Let’s Get Rooted…at Heathrow!
Heathrow’s a huge workplace with big problems. Covid-19 has grounded fleets of planes, with all the predictable consequences for the airlines and their suppliers. With the same level of predictability, companies like British Airways, Gate Gourmet and Alpha LSG (airline caterers) are using the opportunity to slash staff numbers and hours, and attack remaining workers’ contracts.
This is not just a Heathrow problem. Globally as many as 400,000 aviation workers have either been sacked, furloughed or told they are probably going to lose their jobs. Over the last two decades workers at Heathrow have been through two other major crises. The 9/11 terror attack and 2008 financial crash both took a toll on working conditions, but the crisis caused by Covid-19 threatens to be much worse. What with the climate catastrophe also looming, now is the time for a rank-and-file voice to challenge the notion that workers have to choose between (worsening) jobs, and their health and the future of the planet.
Workers themselves need to lead the discussion about the future of their livelihoods and the planet. This is why we want to set up a Let’sGetRooted project here. The aims of the group, which is part of a wider national project (Leeds, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Croydon etc.) are to help develop and broaden the power of working class people. It should be a focal point for militant workers to get together and discuss their situation, devise strategies best suited to them, and then act. Through honest reflection of what’s happening on the ground, our victories and defeats, we can acquire the capabilities we need to build the genuine, bottom-up power in our workplaces and communities and retain the historic memory to sustain them.
With a Heathrow-focused solidarity network, we can link our workplaces with our homes and communities. By creating our own Heathrow newspaper we can share our experiences and ideas, and try and break down some of the barriers between different groups of workers. We should produce educational groups guided by the participants toward mutual aid. It can be a home where individuals can grow and feel safe. While working within mass movements and unions we will seek to enable the development of an autonomous class consciousness. If you want to be involved in this initiative, read on!
Heathrow Airport is the UK’s largest on-site employer. 76,000 people work at the airport and it supports 114,000 jobs locally. The strategic importance of such a massive site of economic activity, and its’ increasing importance in the climate change debate, means we cannot afford to ignore it, or let the unions be the main spokespeople for the workers there.
Because of this strategic and economic importance, workers in and around Heathrow (compared to much of the country over this period), have at least attempted to resist the bosses advances. They’ve threatened, and sometimes gone on strike to protect wages and conditions. Even in times such as these, when workers’ collective resistance is hard to come by, Heathrow workers have remained, at least partially aware, of their enhanced bargaining power. As well as (in “normal” times) 80m passengers, Heathrow handles 1.7m tonnes of cargo worth approx. £133b a year. It’s the busiest airport in Europe and the sixth in the world. 30% of non-EU exports go through this one port. Disruption here, can cause major repercussions. But even with Heathrow’s relative level of militancy, unions have been unable or unwilling to stop the general downward trend of wages and working conditions.
In the UK and in airports around the world, the “job for life” model associated with employment in the aviation industry has been replaced by a more and more precarious and low-paid one. This is obviously caused by competition and the capitalist imperatives to expand profits and market share. It’s facilitated by companies’ aggressive outsourcing and subcontracting efforts, which have set up illusory divisions between worker’s that should be organising together. It’s also further enabled by the established union’s lack of strength, dynamism and most times, desire or inclination to break down these divisions. This in turn is an outgrowth of their bureaucratic top down structure and organising model. Instead of attempting to unite workers, only separated by pieces of paper, too often reps and branch officials protect their own little fiefdom.
A high-profile example is the union response to the mass redundancy and fire and rehire agenda embarked upon by British Airways. Rather than helping to organise workers to come up with a unified response that protects departments with comparatively less bargaining power, the unions have constructed a PR campaign designed to convince Tory MP’s to “save” the workers. As things stand, different departments are now negotiating bespoke deals ostensibly to their benefit, but in reality, to the detriment of all.
Although the opportunity of a well-paid job for life is being granted to fewer and fewer people, to a large section of the workforce, this has always been denied. The situation has been exacerbated recently, with engineering and production capabilities that used to support aviation either off-shored or made unnecessary by technological advance. But unions have historically been far too focused on protecting the hard won contracts of “skilled workers” whilst neglecting, the always large, but rapidly increasing mass of disparagingly designated “unskilled” workers. An Airports Commission study found Heathrow employee skills were mainly on what is considered the lower spectrum, with 75% of those employed in skill level 1 and 2. By definition meaning they are chronically underpaid. Local authorities surrounding Heathrow (with the exception of Hillingdon) have a higher percentage of “non-skilled“ workers than the national average. This particular separation of work roles always tends to, conveniently, effect woman the most. This false division between skilled and unskilled is another barrier to working class unity we need to dismantle. We hope to do this through setting up a regular LetsGetRooted presence in and around Heathrow. The newspaper will be a forum for different workers’ experiences to be heard and shared, commonalities can be forged. We hope that the solidarity network can also help forge practical support between different groups of workers.
Climate vs. Jobs trap
The major unions are also guilty of neglecting probably the most important and contradictory aspects of working at Heathrow: air pollution and climate breakdown. Air quality readings taken from March-May 2019 outside Cherry Lane school in West Drayton show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels of 44.1 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). The governments own legal limit is 40µg/m3. The reading taken in the same period in 2020 after lockdown was 23.9µg/m3. The first reading is at “normal” capacity, the cost of a third runway (which the union’s fully support) to the local communities health is difficult to quantify. This is also totally a class issue. The top 10% of high earners in the UK make seven times as many flights as the bottom 10%. Drilling down further we see that 1% of English residents make 20% of all flights. Our children choke so rich folk can get another selfie in front a landmark they know jack-shit about. All this is to say nothing of the massive harm already being caused by a warming planet to people (usually black and brown) all over the world.
High rents, dodgy landlords, overcrowding and house prices surrounding the airport are also a familiar problem to local workers. A problem that compounds the climate situation by causing workers to move further away from their workplaces, forcing them to make long, expensive, polluting journeys in. Workers have to be talking about and finding solutions to, these issues. The issues of low pay, job insecurity, dodgy landlords, high rents, racism, sexism and climate change are all interconnected and workers can take them head on. We just need to create some spaces in which these discussions can take place and these divisions can be broken down. In our experience, the unions rarely give spaces for such discussions, so we need to start creating our own!
If you want to be involved in setting up this initiative, we’d love to hear from you! If you’re interested in any of the following: workers’ self-organisation; pushing a radical line inside the unions; environmental issues; making contacts with more Heathrow workers; handing out newspapers; supporting workers with solidarity network cases, then email us at:
There are various levels of engagement. On a basic level, we need some people who can commit to a regular presence at Heathrow so people who live in west London would be a bonus. So too are Punjabi, Hindi and Romanian speakers. Even if you don’t live nearby, you can help us remotely through design/IT/written translation skills. We plan to kick-start this with a first edition of a Heathrow newsletter at the end of October and solidarity network meetings starting from November. Get in touch and we can discuss next steps!