The inevitable reduction and withdrawal of the government’s ‘furlough’ subsidy will lead predictably to an increasing number of employers threatening mass sackings. It is happening already, to varying degrees, with even some of those taking public money threatening to eviscerate literally thousands of jobs from their own workforce. British Airways is a prime example of so-called economic ‘restructuring’.
Let’s face it, it isn’t likely that a Tory government is going to fund private firms indefinitely and neither is it going to start seriously intervening in the decision making of bosses. This is the political reality of our time.
So, when the fight for jobs begins in earnest and with Labour currently out of power, it will be left to working people and their trade unions to try and stem the tide. We can and should talk about ‘economic realignment’, but without agency and power there will be no real change. The policy debate will rightly rage, but in its place and at the periphery. In the fight before us, the workplace is critical.
Over the last 10 years Unite has developed the practice of Leverage – a comprehensive, all-encompassing approach, to campaigning. We have been doing this quietly but with considerable success. Twelve wins from 12 campaigns testifies to this fact. From saving jobs to getting blacklisted workers back to work, our campaigns have been fought in hard, difficult conditions. No easy wins here. And by doing that, taking on the big fights, we have developed our methods – from planning to implementation, to the theory of decision making.
‘Fight the savage cuts to jobs’
Now, we need to utilise all that we have learnt to fight the savage cuts to jobs and terms and conditions that are coming our way. Where we can fight effectively on the industrial front we should be taking action, but we also need to be creative and agile at this time and that may mean deploying multifaceted and muscular tactics. People and markets make the decisions and what actually moves them must be our focus, otherwise we will be left bitterly disappointed. We must remember that tactics without strategy is often the noise before defeat.
At British Airways, we have encountered an employer seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to slash labour costs. The fact that Covid 19 is being used as cover for their actions makes this plain enough.
The BA plan to ‘fire and rehire’ 42,000 of its own employees is remarkable in its audacity, clearly hoping that we will be caught like ‘rabbits in the headlights’, unsure of our next move, too worried to ‘rock the boat’. And it is at times like this, that you need confidence and trust in an approach. Because let’s face it, during this period, between genuine need and rampant opportunism, lie workers who face no easy choices.
The choice to fight is not an easy one, with carnage and confusion all around those that do stick together, that chose to fight should be our inspiration. Today’s leaders are not policy makers or politicians but workers with the courage to challenge and even more so those willing to fight adopting a radical approach.
Unite is developing wrap around support for our shop stewards facing disputes through various forms of ‘Crisis Leverage’. We must be able to scale the principles of Leverage quickly and adapt to the specific circumstances of each fight. Some employers like British Airways who set unwanted precedents though their behaviour, may require the full weight of the Union. Others, with no less legitimate concerns but with a different type of opponent, may require another approach requiring different resource but a similar philosophy.
Our shop stewards need to know; who is the top decision maker? Who are the ultimate owners? Who are the customers? What is the real ‘ability to pay’ of their employer? From this framework of understanding, together we can plan effective campaigns. Sometimes it will require just helping people access the information they need to do the job themselves.
But we need to do all this to scale and quickly. That is our challenge. For while this may not be the fight we want, it is the fight we have. We know some employers will use this crisis to cut and drive down terms and conditions. If we are serious about winning back those ‘left behind’, then we need deal in the concrete, the tangible. Now it is time to fight for jobs.
This comment first appeared in the Morning Star
By Sharon Graham, Unite executive officer