoliberalism and market managerialism, and are cheerleaders for 'Human Resource Management' and its aim of attempting to win the motivation and commitment of employees to managerial goals, to question those of us who support workers and their unions in industrial disputes like at BA.
The contribution made by many industrial relations academics is that they advocate the need for a 'political economy of industrial relations' within its broader capitalist totality in which there is evident unequal power at the centre of the employment relationship between parties that have contrasting and conflicting priorities and interests. With this as their starting point then issues to do with inequalities in pay and conditions and the underlying indignities of work, as well as the nature and dynamics of collective resistance by workers and trade unions, justifiably tend to figure rather more prominently than the problem of how to secure employee approval to lower pay and more flexible working conditions.
Rather than pretending to investigate the employment relationship from some supposedly neutral vantage point – and in the process essentially accepting management’s objectives in a highly unquestioning (and alternative partisan) manner – those industrial relations academics who have 'taken sides' by expressing support for the BA strikers have underlined in graphic relief the value of a critical social science that believes, as Albert Camus once commented, '…in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people…not to be on the side of the executioners'.