Most media coverage of the British Airways dispute has seemed like a return to a lost age of aggressive trade unionism and besieged but well-intentioned employers. The “winter of discontent” in 1978-1979 is recalled in the run up to the general election as dominant right wing forces in the media and their political friends can hardly restrain themselves as they salivate over the behaviour of BA’s cabin crew staff.
David Cameron and the Conservatives have found a cause to divert attention away from the tax dodging antics of their non-dom deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, the Conservative leader urges workers to cross picket lines and joins a media chorus that eggs on Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, to pursue his determination to crush trade unionism in his company through a strategy of bullying and intimidation.
Anti-union Labour ministers Peter Mandelson and Andrew Adonis, backed unfortunately by the Prime Minister, have condemned the cabin crew strikers. But such outspoken attacks cannot disguise the fact that Unite is a vital source of money and personnel for Labour.
Its links to the union have come in for particular criticism, with the assertion that the Labour Party and the Government are beholden to a union that has poured an estimated £11 million into Labour’s coffers over the past four years. Blairites as much as Conservatives complain at Unite’s alleged influence. However, with the exposure of the sleazy lobbying of Blairite MPs Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, it might be better if they kept quiet.
Most people’s perceptions of what has been happening comes from media coverage on television and in the newspapers. This has been overwhelmingly hostile to the strikers and their union. That should come as no surprise. Even in the alleged era of union power 30 years ago, the unions were mostly the object of media hostility.
But there is one important difference now compared with then: the absence of labour or industrial correspondents. No daily newspaper outside the Morning Star has an accredited labour reporter. Even the Financial Times – once a rightly credited source of information on industrial relations – makes do with a reporter who also covers business as well as employment. BBC radio has a solitary employment correspondent, but others crowd him out with no consistent experience of the patch.
The BA strike has been covered by a medley of other kinds of journalists – those with expertise in travel, consumer affairs, the financial markets and business. General reporters are sent out to doorstep TUC headquarters or stand near picket lines to ask banal questions with no obvious understanding of the dispute. What limited analysis there is comes from so-called aviation experts who often turn out to be dependent on BA for their livelihoods. Independent, objective coverage of one of the most serious industrial disputes in recent years is hard to find.
The absence of industrial reporting has played into Walsh’s hands. He has refused to be interviewed and uses video to voice his gung-ho rhetoric without the need for any questioning. His brutal behaviour towards the strikers has created a climate of fear, so it has become almost impossible to talk to BA cabin staff – although the fact that most of them backed strike action is too often disregarded.
Nor is the wider scene recognised. A poll by the Sunday Times last weekend found only 22 per cent of respondents believe unions have too much power. The severe legal restrictions on the right to strike are ignored or played down – for example, the limit of numbers on a picket line to six, the complex legal process for calling a dispute, the outlawing of international solidarity action. Compare this with the freedom of ruthless employers to smash strikes.
Walsh will probably win in the end – at a terrible price for BA employees. That so many airlines are helping BA to break the strike underlines the wider dimension to what is happening. The media highlight Unite’s efforts to secure solidarity from trade unions across the world, but no attention is paid to the concerted efforts of international capital. The low road to profits and power, seen across the aviation industry, requires the end of effective trade union influence.
The lack of any genuine labour correspondents covering the BA dispute has ensured a crucial perspective is lacking from the coverage. This needs to change. We see growing militancy on Britain’s railways, not only from the RMT, but also the traditionally moderate white-collar TSSA, as they combat the determination of private rail companies to boost their already obscene profits by skimping on safety. Once the general election is over, we should expect the assault on public services and the privatisation of what still remains in the public sector to begin in earnest – whoever wins. Unions will have to defend what they have and face the consequences.
It is a modest proposal, but it is obvious what we need for starters: the recruitment of labour and industrial correspondents. What we lack is not only analysis and informed commentary, but also the necessary connected hinterland that can bring some coherence to seemingly disparate events. After 13 years of “new” Labour project, organised workers are facing a tragedy. They remain weak, insecure, bereft of strategic leadership, at the mercy of the law, organised capital and a hostile state. They face the prospect of the end of trade unionism as their numbers dwindle and they lose what limited collective strength they once had. At the very least, we need writers and broadcasters to record this and put an end to the trivialising coverage that tries to suggest capital and labour are equally matched in strength and purpose.