Sunday, May 23, 2010

Forget the Stunt, Support the Strike!

BRITISH Airways cabin crew resume their industrial action tomorrow, with a five day strike action. The workers succeeded last week at the High Court in having the ban on their strike lifted, and yesterday talks between the Unite union and BA at the conciliation service ACAS were halted, apparently after an invasion led by members of the Socialist Workers Party.

Police were called to ACAS headquarters after the SWP-led invaders, who had been attending a Right to Work conference, managed to get through security and reach the 23 rd floor, where the 11th hour talks were taking place. Shouting abuse at British Airways boss Willie Walsh, and chanting slogans, the protesters ignored Unite's Tony Woodley, who told them to "shut up".

Describing the invaders as "lunatics" and "idiots" who were not members of Unite, Tony Woodley said the meeting had been an opportunity to avert 15 days of strikes that will cost the airline "up to £100m".

"Negotiations have not broken down, they have been broken up. We have made some progress, but there is more to do," he said. "This was a complete waste of an early-evening. I am so disappointed… those idiots think they are helping, but they are outsiders. They are lunatics."

Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at Acas who had been chairing the talks, said the protesters managed to get into a secure area being used for the negotiations and then surrounded Walsh as he tried to call his colleagues on his mobile phone. Harwood called the police and managed to help move the BA boss to another floor away from the demonstrators, before Walsh was taken out of the building via a rear exit. Harwood said there was no violence during the demonstration but it was "intimidating".

Exactly what the demonstrators hoped to achieve is not clear. Perhaps it was not clear to them. Presumably they wanted to help the BA workers, and may have felt Unite leaders too ready to make concessions. But there has been no suggestion that BA workers asked for "help" of this kind, or that they were opposed to the union entering negotiations. Quite the contrary.

There has been widespread public sympathy for the BA workers, against bullying management, which has taken away travel concessions and victimised union members. But now the media have been able to present Willie Walsh as the victim of "bullying"! (On BBC 1 's Andrew Marr show today, Tony Parsons referred twice to "sandal-wearing" bullies. I'm no fashion expert and I couldn't see from the film clip what the protestors had on their feet, but surely if they had intended bullying anybody they'd have worn steel toecaps or at least Doc Martins?)

Many people on the Left, including former Socialist Workers Party members, are saying the ACAS invasion was a stupid stunt and criticising those who organised it for trying to substitute themselves and their ideas for the will of the workers. (I've not seen an SWP statement, and I know not all those involved were from the SWP, but such SWP comments as I've seen are happy to claim it. Whether other SWP members are all happy with it, perhaps we'll see.) But the only idea advanced here is that it was a good opportunity to shout at Willie Walsh.

The Right to Work campaign was set up after the SWP found itself playing second fiddle to the Socialist Party and others in the National Shop Stewards Network. I can't help suspecting that after several recent disappointments, and the departure of well-known leading members, and feeling irrelevant in upcoming elections in Unite and the Labour Party, the SWP leaders might not have been averse to a stunt to steal some limelight, and even hope that any resultant unpopularity will strengthen the loyalty of their members.

Or maybe they just felt that since such fun and games works in student matters, they could try it in the trade union movement.

Whatever the thinking - if any -involved, it seems to have done nothing to help the airline workers, nor to hit BA, and was just a nuisance to the union. The danger now is that the SWP's antics will be exploited to attack the entire left, both in the unions and the Labour Party.

In 1963 a bunch of supporters of what became the SWP disrupted a Labour Party May Day rally in Scotland, challenging right-winger George Brown on the platform. The Labour leadership launched a witch hunt, starting in Scotland, against the left in the Young Socialists. But ironically, the group which had been involved in the original incident, around the paper 'Young Guard' , quietened down and while other people were being expelled, became known as "young moderates"!

The union and BA are being contacted by Acas to try to resurrect the talks. Sources said that "some progress" had been made before the interruption. In a strange twist, BA criticised Derek Simpson, joint leader of Unite, for sending Twitter messages throughout the afternoon which gave a "running commentary" of the negotiations. The airline said: "We are astonished that Derek Simpson feels it appropriate to Tweet to the world a running commentary of some very delicate negotiations on a Saturday afternoon aimed at averting strikes which will impact on thousands of hard-working families wanting to go on half-term holidays and the job security of his members."

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