The unofficial walkout of British Airways (BA) ground service staff at
Heathrow with all its attendant damage was a salutary warning to the airline
industry and everybody beyond.
For years, surveys of employee satisfaction have been pointing to a steady
growth of disaffection, reflected in the election of a generation of avowedly
more aggressive trade union leaders. But what has propelled this shift is not
so much a new militancy, as a demand for respect – a widespread feeling
expressing itself through industrial relations.
That presents a major challenge to the HR community, but it is also an
The BA dispute bubbled up from below. None of the unions negotiating about
the introduction of swipe cards for months beforehand guessed that their
members were this ready to act. It was certainly a surprise to BA. Had BA
management the slightest hint that the enforced introduction of swipe cards
would lead to £40m of lost revenues and tens of millions more in lost
reputation, it would not have acted in such a self-defeating manner. After all,
20,000 other workers within BA had already accepted the new system.
The trigger for this unexpected storm was not so much the monitoring of
attendance; it was apprehension that the new technology would permit a
wholesale recasting of the workplace bargain – on BA’s terms and time-schedule
– and that workers would have no say in the matter. And on top of poor pay, if
work was to be distributed around the rhythm of customer demand, then workers
would have been reduced to little more than automata.
This is where the question of respect kicks in. Of course there was fear
about change and further intensification of the pace of work without additional
compensation. But what made the reaction so highly charged was the sense that
the whole approach showed how BA regarded the workforce.
Any durable solution to these types of disputes must involve systems and
processes the workforce trusts – that gives them a voice in how the workplace
bargain is to be reshaped. Thus the traditionalist collective bargaining deal
cannot always offer a sustainable position. It needs processes involving the
transmission of information and consultation in a way that encourages genuine
employee input to how working practices are shaped.
BA needs a more European, social partnership approach to organising work
than either our unions or management are ready to accept. Tony Woodley,
designated successor to Sir Bill Morris at the Transport & General Workers
Union, said unions musn’t get too close "to the gaffer" – and British
managements do cherish their autonomy and discretion.
The implementation of the EU directive on information and consultation is
painfully slow, and there is a respect deficit out there. Now is the time for
HR to make the case for pre-emptive action to mitigate the risk of being in the
same position as BA was.
By Will Hutton, chief executive, The Work Foundation