Yesterday I went down again to the Heathrow picket lines, to see how the strike is developing, and also to check out the new community garden squatted by Sipson residents and activists.
Last time I didn’t write about my journey down there. (Quick tangent: a crack-of-dawn piccadilly line farce complete with hundreds of tourists, Japanese cameras, garbled German, a replacement bus and a fortuitous chat with a CWU rep on his way to Belfast.)
This time, I arrived at the far more civilised time of midday. As I got out at Hatton Cross station, there was the same picket line with its mandatory 14 picketers. Even though this had been designated by Unite as ‘family day’ (yesterday was ‘International Solidarity Day’) there was still a limited number of supporters, this time the lone child on the side of the motorway with her Unite flag, cheering at honking cars, seemed a dismal response to such an awesomely effective strike.
The planes may have roared over head (even for me, non-flyer as I am, I can’t stop the kid inside go ‘ooh’ at the size of them), but when I joined the plane spotters up on the bridge over the road, they informed me that they were the same planes going round and round. ‘We can see the registration numbers’ one said ‘they’re just empty planes made to look like BA is busy. Oh that one’s the biggest plane in the world.’ It was indeed a well big plane.
Down at the football club, some friends joined in going round the picketers and talking about various ways the strike could go. The vibe this weekend wasn’t just upbeat, it was pretty off-the-wall. There was a large bouncy castle set up for all the kids, some people in shark costumes (presumably having something to do with Willie Walsh behaving like a shark) and a mobile picket in the form of an open-topped double decker bus, which drove round and round the perimeter of the airport, complete with Unite flags and bad limericks about Willie Walsh.
This week there was also more of a feeling that the strikers were in it for the long haul (sorry, irresistible pun). A few cabin crew talked about how they’d been putting money by over the last few months, knowing that they needed to save up for the dispute. “This was always going to happen” remarked a crew member.
That seems to be the feeling all round, and made sense once I’d got my head round some of the history of the workforce. A lot of the cabin crew, particularly the younger workers, have already been employed by Ryanair or Easyjet, where the pay is actually quite a lot better than BA, but the hours are longer, the conditions worse, and the perks non-existent (sounds quite a lot like the customer’s experience too). One guy told me how he held down two bar jobs while working for Easyjet.
Once they’ve got some experience however, they try for jobs at BA – the conditions are better, the brand holds some sway, and generally you get a better treatment from customers. But that’s all been wrecked by the recent management tactics. Over the last few years, BA have consistently reduced pay and attempted to remove terms and conditions. At Heathrow, the cabin crew’s union, BASSA, really came into its own when the members changed the constitution to give them ultimate sway over negotiations after their Union leader sold them out in a deal, bumping the retirement age up from 55 to 65 without a change in pensions.
The example BASSA members gave time and time again as a comparison was Gatwick. Over at BA’s second busiest airport, there’s hardly any unionisation and, consequentially the management have been able to hack away at pay, conditions and morale. There’s hardly even a picket line over at Gatwick apparently. Most of the workforce is concentrated in Heathrow though, as BA pulled out of most other airports around the country. A couple of crew were down from Manchester, from where they usually commute to work – by plane, of course. Nonetheless, on strike days they’ve been meeting up there, 100 or so in a meeting. That’s some pretty strong rank and file unionisation.
After the football club, we went and caught the number 90 bus to Grow Heathrow. The long walk down Sipson Lane shows you what the area’s like: little suburban, semi-rural lanes with roaring technology a few hundred metres overhead. It’s a strange mix.
The site that the Transition Heathrow group have taken is an old tree nursery, consisting of a few long, tunnel like greenhouses, and some surrounding grassy patches. Many of the panes have been smashed, and the glass lies shattered in the waste that’s dumped around. Eerily, a huge pile of car parts lies to one side, bumpers, seating foam, big sheets covered in oil. We spent a while bagging it up, hoping that one day someone will come and take it for landfill.
To the back of the site is a huge area of bramble and thicket, a Holiday Inn lauding over it all (and of course yet more planes circling in the distance). If you take a walk down there, through the bushes and bits of plastic bag, it’s easy to forget that you’re standing on some of the most politically contested ground in the country: the site of the proposed Third Runway.
And so it’s really quite inspiring to see long-time Sipson residents, socialists and some nice young anarchists getting their hands dirty, building compost toilets and grey-water systems. It’s a lot like the Climate Camps in some ways – creating something positive next to the sites of the climate crime itself. But it’s also got that long-term Transition Town element. Keith, a carpenter, was busy replacing panes into the nursery shelters, while others were making food for everyone.
The Sipsonites, however, didn’t seem too bothered about what was going on round the corner at the strike centre. ‘It’s nothing to do with us’ said one. And, true, in some ways it isn’t – hardly any cabin crew live in Sipson, or near Heathrow at all, especially as you can always fly into work like the Manchester folk. All the same, it’s difficult to ignore that the BA strike has grounded more planes in a week than climate activists have in 3 years, and while the partial legal victory over the Third Runway gives cause for hope, enough money and political drive could easily see Sipson buried under concrete.
There’s so many great things going on down in this suburb to the far West of London, and it’ll be really interesting to see what happens if everyone starts talking to eachother.