Punishment, fear and humiliation - the bully's way

British Airways has done a terrible thing and I am astonished that the non-executive directors should have supported the action
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The Independent Online
In all respects but one, the dispute between British Airways and the Transport and General Workers' Union, which represents cabin crew, is a typically tough fight between a large and aggressive company and a large and aggressive union. It is a heavyweight contest, but only in this respect does it resemble the miners' strike and the battle of Wapping between Rupert Murdoch and the printing unions in the Eighties.

Thus British Airways has prepared for the possibility of a strike, now due to begin tomorrow morning, by showing managers how to do workers' jobs, by lining up temporary staff and, it is believed, by training new cabin crew. Fair enough. Likewise the union has called three-day strikes, having balloted its members, and has made every effort to persuade unions at foreign airports to black British Airways flights during the dispute. Again, fair enough.

Not all the tactics of British Airways about which Bill Morris, the general secretary of the TGWU, complains, are obnoxious. The company has indeed attempted to impose a settlement on the cabin crew, but it has done so after five months of inconclusive negotiation, and after a smaller union representing cabin crew accepted the terms. To impose a deal is never an attractive option, but any management is entitled to try. Mr Morris also complains about British Airways' decision to close the union's offices on the company's premises. It was a bit of a spiteful thing to do, but that is what happens in tense situations.

It is likewise said that the covert aim of British Airways' chief executive, Robert Ayling, is to break the power of the Transport and General Workers' Union within the company by holding firm despite strike action, and by this means showing employees that neither their sacrifice of so many days' pay, nor the vaunted strength of their union, has brought them any reward. If this is Mr Ayling's objective, it is a bold strategy. But in turn trades unions try to break managements by taking steps to show that they are really the masters. In the old Fleet Street, newspaper managements were in thrall to the printing unions. So each side may try to break the other, though victories are hardly ever permanent and the havoc caused is considerable. I do not object to this per se.

In one respect, however, British Airways has done a terrible thing, and I am astonished that the non-executive directors should have supported the action, as I must assume they did. This is what cabin crew have been told will happen to them if they go on strike:

l they could be sued for damages as a result of the losses incurred by the company;

l they could be dismissed for breaching their contract;

l they will have removed any options for early retirement or severance available under various re-structuring schemes;

l they will not be eligible for promotion until March 2000;

l they will lose all their staff travel until March 2000.

I say it is a terrible action because it is designed to frighten ordinary people. British Airways' list of sanctions means that any stewards or stewardesses going on strike must contemplate being financially ruined by lawsuits and perhaps losing their homes as a result. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that such a threat has ever been made. Or perhaps striking cabin crew will merely lose their jobs. And if the company in its mercy decides not to visit these punishments upon them, then they know for certain that after the strike they will be on a blacklist for three years.

By introducing the notion of punishment for striking, British Airways demonstrates that it does not fully accept the right of people to belong to a trades union, a right which is expressly protected in British law and also secured by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The essence of union membership is that a group of workers may withdraw their labour if they so choose. Moreover, where unions give up their right to strike, as they may do in essential services, employees are compensated through special wage agreements. But this is not what British Airways is proposing. I mentioned the non-executive directors, because they are supposed to point out to hard-driving executives the full consequences of their actions. I think the company is engaging in an almost immoral procedure. It is, anyway, a species of bullying.

Even on a practical level, British Airways' punishment drill is likely to prove a mistake. When people are threatened they react with intransigence, sometimes with anger, often irrationally. If the stoppages do begin tomorrow, then simply because of the company's tactics they may be carried on for much longer than would otherwise be the case. Having been personally threatened, strikers may wish to hurt the company, even in contradiction of their own self-interest.

Moreover, after a settlement, on whatever terms, staff would return to their tasks in a fearful mood, frightened of their managers. The bullies might promise not to issue any more threats, but nobody would be much reassured. Indeed, depending on the outcome, staff might come back feeling humiliated. These consequences would arise only because punishment and fear had been introduced into the company's way of conducting its relationship with its employees.

Equally, people would come back divided into two groups: those who had worked through the dispute, and those on the blacklist. There is always tension in such circumstances. But consider how such hostility would be exacerbated as the co-operative workers obtained the perks and promotion that were denied to those who had been on strike. So, as well as a fearful staff, British Airways would find that it had divided teams. And these employees work not behind the scenes, far away, but in the aircraft, tending to the passengers.

For all these reasons I hope the company will withdraw the punishments it has announced for striking staff. In many ways British Airways is a wonderful airline. On Friday my newly-married younger son and his wife returned to Tokyo on British Airways. Their luggage was well overweight. When they explained that the excess was caused by wedding presents, all charges were waived. How nice. Thus, my advice to the British Airways board is: don't bully; stay friendly.