UNITE representing British Airways cabin crew is now into itsr second strike and now the RMTU, led by the avowed Marxist (yet paid a healthy six figure salary) Bob Crow, is calling the first national rail strike since 1994.
Why? Well British Airways is in dire financial straits. Many of its Heathrow based cabin crew are on pay and terms and conditions that hark back to before the airline was privatised, with the average pay double that of Virgin Atlantic and reportedly higher than any other airline globally. The management is seeking to put Heathrow crew on the same pay and conditions as Gatwick crew, given the airline has had record losses. In short, this is about the survival of the airline, in a world where most recently Japan Air Lines, Olympic Airways and Alitalia have all effectively folded and either been recapitalised or bought out from the creditors.
On the railways, the issue is with Network Rail, the government guaranteed nominally private company that owns and runs the rail network. It is seeking to change maintenance practices so that trains can run more frequently at weekends and late evenings, and has endorsement from the Office of Rail Regulation for the changes. The union is claiming the strike is about safety, but has little support from that from elsewhere.
So many BA flights are not taking off (Gatwick flights will given the crew there have no reason to strike, and some cabin crew at Heathrow are refusing to go on strike), and the four days after Easter will see most trains not running. A spring of discontent is in the wind. Gordon Brown is less than impressed.
Of course the problem Labour has is that UNITE is the largest financial contributor to the Labour Party, and the RMTU is also affiliated. Some Labour MPs support the strike, although they are keeping very quiet about it. However Gordon Brown and the rest of Cabinet cannot hand on heart state opposition to those who fund them. In other words, a very clear political link can be made between Labour and the unions who have decided to go on strike close to the election.
Isn’t this suicide, you say? Surely unions WANT Labour in government? Well, this is about two things. Firstly, the belief that this pressures Labour Ministers to intervene on the side of the union, to get what they might otherwise not get if the government changes. What the unions don’t realise is that this is likely to play into the hands of the Conservatives, by showing Labour as anti-business and back in the bad old days of government intervening in industrial disputes. Secondly, as far as the RMTU is concerned, Bob Crow says that it doesn’t really matter if Labour loses, because both main parties are so similar.
What some in the union movement want is for Labour to lose, so that Gordon Brown can be replaced, and the vestiges of New Labour are purged to move it further to the left. In other words, they still believe in socialism. What they failed to note was how roundly such a Labour Party was defeated in 1983 when it had the socialist wet dream manifesto.
It is too early to tell whether it means the deathknell of the government. If only because the Conservative Party seems like it engages in the art of spin, of saying very little and criticism rather than ideas. When asked about spending cuts, the Conservatives talk about small ticket items and protecting the NHS. The simple truth is that whatever major party governs Britain, it is made up of politicians who primarily want to spend other people’s money and direct their lives. Until that trap is broken, the cycle of discontent will continue.