Your Full Attention for the Demonstration: Inside the British Airways Strike
Many cabin crew are in debt and forced to work second jobs.
Striking British Airways cabin crew members. Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images
(Top photo: Striking British Airways cabin crew members. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images)
Take a trip out of central London on the Piccadilly Line, and within an hour you'll arrive at Hatton Cross, a tangled suburb of concrete buildings, snaking A-roads and sallow fields stretching out to the horizon. This is airport country: planes fly low in the sky, there are car hire depots on every corner and people walk along the pavements in Heathrow uniforms.
For the past week, Hatton Cross has been the location of the striking Heathrow-based cabin crew of British Airways. On the sunlit tarmac outside the underground station, they wave Unite the Union flags and cheer at vehicles that honk in solidarity. Young and immaculately turned out, they're not your stereotypical trade unionists; the protest song on their portable boom box is "Starships" by Nicki Minaj. They've transformed the bar of a local football club into a base, where supportive members of the public and other trade unionists make them sandwiches and drinks.
It's unclear why the BA strike hasn't received the same traction as, say, the Fast Food Workers' campaign for a living wage in the US. At their heart, both campaigns tell the same story: a group of workers fighting against a giant corporation that wants to squeeze everything out of them it possibly can, while paying them the lowest wages it can get away with.
BA cabin crew are striking for a pay increase to their eye-wateringly low salaries. Basic pay for new entrants is as little as £12,192 – although a spokesperson said "Mixed Fleet cabin crew working full time in 2016 earned more than £21,000" – and there is no London weighting, despite the fact contracts state that cabin crew members must live within two hours of the airport. Some are choosing to commute from outside of London, but this means they could work on a long haul flight (as long as 16-and-a-half hours in some cases) and then have to drive three or four hours before they get home. Many are in debt – I met one cabin crew worker who told me she has maxed out two credit cards since joining BA – and according to a Unite members' survey, over half work second jobs on their days off to earn extra money. This means many work a minimum of six days a week. On the other hand, Willie Walsh, the boss of IAG (BA's parent company) took home £6.5 million in 2015. According to the Guardian, the airline group is forecasting annual profits of €2.5 billion (£2.3 billion), largely driven by BA.
The airline appears to not be playing nice with its striking employees. "They keep sending us emails about 'the consequences of strike actions'. We are taking legal action and we've done everything we can to avoid a strike. We've gone through all the legal processes. Now they're talking as though we're doing something wrong," says Charlie, one of the strikers. In a statement, a BA spokesperson said: "We want to encourage our colleagues to come to work and therefore have repeatedly explained the consequences of taking strike action to them."
Like most of the cabin crew members I meet, Charlie's young, and although she's not overtly political she's indignant about the way she's been treated. Another striker, Lexy (not her real name), feels similarly: "I've seen a new side to BA."
"When we win – and I say 'when', because we will – we'll win for everybody."
As punishment for striking, BA is taking away staff travel for two years, holiday concessions and bonuses for 2017. This means striking workers won't get the advertised salary of £21,000 per annum, because that includes bonuses. The airline is also offering incentives (or, to use the strikers' term, "bribes") for cabin crew not to strike: according to strikers, those who stay at work get priority for free flights and upgrades to first class. In response, a BA spokesperson said: "Cabin crew can use staff travel to access discounted flights in the same way as all other staff at BA. There is no question of cabin crew who have not been on strike getting preferential treatment."
Unsurprisingly, the strikers are angry: "When we win – and I say 'when', because we will – we'll win for everybody," says Charlie. "Not just those who have had their bonuses and salary taken away, but everybody who is struggling. And they are getting extra things for going in and helping a company that is exploiting them."
Cabin crew have been on strike for a total of 26 days since the 10th of January, but they've been negotiating with the airline for nearly a year. The first offer BA made meant a maximum increase of just £33.25 per month before tax, and it locked workers into a three-year contract, meaning further increases would be even harder. The workers rejected it. BA then made an offer to the union through third party negotiators, but it too was rejected because it wasn't backdated and the amount was considered too low. So BA went back to their inferior first offer. "They're a horrible company to negotiate with," says Charlie. "They are stubborn and they refuse to see the bigger picture."
A BA spokesperson said: "The pay rise we have offered our Mixed Fleet crew is consistent with the deal accepted by 92 percent of colleagues across the airline, most of whom are represented by Unite. It also reflects pay awards given by other companies in the UK and will ensure that rewards for Mixed Fleet remain in line with those for cabin crew at our airline competitors."
BA has indulged in various public relations exercises to convince customers that the strikes have had no effect, but strikers aren't so sure. "They've spent thousands on leasing from other airlines like Thompson and Thomas Cook," says a senior cabin crew member, Gareth. "But they're saying it's for 'operational requirements'. They'll also blame the weather. So on a day like this," he gestures outside at the afternoon sunlight, "they might say there's snow or something." Still, it's a step down from their actions during the BA strike in 2010, where the airline was paying pilots huge sums of money to work as cabin crew.
The strike has taken its toll on the cabin crew, too. One of the most prominent features of their makeshift headquarters is a food bank. When I visited, strikers were entertaining guests from RMT union who had brought them fresh supplies of food, shampoo and tampons. "Our union has a hardship fund," says Gareth. "Colleagues from Worldwide airlines and Eurofleet have also donated. There have been a lot of shows of solidarity from other unions; we couldn't have done this without them." He looks at the tables stacked high with pasta and shakes his head. "You've got the flag carrier of Great Britain and its crew are relying on handouts."
Nevertheless, the strikers promise me they're not planning on giving up. Union membership is increasing, and some of them are beginning to sound like dyed-in-the-wool activists. "It's the first time I've ever been on strike and it feels really empowering. I love my job and I want to be back at work, but it's good to stand up for what's right; it's empowering to know you're not alone," says Lexy. "I wouldn't go back on my word; it's an insult to all these people I've shared the picket line with."
Others view the dispute as a symbol of a wider problem in the economy; where ordinary people are forced to live in relative poverty while their work enriches the likes of Willie Walsh, a millionaire several times over. They're starting to feel like it's a problem that needs changing. "How can they get away with this? You can't have people living and working in central London on poverty pay," says Charlie. "Not when we're the ones who are making those bonuses for [Walsh], and making the planes fly on time. It's unfair, and the economy is going to have to change somehow, and we're getting like-minded young people together to change it."
11/03/17: This post was updated to include comment from a BA spokesperson.