British Airways takes the money and runs

baThe Covid-19 crisis is highlighting the necessity for public ownership of all our vital services.

As the aviation industry continues to reel under the collapse of demand attendant upon the health emergency, British Airways is the latest airline to announce at the end of April plans for sweeping job cuts, with as many as 12,000 of its staff affected.

BA threatens to sack its entire workforce

Whilst the overproduction crisis, brought to a head by the Covid lockdown, continues to put pressure on all competing airlines to slash labour costs, British Airways has taken a root and branch approach to ‘negotiating’ with the unions, threatening to sack its entire workforce (over 40,000 workers) with the intention of rehiring some on much worse terms and conditions.

This take-no-prisoners tactic served notice on the unions that the days of polite negotiations, with some care being taken by bosses to throw an occasional scrap of a concession to union negotiators to take back to the membership to make it look like they are earning their keep, are coming to an end.

BA has been claiming that Unite and the GMB have refused to enter talks; but when the pilots’ union BALPA bent over backwards to keep negotiations going, they were met with complete contempt. BALPA’s general secretary Brian Strutton complained that “Balpa reps have been in consultation with BA over its proposed 1,130 pilot job losses and we’ve been doing that constructively and in good faith. Then, on Wednesday evening [3 June], a letter from BA added another 125 job losses and also for the first time threatened all 4,300 BA pilots with dismissal and reengagement if we did not reach agreement on changes to terms and conditions” (quoted by Adam McCullough, ‘British Airways job loss talks “hanging by a thread” say pilots’, Personnel Today, 8 June 2020).

In an earlier statement Strutton urged state intervention to support the aviation industry as a whole, correctly noting that otherwise “it is blindingly obvious that individual airlines will plot a path out of this that only suits their shareholders” (BALPA press release, 3 June 2020).

Given the impact of Covid-19, it should have been fairly obvious that something like this was on the cards. Yet BA’s announcement still came as a shock to employees. After all, as recently as 30 March, BA declared that it had successfully extended its US dollar-secured revolving credit facility up to June 2021, enabling it to access funds amounting to $1.38bn.

With its overdraft facility nailed down, the clear implication was that the company could ride out the storm unscathed, soothing staff worried about their future. This optimistic view seemed to be borne out by the fact that BA participated in the government’s job retention scheme, furloughing some of its staff.

These moves were perhaps intended to throw workers off the scent, lulling them into a false sense of security and minimising organised resistance.

It turns out, however, that BA was just cynically dipping into the public purse to buy time for manoeuvre, hoping to soften the financial blow whilst it tried to scale down its UK operations with the minimum hit to the company’s considerable financial resources.

All the while, BA staff were kept in the dark. The company’s decision to sack 12,000 workers was taken behind closed doors – like every other key decision concerning workers’ futures.

In addition, the Financial Times of 13 June reports that BA’s “rivals are taking similar action, with easyJet axing up to 30 per cent of jobs, while Ryanair is looking at reducing 15 per cent. Virgin Atlantic is cutting about a third of its 10,000-strong workforce as carriers look to restructure in light of a slow recovery in air travel” (Tanya Powley, ‘MPs brand British Airways a ‘national disgrace’ over job cuts’).

Meanwhile Heathrow has announced it is offering voluntary redundancy to all its 7,000 in-house employees. Unite seeks to sugar the pill by boasting about the ‘generous’ redundancy package it has negotiated, but this will be of small comfort to those whose careers have been abruptly stalled with doubtful prospect of securing equivalent alternative employment. Furthermore, just how ‘generous’ settlements will prove to be a little further down the line, when more cuts may be deemed necessary (they cannot be ruled out says Heathrow), is far from certain. What is certain however is that a history of unions retreating from challenging all redundancies, ‘voluntary’ or otherwise, leaves workers demoralised and weakened for all future battles.

It is clear from the current chaos that air travel is far too important a service to remain in private hands. In reality what is needed is a publicly owned aviation industry organised on the basis of social need not private profit. Anything short of that simply means that taxpayers’ cash will continue to be siphoned off by the top management and shareholders. The government itself, fearing a bad press, has complained about airlines like BA milking the government’s furlough job retention scheme whilst simultaneously issuing redundancy notices.

Rather than the state doling out furlough subsidies to individual stricken airlines, the whole air travel sector needs to come into public ownership, and be run for need not profit.

Only thus will it be possible to make rational decisions about the future role of air travel as it adjusts to the new conditions post-Covid – decisions informed by social and environmental need.

Under a planned economy, if fewer staff and less production were needed in one field, such as air travel, those people and resources would simply be retrained and repurposed to fulfil some other area of human need.