We interviewed a friend and comrade of our network who is employed at Heathrow Airport. We published an earlier report here about the current BA dispute:
The interview addresses the relation ship between subcontracted and British Airways workers at a time when the workers in the sector are under attack. There is a visible lack of independent coordination amongst workers at Heathrow, the divisions between different contracts and unions are a hindrance.
I work at Heathrow, as a contracted worker in the maintenance base. This covers a wide area: the hangars, engineering workshops, warehouses, cargo facilities, and offices. It’s the area where British Airways gets all their aircraft maintenance and training for their pilots and cabin crew done. At any one time, there are 1-2000 workers in this area at any one time, so pretty huge.
Before government guidance was issued about corona and the lockdown, our management had pre-empted the way things were going to go. So two weeks before the lockdown, they sent those older workers with pre-existing health conditions home on full pay. The union didn’t want to ask for this, fearing that if it came from them, the management would try to get out of paying those workers in full. The thinking was that if the company led on these policies, the onus would be on them to give fullypaid time off. They sent around 20 people (out of 130) home.
At the beginning, they also cut most peoples hours – again, with no loss of pay. They realised that we couldn’t all be at work at the same time. All the management and tech staff were working from home before the lockdown was imposed, which is another reason why they sent vulnerable workers home as well – it wouldn’t have looked good otherwise.
People were tense to start with. People were asking if we needed something in writing before we were sent home, whether being sent home would impact them negatively if redundancies were announced further down the line. Trust in the management is generally quite low and people are naturally defensive. This is more a result of their lack of confidence and unity though. Over time, people got more comfortable with the changes, especially when it became clear that the government was lining up a support package to help workers. There was also a bit of animosity between people about differences in hours worked but things were changing so fast that this was short-lived. Workers made some suggestions directly to management (i.e. not through the union) about how to make the system fairer. Management knew themselves that this system of reduced hours and un-transparent decision-making was not really sustainable. And night-shift workers hadn’t been put on reduced hours like the day shift workers, so if that had continued, night shift workers would have kicked up a fuss.
The government bought in the furlough scheme a week or two afterwards though, which changed things again. Half of the workforce was furloughed. This was done badly. No consultation was done, even though the union had explicitly asked to be contacted if any more changes were being considered. They imposed furlough with no warning – on a workforce that didn’t know what ‘furlough’ meant, how the pay would work. So there was lots of confusion. No furlough criteria was published either and management decided themselves who to furlough and who not. As well as those who were already off on paid leave, they chose people who were marginally more vulnerable due to age, and then those workers whose skills were perceived to be less necessary for the running of daily operations. They also appeared to take childcare responsibilities into consideration in the sense that those workers with families were not furloughed – this was because furloughed workers would only be receiving 80% of their full pay and those with families were deemed more in need of their full pay-packet. The fact that most workers are men made this decision seem workable I guess. There was an assumption that a wife would be looking after the kids.
The problems with the introduction of the furlough scheme were that it wasn’t a transparent decision, no criteria was published, and the government guidance states that workers should supposedly agree to the furlough terms before they are furloughed. This wasn’t done. It was imposed on us. This was especially worrying because at first, management were furloughing us only on ‘basic pay’. This was also contrary to the government guidance, which stated that all ‘fixed components’ should be included. I had to copy and paste the actual government wording to the management to argue this point because they tried to get away with it. They also tried to make the argument that they were cutting costs to pass these savings onto British Airways, but BA had struck a deal with their staff, which meant they were getting paid 80% of their total wage. So why were we passing on savings by cutting furlough pay for our workers, just so BA could give their workers a better deal?! That didn’t make sense to us.
I had to fight management single-handed to get them to agree to pay us 80% of our full wage, including our average overtime payment. If I hadn’t have taken this on myself, management would have probably gotten away with paying us less. I also took it upon myself to phone up co-workers to share information, although there are still probably many workers who didn’t know that the furlough pay deal they eventually got was due to a negotiation that I undertook.
When management announced the furlough scheme, they called all the workers to a mass meeting at work, asking them to sign an agreement. At that point, the pay hadn’t been negotiated yet, so people were apprehensive about signing anything. A couple of people in the meeting openly expressed their concerns. In the end though, after some discussion, people signed it on the basis that the union said they would contest any unfavourable deal. The management pushed hard on the argument that “it’s all for your own good, it’s all about saving jobs, we’ll have to make you redundant otherwise.” Which was true, but no excuse for the complete lack of consultation. One of the most common complaints from furloughed staff I’ve spoken to is that they weren’t given the opportunity to volunteer on behalf of those less able to afford the drop in pay. It’s damaged their pride and denied them the chance to act in solidarity with their workmates at a difficult time. The same amount of people are on furlough now. We are dependent on BA for our return to work.
For those workers still working, we try not to kill ourselves getting all the stuff done. We’re all aware that if we work really hard to make up for the workers who aren’t there, that we’d be doing them out of a job. It’s a kind of unofficial ‘go-slow’ in some respects. Management hasn’t been hassling us either about work that isn’t completed. We haven’t taken on any new tasks either. We are only doing ’emergency cover’ so BA knows not to expect the same level of service from us. We have less work to do overall as less things are being used, but been as we have half the staff the workload individually is very similar.
It has been difficult to keep in touch with furloughed workers, obviously. People are already spending so much more time on the phone to friends and family that it seems a bit much to talk to co-workers too! But everyone is nervous and worried about the future. People are also pissed off because we won’t be getting a pay rise this year. We were told that we’d get one once a new contract with BA had been signed. Normally this takes ages, but during lockdown, they signed a deal quickly and are now refusing the pay rise. Seems obvious that they’re using the current situation to their advantage in this regard. Some workers who are more active in the union are pissed off that now that we really need to stick together, we cannot enforce anything because we are too weak. At the last pay ballot we had, we didn’t win – not enough people turned out to vote. If we can’t win a pay rise when things were going well for the company financially, how can we expect anything when things get worse? If we can’t win in the good times, how can we win in the bad times?!
I think confidence levels in aviation in general are quite low. Demand is low and likely to be so for a while. This doesn’t help our bargaining position. If British Airways get away with their fire and hire plans, heads may drop a little more. We talk about the BA situation a lot. Some staff are shocked at how toothless the unions seem. When BA first announced what they wanted to do, a lot of staff including me thought BA staff won’t tolerate that. Looks like they will. Some of us know BA reps and speak to them fairly regularly. Mainly for info. We get to speak with BA staff a lot. A few are really happy with the pay off. Those lucky ones that were about to leave anyway. But most are worried and pissed off. All are upset with the union’s response. The unions have started talking about strike ballots but seems a bit late for all that. Individual departments have started making deals. There are a lot of other companies in the airport following suit apparently. Forcing through completely unnecessary contract changes. There’s going to be lots of anger out there. Everyone can see it’s just opportunism. If people can draw the right lessons from this, they’ll see that the companies have been ruthless and workers have been let down by their timid unions. All that timidity isn’t getting us anywhere.
Everyone is very aware that the worse BA staff come out of all this, the more likely it is that our company will try and hammer us as well. We’ve started discussing ways that we can avoid redundancies. Working out our arguments. Trying to think of ways we can apply pressure if needs be. We’re organising a Zoom meeting with all members including those on furlough soon. Mainly to give people a chance to see each other (furloughed staff I’m speaking to are really stressed. They don’t feel needed or wanted) and also to discuss ways we can avoid job losses. We have got options. The more heads on it the better. And hopefully we’ll have a get together at the pub or something for those that don’t do Zoom.
Would be good to get together with other workers in the airport going through similar things. S peaking to my GMB full time official, apparently some of the aviation reps she’s assigned to, meet once a month. They even had demo up London the other day apparently. I wasn’t made aware because of something to do with the branch I’m in. Regardless of the branch I’m in, I’ve asked to be included with the reps meetings. I’m yet to receive an invite. I’ve often offered solidarity and support to the BA reps, I’ve not been contacted once.
Management are being cagey about the new contract we’ve signed with BA. They’re not being forthcoming about anything really. And they’ve just recently announced redundancies for one team – 2 out of 5 staff, both of whom are not white while the remaining 3 are! They weren’t even asked for voluntary redundancy first, as the guidance states. Which shows that management are again trying to use these extraordinary circumstances to push things through quickly and to their advantage. These workers have skills that are transferable to other sites, so it doesn’t make sense to just announce compulsory redundancy. It’s possible they picked these workers because they’re not in the union, so management didn’t even contact the union to inform them of their plans. Instead of contacting the union though, one of these workers decided to take their friendly manager to the HR meetings , that didn’t even have any HR present, to support them. No surprises then that they are immediately quibbling about redundancy payout, rather than challenging the redundancy decision in the first place. Apparently they spent a lot of their meeting time asking why HR wasn’t present. In one of the last meetings they were told “look, if we bothered HR about everything like this they would be so busy.” Unbelievable contempt for someone’s livelihood and pointless issue to waste your time arguing about. HR ain’t gonna help you anyway?! This is worrying because it sets a nasty precedent for the future and what the management thinks they can get away with. Recently, managers have also brought up the fact that ‘changes to terms and conditions’ will be consulted on through the union – this wasn’t even on the cards as far as we’re concerned! So yes, worrying times ahead.
In terms of home-life, my partner is stuck at home, not just with our kids, but our sister-in-law’s kids because she still has to go out to work. It’s been really stressful for her, she doesn’t get enough adult stimulation and can’t seem to escape the childcare bubble. I earn more money than her and she was furloughed from her nursery school job when lockdown started. My relative is a GP and she says that most of her patients are presenting with anxiety and depression-related illnesses. ‘Shit life syndrome’ she calls it! It’s hard not to feel pessimistic because everyone seems scared.