A Workers’ Climate Action delegation went out to Heathrow on 19 March to be on the spot for the start of picketing on 20 March. We were hosted at Grow Heathrow, a squatted space run by Transition Heathrow (a group of Climate Camp-type activists who’ve moved to Sipson to focus their activism in the area).
That initiative in itself is significant, and demonstrates that the work WCA has done in terms of getting the wider climate movement to take class politics seriously is beginning to have an impact. Some of the Transition Heathrow people are also involved in attempts to revive Hillingdon Trades Council.
We headed out to Hatton Cross station – one of about half a dozen designated picket lines – at 6 o’clock on 20 March. The workers were friendly enough and happy to take bulletins and talk to us, but were extremely cautious about not causing any trouble.
The police were extremely over-zealous and kept rolling by in vans to remind the pickets that they were only allowed 12 people on the line at any one time. After the first couple of times this happened, the strikers asked us to stand away from them which obviously made talking to them a little difficult.
The pickets were run on a rotational basis, with one group of strikers doing a one-two hour stint at one spot before collected in a Unite minibus and taken elsewhere, with another load arriving to replace them. Others were less bothered about the police pedantry than the first group so we were able to have some more constructive conversations.
Spirits were generally quite high. There wasn’t, however, much in the way of debate about developing strategy to win the dispute. People’s attitude mainly seemed to be that they’ll just stick at it until BA boss Willie Walsh was made to “see sense”.
The levels of hostility towards Walsh are absolutely intense.
It was difficult to get a precise picture of how successful the strike had been in terms of impact but things looked pretty good. There were loads of BA planes visibly sat around doing nothing and apparently plenty of cancellations. Walsh had managed to transfer in some staff from other airlines to keep some flights running but it doesn’t appear that his army of scab workers has really materialised.
Pickets told me that some planes would be flown empty to Glasgow or Edinburgh to get them out of the way; I’m sure I don’t have to highlight the utter financial or environmental profligacy of such a decision. They also told me that BA had put on special flights to Cardiff and Glasgow to train up volunteer scabs; again, incredibly wasteful and environmentally damaging.
I also discovered that ‘scabin crew’ are not allowed to use in-flight medical equipment such as defibrillators as they don’t have proper training. Conclusion: scab-herding risks lives.
The 10:30 rally was reasonably well-attended (maybe a thousand). John McDonnell gave a good, general speech. Len McCluskey’s was much worse. He focused very much on how conciliatory the union had already been and on how they only wanted to protect the future of “an iconic British brand and world-class market-leader” (I may be misquoting him slightly, but only slightly).
McCluskey’s speech was very much in keeping with the face union officials are presenting generally. Both the placards on the picket lines (“We offered a pay cut to save BA’s premium!”) and the official union leaflet for passengers that some of us helped distribute emphasised very strongly how many concessions and cuts the union had already agreed to. Most cabin crew I spoke to personally went along with this too – they were keen not to be seen as “militants” (“we’re not Arthur Scargill and the miners”).
There is also bitterness about the role or non-role of other grades in the dispute; cabin crew feel sold out and let down by other workers at the airport and several people said they hoped that displays of international solidarity might “shame” workers at Heathrow into supporting them.
A couple of us also chatted to the staff at Hatton Cross station, who were pretty on-message and said all the right things about solidarity. We’ll go back with Tubeworker soon!
On a side note, it was pleasing to see that the massive ‘vote Conservative’ mobile billboard someone had provocatively parked outside the rallying point showing Gordon Brown in a BA uniform with a Unite logo on it (arguing that he was ‘doing sweet BA’ because he’s in Unite’s pocket after “taking £11m of Unite’s money”) was vandalised fairly quickly.
A particular well-done should go to Marge for taking the lead in organising WCA’s mobilisation, which has involved a lot of very hard work on her part.