The British Airways Strike, 2005
Heathrow is the boss's worst nightmare.

On Saturday, August 20, management of Northwest Airlines is set to unleash a massive assault on its workers. They are demanding concessions of over $1 billion per year, including:

  • $176 million a year from 4,400 mechanics and cleaners in the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), including 26% wage cuts, freezes in pension contributions plus conversion to 401(k)-type defined contribution pension plans, and and the elimination of 50 percent of the mechanics' jobs.   
  • $143 million a year from flight attendants in the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA) give up , including a 20% wage cut, more outsourcing, reduced rest periods, and more flexible scheduling.
  • Big concessions from other unions such as International Association of Machinists (IAM, baggage handlers and reservation agents) and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

Northwest is preparing to begin a lockout if a strike has not been declared. Failing these, Northwest is threatening to file for bankruptcy protection, following the lead of United Airlines and US Airways to terminate pension plans and impose its wage and benefit cuts.

Northwest claims to have than 3,000 strikebreakers available, some already housed in motel rooms near Detroit Metro Airport, as well as 1500 more flight attendants. Indications are that Northwest's AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, IAM and ALPA, will cross the picket lines of Northwest's non-AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, AMFA and PFAA. Nothing has been heard from the Change to Win Coalition that broke away from the AFL-CIO earlier this month.

In situations like this, it is easy to forget that the working class has any power at all. However a look at last week's wildcat strike of British Airways ground workers in support of Gate Gourmet airline food preparation workers shows that in the face of united and resolute workers' action, the bosses are helpless. The very same factors that the airline bosses imposed to improve their profits, and to move the greatest possible number of passengers with the fewest number of workers, was the bosses' undoing when workers acted together.

On Thursday, August 11, British Airways suffered a 24-hour walkout of some 1,000 ground staff workers at the world's second busiest airport, Heathrow. The action stranded some 100,000 passengers world-wide, cancelled hundreds of flights world-wide during the peak summer season, and cost the company over $70 million. ref     Other airlines that use the same ground staff at Heathrow, including Qantas, Finnair, British Mediterranean and Sri Lankan Airlines, were also affected. ref    About 1,000 passengers spent the night on floors and in seating areas at the airport, and about 4,000 had been put up in hotels nearby. Incoming flights were diverted to airports as far away as Newcastle in northern England and Glasgow, Scotland. ref

A strike at British Airways that stranded tens of thousands of travelers at Heathrow Airport in London ended Friday, but fliers might be stuck a few more days as the airlines struggle to recover. (NYT)

Days later, 10,000 pieces of baggage were still lost in the system. ref  Passengers whose flights were canceled at the end of last week said they were furious that they had not been given priority over new passengers scheduled to fly out of Heathrow. But the airline said that bumping the new passengers to make way for the old would prove too complicated.ref   By Sunday, two days after the workers returned, the airline was telling its 600 passengers still stranded at hotels near Heathrow that the were re-booked and should leave "within a few days' time." ref


At Heathrow, the center of the airline's worldwide operations, weary customers milled around, swapping grim accounts of canceled flights, disrupted vacations, marooned family members, disappeared luggage and - a constant refrain - airline officials whose desire to help was matched by their inability to provide any information whatsoever. ref

One passenger described boarding their plane Thursday, having come to grips with the news that no food would be offered on the trip. After sitting on the tarmac for some time, they were told that the "fuel was imbalanced." Four hours later, they were told to get off the plane, but it would be three more hours before the airline could find stairs. ref

As late as Saturday, another passenger described being in the airport for about 8 hours, having spent the entire time in two lines - a check-in line and a ticket-purchase line. Both, when he got to the front, turned out to be wrong. ref

This is particularly a public relations nightmare for British Airways, because wildcat strikes have crippled British Airways operations at Heathrow for the last three summers. ref   Last August, thousands of disgruntled vacationers were stranded at Heathrow after the airline canceled scores of flights because of staff shortages and technical hitches. In July 2003, an unofficial walkout by several hundred check-in staff disrupted thousands of passengers and cost British Airways tens of millions of dollars. ref

Workers' Solidarity

The British Airways workers struck to support around 660 fellow union members at Gate Gourmet, which provides onboard meals for BA flights. The Gate Gourmet workers were fired Wednesday, August 10, after staging an unofficial strike about working conditions. Following that firing, the rest of the catering staff walked out in a show of support. On Thursday, about 1,000 British Airways ground workers - including baggage handlers, bus drivers, ramp workers and check-in staff, walked out, too, for an unofficial strike. ref

Employees of the catering company whose strike spread to British Airways forcing cancellation of hundreds of its flights. (NYT) Anger at Heathrow. Around 1,000 ground staff took unofficial action in support of the workers who were sacked in a row over working practices.

Gate Gourmet, employs 22,000 people in over 29 countries, had been taken over from Swissair in 2002 by the US-based Texas Pacific Group.ref   It has been in continual labor and contract disputes resulting from restructuring following financial losses. British Airways executives were unprepared for the strike and went apoplectic. In the company newspaper, BA Chief Executive Rod Eddington said the strike was ''outrageous'' and a ''body blow that defies belief.'' ref  As Gate's Chairman, David Siegel remarked, ""For a union to take illegal action in sympathy for an illegal action is pretty amazing." ref

The British Airways ground workers and the Gate Gourmet food preparers are both in the same union, the Transport and General Workers' Union.ref   In fact, many at Gate Gourmet had worked for British Airways before the catering was outsourced in 1997. ref   "I didn't expect the BA staff to join us, but we are very happy about it," said Gary Mullins, 37, a loader for Gate Gourmet."We don't wish to cause (the passengers) any more (aggravation) than we have to," he said, "but it's something that has to be done." ref    The strike action was doubly illegal - without a strike vote and a secondary action. ref    Workers at both British Airways and Gate Gourmet are largely very low-wage Asian immigrants. One of the fired caterer workers said, "I came here for a different life. This is worse than India." A British Airways driver for four years who came from India in 1994 to get married and now has two children, said, "I need a job for my family. I imagined life was different in the West but my work had awful conditions. It's worse than India." ref


In an effort to cut $42 million per year in costs, Gate Gourmet has tried to take away health benefits, and its speedup has led to citations in Hawaii for vermin-infested moldy refrigerators infested with vermin, and at least nine cases of food poisoning last August. Gate Gourmet is particular desperate to reduce labor costs at Heathrow, where labor costs are 50% higher than other caterers. ref ref   The current walkout, involving almost 30 % of its British labor force, was prompted by Gate's hiring 130 seasonal workers after announcing plans to lay off 675 unionized workers. When the workers, 70% women from the Indian subcontinent, requested an explanation, they were locked in the kitchen without being able to use a bathroom, and later told they were fired. ref   The company had devised a plan a year earlier to provoke an illegal strike in the hopes of replacing its workers with Eastern European immigrants trained off-site. ref  ref  ref

Laid-off employees at Heathrow Airport in London jeer a truck
owned by Gate Gourmet, the financially troubled airline catering service.
Sunset demonstration. A striking Gate Gourmet employee pickets at Heathrow.

Until this week, British Airways was seen as an industry success story, having turned itself around by cutting both its costs and thousands of jobs. This month, it said it had doubled its second-quarter profit, to $160.8 million, and it managed to raise ticket revenue for the first time since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. ref

The Union leadership's outlook holds back the struggle

The fired Gate Gourmet workers have been replaced by temporary workers, mostly newly arrived East Europeans and Somalis. The British Airways workers would doubtless be willing to walk off in support of the catering workers, since they since many of these women are the British Airways baggage handlers' wives and mothers. ref  The Transport and General Workers Union doubtlessly has the power to force Gate Gourmet to rehire the fired workers and stop planned retaliation against the British Airways workers ref  ref.  On Thursday, August 18, after a strike vote, Gate Gourmet backed off its play to deny previously promised wage increases to its workers at Dublin airport, which serves Air Canada, Air France, and American Airlines. ref  ref

However, the union leadership's outlook is that the commercial success of these companies is the key to its workers well-being. They worked to stop the wildcat, and will do nothing that would further endanger the companies' profits. They even wrote to British Airways management, "We do not condone what happened last week and we took appropriate steps to end the unofficial action." ref  ref   The Transport and General Workers Union has said it will support "legal industrial action to protect victimized members," ref  but any action as widespread as last week's would be immediately declared illegal, so this is an empty promise. Instead, the union is trying to bring pressure on Gate Gourmet to rehire it workers by asking Gate Gourmet and British Airways to investigate Gate Gourmet's own questionable financial practices. ref

The 900,000 member Transport & General Workers Union was once the largest union in the world. But union membership in Britain, and most of Europe, has been in decline for some time. Just under a third of British workers are members, down from 42 percent of men and 32 percent of women in 1991. In the European Union over all, including new members, just one in four employees belongs to a union, down from 43 percent just two years ago. The decline has been particularly steep in countries like Poland, where union membership has fallen from near 100 percent since the fall of the Iron Curtain, to 14 percent now. But as the strife at British Airways shows, union members still wield power. In fact, some say they may be more willing to resort to industrial actions including strikes as pressure on their members increases. ref