Save your sympathy for the real victims of strikes: us

The strike by BA staff has caused widespread disarray and has won little sympathy from the public. And all for an argument the strikers cannot win, says George Pitcher

I’m taking no chances with airports next week. So the Pitcher family will drive to Heidelberg, then down through the Black Forest to the Italian lakes and Piedmont.

It seems I’m not alone. British Airways (BA) puts the cost of its wildcat strikes last week at anything between &£30m and &£50m, but it could be higher than &£60m if you take into account those, like me, who eschew flying this summer.

True, BA’s labour-relations plight should be good news for the likes of Alitalia, but there is an interesting knock-on effect to be noted here. Many travellers, again like me, are now distrustful of the reliability of other airlines in a complex industrial environment in which BA operates other carriers’ schedules under licence.

A further knock-on effect for other airlines, which have no commercial interest with BA whatsoever, is that a proportion of their customers are put off the prospect of having to use an airport such as Heathrow if it is full of tens of thousands of weeping refugees from BA.

And, before we over-landers become too smug, it may be worth considering the crowds and queues at Le Shuttle and the ferry services formed by those avoiding BA. Good revenue boosts for the Channel operators, but BA’s crisis could bring them their own congestion problems.

Poor BA, though. Just when it had struggled back into profit in its latest financial year to the end of March, turning a loss of &£200m in 2001/02 into a &£135m profit, it is plunged back into loss-making by unofficial strikers among ground staff, who object to a time-keeping system operated by swipe-cards.

If I sound like a fat City suit, puffing on a large Havana when I say that, I make no apology. I have an old friend who works “airside” for BA and whose experience over the years is that BA is not good at staff relations and is invariably caught on the hop by labour unrest, but that is the only concession to sympathy that I will make with the BA strikers.

The wildcat strikes of last week and the complex negotiations of this week with a number of competing trades unions are anachronisms – a kind of retro-industrial model from the Seventies, at once nostalgic and disturbing.

This dispute has been about modernisation, which I readily agree is not necessarily a good thing for shareholders or for customers. But it’s worth saying that all industrial disputes of the modern era have been about modernisation, in one form or another.

By this, I mean that classic disputes of the Labour movement, such as the 1926 General Strike and the Jarrow March, and even historical uprisings like the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the riots over the Corn Laws, were about social issues, the distribution of wealth and the manner in which we conduct our civi


Lately, industrial disputes have been about modernisation in a competitive environment. Sometimes this has been in the public sector and politically driven; sometimes it has been a private sector affair. Sometimes it has been a mixture of the two.

Nearly 20 years ago, Margaret Thatcher set about destroying the will of the British mining industry, in order to bring to heel the most powerful challenge to her government from the unions and to prepare the energy industry for privatisation.

A little earlier, Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers locked out its intransigent print unions, which laid siege to his new plant at Wapping. Many comparisons have been made during the past fortnight between the phantom shifts and staff abuses of the old Fleet Street and BA’s ground staff today.

Be that as it may, recent history shows us that greater public sympathy is generally directed towards the public sector than the private sector under these circumstances. The salt-of-the-earth miners attracted greater support for their cause of survival than Mickey Mouse and his mates on the timesheets of Fleet Street did.

Much more recently, the public sector firefighters initially attracted the instinctive sympathy of a public that saluted brave young men and women who put their lives on the line for our safety.

But then it became apparent that the shift-system being defended enabled many of these back-draft buccaneers to hold down two jobs. Their cause foundered. On the privatised railways, strikes over employment issues have barely been tolerated at all – and this at a time when public fears about rail safety are high.

If firefighters can’t win a modernisation spat in the public sector, what chance does BA’s staff have in the private sector?

But the biggest problems for BA’s workers were going to be that competitive pressures to modernise practices are always going to win the day for the long-privatised airline. And the competitive pressures in the airline industry are demonstrably making the seat-aisles run red.

We may have sympathised with miners and firefighters defending their industries in the past, but hardly with a stony-faced check-in clerk who wants to bunk off early.

Probably the strongest case against the BA strikers is that of precedents. The miners lost. The printers lost. The firefighters lost. Sad to say for the Labour movement, but when it comes to modernisation, strikers are losers.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon


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