John McDonnell spoke at a Unite rally as a second, three-day strike of Heathrow staff began
“Onwards to victory”: the rallying cry of Fidel Castro was deployed in unusual circumstances this morning, at a rally of striking British Airways cabin crew at a football ground near Heathrow.
The staff, who work for BA’s Mixed Fleet operation and are members of the Unite union, have begun a second strike in protest against what they describe as “poverty pay”. The stoppage will continue until midnight on Saturday.
The strikers held a rally at Bedfont FC, a football ground beneath the flightpath. Some had exchanged their normal uniforms for T-shirts reading “Dreamliner crew” on the front and “Binliner contract” on the back.
Another message read: “I was exploited by Willie” – a reference to Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA’s holding company, IAG. Mr Walsh was boss of British Airways in 2009-10, during a long and bitter cabin crew dispute.
All cabin crew who have joined BA since that dispute ended are in Mixed Fleet. They are employed on inferior terms to their longer-serving colleagues, and operate a range of short- and long-haul flights from Heathrow.
Services from Gatwick, London City and Stansted are unaffected.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, addressed the rally; the Labour MP’s constituency includes the airport. He accused BA’s management of “bloodymindedness” and described the strikers as “the heroes and heroines of our movement”.
The strikers were told that bus workers, dockers and hospital workers are being asked to contribute to a hardship fund to help BA cabin crew.
The union claims many cabin crew are reporting for duty while unfit, rather than lose the £3 per hour allowance they earn while working.
In addition, says Unite, some staff are sleeping in their cars at the airport because they cannot afford the petrol to drive home and back to work the following day.
Last week hundreds of Mixed Fleet cabin crew went on strike for two days. BA cancelled 44 flights and chartered aircraft and crew to cover 28 more.
In a statement ahead of the latest strike, the airline said: “We will merge a small number of our short-haul services at Heathrow, resulting in the cancellation of only one per cent of our total scheduled flights across the three days.
“Customers affected will be able to fly slightly earlier or slightly later.”
British Airways has cancelled 12 flights on Thursday, in the shape of round trips to Aberdeen, Bologna, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Hannover and Oslo. It plans to cancel another dozen departures on Friday. Saturday, which has a lighter flying programme, will be unaffected.
Three aircraft belong to Titan Airways have been chartered by BA to cover for other flights.
Gareth Theobald, a member of Mixed Fleet and a union rep, said: “Our message has never been about grounding planes.”
He said that crew would typically pay £300-£400 per month on food in overseas locations where they night-stop.
British Airways rejects Unite’s contention that average earnings for Mixed Fleet crew are £16,000 annually. A spokesperson for the airline said: “Their pay and reward is in line with cabin crew at our competitor airlines. New cabin crew in their first year working full time at British Airways will receive more than £21,000 based on pay, allowances, incentive and bonus.”
One in five of the recruits for Mixed Fleet last year were from other UK airlines.
As the strike got under way, Heathrow Terminal 5, BA’s main base, was quiet; passengers on the cancelled flights had been contacted in advance and offered alternative departures or refunds.
Back at Bedfont FC, striking cabin crew were dispatched to picket lines around the airport. The shadow chancellor said they were the first group of workers he had seen who fixed their make-up before joining a picket.
The strikers left with the revolutionary message of Che Guevara ringing in their ears: the struggle continues.
Peter Kavanagh, Unite’s London & Eastern regional secretary, told the cabin crew: “This is going to be potentially a long struggle, a hard struggle.”
The Independent, Simon Calder Thursday 19 January 2017