BA Cabin Crew Strike: Oppression at the Roadside, Fear at the Football Club, and the Worst Picket Line in the World
As I got off at Hatton Cross station, I saw a few flags. Billowing in the wind, I thought the bright red Unite emblems were a bit uniform, and bland, but that this might be where I’d find some socialist pals I’d arranged to meet up with in order to offer support and solidarity. As I wandered up, I saw a few of them – but without flags or banners. Where was the picket, I wondered. Maybe we’re all going to walk round to the front of the airport, wherever the main doors are, where the workers (or any scabs) would try and break the strike.
One socialist said hi, offered me a cigarette and a party paper. Then he explained the situation: This was the picket line. Next to a motorway, with only honking cars for company. And then there are the rules: 5 picket lines, 14 people max at a picket, 12 of which must be union members (note, that’s only 2 supporters, whether trots, friends or family). That’s 70 people on the picket lines at any one time, out of a workforce of over 3,000.
After 10 minutes of talking, a police van turned up and 6 police got out. Whereas on Saturday they were lax about the rules BAA had imposed, now there were to be no exceptions (The British Airports Authority are the owners of the airport, plus the entire surrounding area, so essentially have jurisdiction about what anyone can do, and like to use this against ‘non-passengers’, apparently). We were told to move on in no uncertain terms, under some unnamed airport bylaw which apparently BAA cares a great deal about, enough that the police are enforcing it before BAA gives the go ahead (technically someone from BAA should come down, ask us to leave, then report on to the police if there’s a problem).
Reluctantly, we left, not wanting to get the picketers in trouble. We went round the corner to the Football Club being used by Unite as the base for the day. Excellent, we thought, we can go somewhere warm and chat to the workers while they’re waiting to be picked up for a shift on the picket lines. But when we got there, a couple of Union reps turned us away. After another half hour of debate, the situation became clearer: non Unite members weren’t to be trusted. We were being handled politely but firmly (I mean, what did I expect – they were cabin crew, so they know how to deal with unwanted guests). Despite asking over and over, I never felt like I really got to the bottom of why we were unwelcome.
But the overwhelming impression I got from the workers was that they’re frightened. Those on the picket lines aren’t always the crew with shifts this weekend – in other words, they’re not actually on strike. While there’s almost 100% support for the industrial action, many of those taking it are scared to show their faces to the bosses.
And with good reason. Over the past few weeks, there’s been a round of extraordinary intimidation, disciplinary action and sackings by BA against union members and organisers. Open agitation on Facebook, blogs and forums has resulted in threats and bullying by the management. That spirit of openness, thanks to BA management, has gone. Controlled and cajoled, the front line strikers are cagey, unwilling to talk at first, scared that I might have been an undercover cop or perhaps a management spy for BA or BAA.
So, hassled by the police, and rejected by fearful union reps, we decided to check out the picket line no. 5, apparently not being used. Hey, we thought, let’s see if there’s an opportunity for us to roll out a solidarity banner there. And that’s how we found the worst picket line in the world:
It was clear from the lack of planes in the sky and those we could see on the ground that this is turning out to be an effective strike. But it was also clear that this is an industrial dispute which BA, BAA and the police are all taking seriously enough to work in cahoots with eachother, both in the media and on the ground. Despite Unite’s reluctance, these workers will need all the help they can get. Handing over a bundle of food made for the strikers, one supporter said: “They took our samosas, but they left our solidarity.”