THE buzz word in the financial media yesterday was ‘Wapping’.
The media was referring to the union busting operation carried through by Rupert Murdoch in 1986 supported by the Thatcher government and the riot squads of the Metropolitan Police after he built a new printing works in Wapping, closed down his Fleet Street presses, and sacked 6,000 print workers.
Murdoch turned Wapping into an armed police camp around which pitched battles took place every day between the sacked printers and the state forces.
Murdoch banned unions and all union practices from Wapping and kept trade unions out for 18 years.
Yesterday’s newspapers were, however, not engaging in just a history lesson.
In fact, the ‘Sunday Observer’ went as far as to boldly grab the bull by the horns. It declared: ‘Let’s say it right out: British Airways’ move to Terminal Five in 2008 has been billed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to end “Spanish practices”, introduce new technologies, cut the workforce and gain fresh advantage in the brutally competitive world aviation market. So is it the airline’s equivalent of Rupert Murdoch’s move to Wapping?’
When the ‘Observer’ put this proposition to BA’s new chief executive, Willie Walsh, he feigned ignorance about what actually happened at Wapping but conceded that moving to Terminal Five would be ‘a transformational change’.
He hastened to add that he had to smash the unions’ agenda, and that he preferred to work with them.
Obviously, BA could not take a year-long Wapping-style war with the trade unions – it would not last 24 hours before it disappeared down a financial black hole.
Walsh wants to do a Murdoch in transforming wages and working conditions, but with the support of the leaders of the TGWU, with the TGWU leaders as allies helping him push the required measures through.
Their reward will be that however many workers are sacked, there will be room for the TGWU on the airport, for the time being anyway, as a subs-paying base to pay the wages and the expenses of the trade union bureaucracy.
At the moment, Walsh pledges that there will be no compulsory redundancies in the move from Terminal 3 to 5.
He does know, however, that at Gate Gourmet, the catering firm that used to be part of BA, the TGWU leaders have agreed to 144 compulsory redundancies, ditching their previous red line that they would never agree to compulsory redundancies.
At this early stage there is clearly no need for Walsh to utter a demand for compulsory sackings, and so alarm the workers. However, he now knows that when compulsory redundancies are required the union leaders will be more than willing to accommodate him and that Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, will then sign and seal the deal, as he did at Gate Gourmet.
The issue for BA’s Heathrow workforce is clear. If they are to defend their jobs, wages and working conditions successfully, they must see to it that the present TGWU leadership is sacked and replaced by leaders who are prepared to fight.
This means that it is in the interests of BA workers to see that the TGWU leadership is forced out of the disgraceful mass sackings deal it has signed at Gate Gourmet.
The way to do this is for BA workers to resume their sympathy action in support of the Gate Gourmet locked-out workers, so that they win their struggle, and notice is thereby served on the employers and the union leaders that there are not going to be any redundancies or any ‘transformational change’ at BA or Heathrow airport.