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Organising in the air and on the ground - cabin crew resistance to British Airways : Reconfiguration of work and employment

Taylor, Philip and Moore, Sian (2014) Organising in the air and on the ground - cabin crew resistance to British Airways : Reconfiguration of work and employment. In: 9th Global Labour University Conference, 2014-05-15 - 2014-05-17.

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The focus is on the protracted dispute (2009 - 2011) between British Airways (BA) and its cabin crew and their union BASSA (British Airlines’ Stewards and Stewardesses Association). Against a historical legacy of adversarial employment relations, the dispute was triggered by the company’s imposition, in disregard of collective bargaining procedures, of reduced crewing levels, transformed working arrangements and a new ‘mixed fleet’ on inferior terms and conditions. Despite the fact that the company marshalled considerable resou rces against the union, including a ‘strategy of decapitation’ of the BASSA leadership, the cabin demonstrated a profound commitment to collective action that saw very large ballot majorities and 22 days of strike action. The question driving the paper is how to explain such powerful collectivism given the adverse conditions facing the crew. Specifically, the paper is concerned with how BASSA was able to organise when confronted with a number of spatial problematics, including the residential disaggregation of it crews and the dispersal across the globe of a transient workforce. Drawing on testimony deriving from extended in-depth semi-structured interviews, the paper provides compelling evidence of BASSA’s and crews’ utilisation of internet-based communication to organise members and to help overcome the problems of dispersion and distance. Particular emphasis is placed on the effectiveness of the BASSA Forum and Crew Forum. The paper engages with a recent literature on union use of internet-based communication and social media and both challenges those who have exaggerated the importance of their capacity to generate a ‘distributed discourse’ and those who have been overly-sceptical of unions’ ability to effectively use such technologies. In the BA-BASSA dispute of 2009 - 2011 virtual forms of organising were integrated with the real, although in the final analysis mass meetings, and rallies and effective picketing were the fulcrum of action on strike days. Internet-based communication and interaction certainly contributed to successful organising but of most import for collectivism was BASSA’s embeddedness in the work lives of their members.