Like everywhere else, the situation at Heathrow continues to shift and change. The governments “road map,” laid out on 22nd February, offered light at the end of the tunnel for frustrated holiday makers eager to escape the stress of the last year. Airlines and travel companies saw a massive increase in bookings for June and beyond. The shares of airlines and travel companies rose rapidly, in a sign that rich folk are betting these companies are going to bounce back strongly after all lockdowns are lifted. IAG saw its shares rise higher than any other FTSE 100 firm at the same time it was announcing scary sounding losses of £7.8billion. This needs to be put in the context of them still reporting liquidity of £10.3billion. Financial institutions are more than willing to lend them money because they know they are going to be okay. The big airline groups are positioning themselves to hoover up the competition and increase their market share after this crisis in much the same way as the giant banks did after the financial crisis of 2008.
As well as this, lots of businesses will be breathing a sigh of relief as the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) is extended till the end of September. All this offers some hope to much of the workforce, but also frustration. We believe that decisions about the way workplaces should be run should be made by the workers and community affected by those decisions. But, even by these companies own terms, all of the above shows what we knew all along: that the recent redundancies were clearly just opportunism and completely unnecessary. It also means the airlines will likely resume business as usual and that workers are missing the opportunity to discuss how we want the aviation industry to function in a time of pandemics and environmental breakdown. Business travel, previously airlines’ greatest money spinner, is unlikely to recover anytime soon, meaning airlines will probably look to increase leisure travel as much as possible. This will result in even more frivolous environment-destroying flights for those that can afford them (that’s not to say that business travel was any less frivolous and unnecessary). Is this what we want? If workers and our communities were in the driving seat, rather than the money-grubbing sociopaths currently steering the wheel, what would we do? It’s not too late for workers to start having this conversation. Let’s start now!
Disputes at Heathrow
Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL)
The HAL dispute, over the imposition of new inferior contracts, rumbles on. Fire, Engineering and Campus security workers with Unite, were back on strike again on the 5th and 9th February. No picket lines were maintained due to the Covid restrictions. Other workers across the UK have been setting up socially distanced pickets, but at Heathrow, Unite have chosen not to. This may be because of the reasons we set out in our strike day reports at the time. Most designated picket locations are awkward to get to for supporters and with road traffic reduced at this time, Unite don’t see the benefit of 6 workers standing in a caged area waving flags for the occasional beep of approval from passing vehicles. And they’re probably right, there isn’t much point of picketing in this fashion.
However, while strikes are not as effective as they would be when the airport is busier, there has to be a way of reaching out to the community to let them know about your struggle and of showing scabs that you can see them going into work on strike days. Leaving current Covid restrictions aside, even when it’s busier, the places where we are legally allowed to picket are not fit for purpose. The main purpose of pickets is to persuade fellow workers not to go to work when a strike is happening and to draw attention to your cause. This can’t be achieved if you’re miles away from the actual worksite and public thoroughfares and penned in like criminals. The need to picket effectively is essential to a healthy campaign. Have all legal means been pursued by the unions? The right to a proper picket line is supposed to be protected in this country, but is denied to us at Heathrow.
Further strikes were scheduled for the 13th, 16th, 18th and 21st February. On the 12th February it was announced that strikes were suspended to allow time for HAL to consider a “peace offer.” The talks broke down and workers were on strike again on the 21st. No pickets were maintained, and the only mention in the media was one tweet posted by Unite on the day. No press release or other social media information. The strikes are now 4 hours long rather than full day walk-outs. The reasons given are that this makes it harder for HAL to get cover (mainly from Mitie) while staff are striking, and shorter strikes mean a reduced loss of pay. It‘s positive that the union is considering ways to avoid contractors scabbing on their members, as this is a major problem all workplaces on the airport have to deal with when withdrawing their labour.
However, a friend at HAL told us that the whole question of whether the timing is right, hangs heavy on workers’ minds. And that mainly it’s security and fire workers that are still participating in the strike. The strategy appears to be to keep the dispute ticking over until the airport is busier, when actions will have more of an impact. If passenger numbers increase, as hoped, we need to make sure we support our fellow workers at HAL in their fight to regain their previous contracts. Demands should be expanded to ensure all newer contracts are improved as well, to fight the common problem across the airport of different contracts causing divisions and resentment amongst the workforce. The Terminals Security and members of other unions (PCS, Prospect, GMB) within the workplace whose ballots failed, need to be re-balloted and join in the effort. The struggle could be extended to include other Heathrow companies experiencing the same problems.
Passport Control staff employed by the Home Office have voted to strike against proposed unworkable roster changes. Extra checks for Covid-19 test certificates and hotel quarantine procedures for red list countries are causing serious queues and angry scenes. This looks like a perfect time for Passport Control staff to get their point across. Strike dates have not yet been announced.
Cleaners working for Mitie have been on the receiving end of disgusting treatment, as their company attempts to remove the training and language support they were previously entitled to before they sit the General Safety and Awareness training (GSAT) exam. This training is essential for workers whose first language is not English. Workers that fail the exam risk losing their jobs. It’s believed this is a cynical attempt to push out staff on older, better contracts. Bullying and harassment has also been reported. A collective grievance has been raised.
The community garden and 3rd runway protest hub in Sipson, known as Grow Heathrow, was evicted Monday 8th March. Around 20 people living at the camp were made homeless in what they are calling an illegal eviction. The area has been occupied and cultivated for over 10 years.
Ghana Airport Company
Workers at the Ghana Airport Company shut down operations at Kotoka International Airport on 26th February. The workers are calling for the removal of the Managing Director of the company for mismanagement and abuse of office. The strike caused massive disruption, which was only lifted after intervention from government officials. The unions have apparently given the government two weeks to look over their demands and act on them or they will resume the action.
A hunger strike has started in Frankfurt, Germany as around 290 ground staff protest against being sacked in October for refusing to be pushed onto inferior contracts. Staff were told to transfer to another company that was actually a subsidiary of WISAG, as a way of removing the workers’ continuous service and reducing their terms and conditions. This is ‘fire and rehire’ by another name. The workers union Verdi has done nothing to help them and the hunger strike is currently being supported by a smaller union called IGL.
Workers at handling company Groundforce in Madrid were on strike at the start of February against forced flexible working and reduced hours. The strike was called off mainly due to severely restrictive legislation meaning staff had to provide a “minimal service” even on strike days. The various problems faced by the workers will be very familiar to everyone at Heathrow. Full report here.
Tunisair workers have been on strike protesting the lack of a coherent reform plan from management. The company finances are being mismanaged to the degree that staff pay has been disrupted. The unions are stating that a reform plan involving privatisation will not be tolerated.
Interjet staff including pilots, cabin crew and others have been striking and demonstrating over 5 months of unpaid back-pay. The company is in serious trouble due to poor management even before the pandemic. It was running a high debt, cheap flight model, in a similar way to Norwegian.
If the effects of the pandemic continue to fade, workers’ positions won’t seem quite so vulnerable. Along with the increase in demand, the prevailing common sense tells us that there should be a corresponding rise in job security. However, for many workers, the pandemic has simply made already precarious employment worse. Pay, terms and conditions, and the general quality and security of jobs at the airport have been declining for decades, and the current crisis is merely turbo-charging this trend. A great many workers will not see returning to ‘normal’ as a particularly attractive proposition.
Added to this, Covid numbers changing trajectory as the lockdown is loosened or the risk of new strains and variants could still derail the government’s plans. Their terrible/criminal handling of the pandemic so far justifiably makes many people hesitant to throw up the victory banner just yet. The politicians’ recognition of ‘key workers’ as vital, important and deserving of respect, has been shown to be the phantom it always was with the derisory 1% pay increase for NHS workers. Other illusions are hopefully being exposed for what they are. With each attack on contracts, with each unnecessary redundancy and with every bully boy tactic deployed by management, the idea that workers interests are in any way aligned with those of their bosses will also be fading.
The tone set by companies at Heathrow, at the start of the pandemic, has rung out across the country. Hardly a day goes by without more news of another company firing and rehiring their staff. HAL workers on the picket lines in December were right. “When Heathrow sneezes, everywhere catches a cold.” Bus drivers (one of the worst hit professions during the Covid crisis in terms of exposure and deaths) in London and Manchester are being forced to strike to protect their conditions. In Manchester the drivers are out on indefinite strike (They’re not coming back until their demands are met). Across retail (Tesco, Argos, Morrison’s etc.) reports of workers being forced to reapply for their jobs proliferate. Even IT staff running tenancy checks for private landlords at software company Goodlord are striking against fire and rehire plans. University staff are in a number of disputes. Even industries that have not suffered from falling revenue at this time are seizing the opportunity to attack their staff. British Gas engineers continue their brave fight against Centrica. And trouble is percolating at Banbury coffee factory where JDE (Jacobs Douwe Egberts) is trying to force their workers onto inferior contracts.
These are just the ones we hear about, because unions have a presence at the workplace. TUC polling suggests that 1 in 10 workers have been told to reapply for their job or face the sack. This number goes up to almost one in five (18%) for employees between 18 and 24. 24% of workers have suffered a downgrade to their pay, hours or benefits. It’s possible these are underestimates. All this goes on while the UK rich make a killing, by simply owning properties and doing fuck all productive. This situation is repeated across the globe and workers’ most effective response would also traverse those artificial lines we call borders. Companies feel they can get away with this assault because they think we are all too isolated and scared to fight back. But we are getting sick of this. A fight back is brewing beneath the surface but no one is going to do it for us. We have to find each other, reach out, link up and act.
With the lifting of restrictions soon, we are looking to get back out leafleting and speaking with workers face to face. We want to come out of lockdown swinging, get on the front foot and start taking the fight to the bosses. We’ll be setting up a monthly drop-in (when things are actually open), where workers or anyone else with issues can come and discuss their problems with us. If you would like to be involved, get in touch!
Heathrow Workers Power