A spring of discontent?


altDespite the approaching General Election, industrial unrest is in the air. Strikes are currently impacting British Airways and may take place shortly at British Gas – owned by Centrica – and Network Rail.

Given the success of Ryanair and Easyjet, the British Airways strike is particularly self-defeating. Emulating the Government’s coal-stocking policy in the early 1980s, British Airways has recently assembled real fire-power - liquid cash of c.£2 billion. Hence, a strike, costing c.£7 million per day, could be resisted for some time. Given, too, that thousands of young people would adore to work as cabin crew, expect the management’s response to be increasingly robust. More dismissals and suspensions, the removal of historic travel perks for striking crews and the closure of the pension fund to newcomers are all likely.

In fact, a macho management style has been cited as the reason why most of the GMB’s 8,000 engineers working for British Gas’ boiler installation and maintenance division voted to support strike action. However, further discussions are expected shortly. Summer railway strikes are not unusual, so unrest at Network Rail is hardly surprising. Given its bizarre – and grossly inefficient management structure – strikes are likely, especially if there are redundancies and wages are squeezed.

There are common threads running through these three disputes. First, management is seeking to raise productivity – in the face of staff opposition. Secondly, remuneration levels remain an issue. In British Airways’ case, its accursed final pension schemes, with a combined deficit of £3.7 billion, have desperately damaged it – and may still scupper its much-needed tie-up with Iberia. Thirdly, these disputes all have a whiff of safety about them, especially given the various railways disasters of the last twenty years.

Finally, is it not rum that the unions behind this unrest are also major financial donors to a Labour Party struggling to be re-elected shortly?