Aviation: Two struggles in Britain and Belgium

Accounts and analysis of two days spent with striking aviation workers in London and Brussels, Autumn 2004.

Belgium Beer, Bangers and Baggage Jammers
Here are two shorter reports about struggles in the aviation sector. We visited a picket line of striking baggage handlers at Gatwick Airport in London and a demonstration of DHL-workers in Bruxelles. We think that the aviation sector in general has got some interesting political characteristics and potentials for future struggles. Just to mention some of them:

1. The aviation sector was one of the main booming sectors in the 90s, partly due to changes in the production and consumtion structure. The extension and globalisation of production chains increased the importance of air transport within the productive cycle. Eg material transport within the automotive sector. As a private means of transport flying also became socially widespread in the 90s. In terms of employment the numbers of people employed in the aviation sector in the EU has increased by 20 per cent from 1995 to 1999.

2. Airports are a highly condensed concentration of workers and have a major impact on the regional labourmarket.In airports tens of thousands of people work together or next to each other on a rather small geographical scale, e.g. the airport in Heathrow, London employs about 70,000 people. Where airports are built the whole regional labourmarket and economic structure changes: Capital and workforce are needed for the construction (runways, buildings, access roads) and for the service around the airport (hotels, transport, catering). Job centres open special departments for the new demand, the airport attracts new companies which use the new gateway to the world, the houseprices in the area rise, the region rises in the hierarchy of capitalist investment.

3. The airport workforce covers nearly the whole range of social class composition on a global scale. Within the boundaries of airports you can find all sorts of different work situations: highly paid specialist work and McJobs, office work and manual labour, personal services and technical maintenance. A lot of immigrants work at airports, some doing low paid manual work, and some because of their language skills. The structure and work organisation is similar wherever you are in the world. Hundreds of cabin crew workers fly around the globe in and out of various airports everyday.

4. Struggles in the sector tend to have immediate international re-percussions and often refer to each other. In the late 90s we could see various strikes of airline workers which reffered to each other and their demands and gains. Depending on the function within the airport complex (e.g. flight controlers, technical staff), struggles have an immediate international impact. In general we could see more struggles in comparison to other sectors, some of them went beyond legal restrictions, e.g. the wildcat strike at AlItalia or Air Olympic.

5. The crisis attack on the workers is much closer intertwined with general global developments than in any other sector: war, terror, oil price. The main attacks on the workforce happened short after the Asian crisis in 1997/98 and after September the 11th 2001, with about 45,000 redundancies in the EU aviation sector since then. Crisis measures in the sector are officially explained by global situations: wars, oil price development, the terrorist threat. State intervention against the workers are also justified in that way: tanks and soldiers at the airport, severe checks and selection processes for newly hired workers, anti-strike laws within the frame-work of the US-Patriot Act...

6. There are several political movements which attack airports in their function as check points within the migration control and because of their environmental impacts. There are several political struggles targeting airports, e.g. initiatives against the construction of new runways, anti-deportation and anti-detention centre campaigns, actions against the military use of the air transport. In some cases these initiatives were able to create links with the workers within the aviation sector, e.g. pilots and cabin crews refusing to serve on deportation flights.

The following two examples of recent conflicts are in some ways examples of the defensive position that workers find themselves in at the moment. The baggage handlers in London didn’t break out of their professional boundaries and the union control, probably also due to the experiences of the last wildcat-strike in 2002, when the struggle was suffocated under the media’s anti-strike propaganda and the threat of major legal consequences. The DHL-workers in Bruxelles didn’t occupy the runways, they demonstrated in town centre instead, a decision which may also be due to the experience of the Sabena (bancrupt Belgian Airline) workers only three years ago, who were tear-gased by the cops while trying to get to the runways.

Serviceair baggage handlers strike, Gatwick Airport, UK, 2004

A first person account of a picket line visit at a Serviceair baggage handlers strike at Gatwick Airport in 2004, with information about the strike.

(25th of September 2004) Serviceair are an airport company doing baggage handling, maintenance, ticket sales etc. There are four baggage handling companies at Gatwick and Serviceair are the second biggest, handling baggage for Continental Airways, British Midland, Ryanair, Easyjet and many others. British Airways are the only company with their own baggage handlers. The average baggage handlers wage is £15,500 per year and many travel a long way to get to work. Most worked there many years, 15 or more.

I went along to the picket line at Gatwick. I arrived at the airport and asked the Serviceair ticket desk if there was a picket line. “You’ll have to talk to the management, I don’t know anything at all. Next please”. I then asked some guys in yellow jackets at a baggage type place. “That’s not us. That’s Serviceair on strike. We don’t know anything”. “Have you noticed any disruption today”? “No. None at all”. So I went to the Gatwick Airport official information desk. “Certainly madam. Go down the stairs, turn right and it is a five minute walk by the roundabout”. Very helpful.

I arrived and there were about 50 men with their yellow Serviceair jackets. They seemed to be in a chatty, up-beat mood. The vibe was good with lots of people beeping as they went past.

They were at the roundabout because they were banned from the airport building, but had three picket lines around the area. If they were all as big as the one I went to, then there must have been hundreds out on the picket line. I arrived at about 2.30 p m and they said there had been a lot more when the strike started at 7.00 a.m.

It is a 24 hour strike with another one day on Thursday about general work conditions, especially the increased workload leading to health and safety problems, and the re-instatement of a suspended TGWU Union convener. There was a spontaneous ten-minute stoppage a while ago about new ‘working practices’ and the union convener came along and told them to go back to work. They did and the management then suspended this guy for inciting industrial action. This was a pretext, as there was some important negotiations coming up and they didn’t want him there. When he was suspended the workers went on a four-hour stoppage. The management then agreed that he could attend the specific negotiations, but not have his job of convenor back. One of their demands it to get him reinstated. They have a lot of trust in him and said he was very sharp and if they didn’t have him they would not have anyone to represent them in the negotiations.

But when I asked about the union in general and how they were handling the strike it was a bit more complex. They did think that a longer strike, e.g. two days, would be more effective, but they dismissed the idea of wildcat strikes as being too risky to their own job security.

“Do you trust the union?”

“Interesting question. No comment” with a laugh.

They all talked about the general situation of the increased workload. Five injuries in one night was one example, because they were ten men short. They are straining their muscles and generally getting overworked. They do not have extra staff during the summer when there is a lot more work. The management use the excuse that it takes up to 12 weeks to security-check new workers. The flip side of this is that it is much harder for them to quickly get scab labour.

During this strike 100 percent of Serviceair baggage handlers and maintenance staff walked out and the work was being done by managers bussed in from around the country, at a high cost.

They said that although all the baggage handlers were facing the same problem, they did not see any chance of the strike spreading. They do chat to the workers of other companies a bit, but the work is quite separate, loading and unloading different companies’ aeroplanes. The issue remains very local and specific. Serviceair baggage handlers at other airports were not on strike either. However, the other baggage handling companies are at least not scabbing, i.e. not doing Serviceair work and some came to picket line to show support. The workers I spoke to did not have any contact with the re-fulers who were on strike at Heathrow the day before.

There was a really good feeling on the picket line. Friendly, open and optimistic. They were really happy to talk to me and were not at all suspicious or paranoid. The mood was determined, but not really that hopeful that the work conditions will change.

Short report from DHL workers demonstration in Brussels, 2004

A short report from a DHL workers demonstration in Brussels, with information about developments and struggles at DHL and at Brussels airport.

On the 21st of October 2004, the DHL management announced to shut the distribution centre at the airport in Bruxelles in 2008. This would cut about 1,700 jobs at the centre. DHL employs about 2,200 people in Bruxelles, about 7,000 jobs would be indirectly affected by the closure, some other studies say that in total 17,500 jobs are directly or indirectly linked to DHLs activities in Bruxelles. The work is supposed to be re-located to Leipzig/Germany or Vary/France, but so far DHL only owns a green field next to Leipzig airport. Until 2011 about 250 Million Euros are announced to be invested in the new central distribution centre, about 3,000 jobs are to be created. The DHL management had asked the government in belgium to allow an increase in night flights at the Bruxelles Airport, in order to extend the operation of the distribution centre. The government refused to do that, also being under pressure of some neighbour initiatives against the night flights. The workers reacted with a spontaneous strike on the 22nd of October, demanding job security from DHL. Also the pilots went on strike. The management re-routed the post to other centres. The union rep Vermeersch from the socialist union SETCa (which has the majority at DHL) announced in the newspaper ‚Le Soir’ that the unions are not responsible for the strike and that „airoplanes could land on Monday given that the workers are not forced to be on strike“. On an assembly on Monday, the 25th, the workers decided about a demonstration on the following friday. It is unclear if the strikes continued, or not. On Thursday everything seemed calm, no picket-line, banners or any other infos. People said that they are not on strike at the moment. DHL aeroplanes left from the runway.
The demo

Different unions of the transport union call for a demonstration at Bruxelles town centre, friday the 29th. The tram drivers are on strike, workers of other postal delivery companies take part in the march, all in all about 2,000 people. The demonstration is mixed: a lot of young workers, immigrants, women, only few political groups (trots, PTB, Attac). A leaflet, which is signed by ‚Workers of B-Cargo’ demands the refusal of work in case the management threatens with dismissals or other cuts. The demonstration starts, a lot of bangers and beer cans. Some young blokes have a short occupation of the motorway, no union stewards who would hold them back. The demo continues, we stop on a cross roads, below us the motorway, in front of us the US-ambassy and a building of some sort of administration for the transport sector. Behind a barricade of barbed wire waits a water canon and the riot cops, securing the administration building. A lot of workers immediately try to break the barricade, start to throw bangers and empty beer cans at the cops. Most of them wear their work clothes, bomber-jackets from TNT, warning-vests from DHL and other companies. Some use their union flags as masks. They all seem quite used to that kind of confrontation, may be from football. Some more hefty blows from both sides of the barbed wire, then a little bit of tear gas. The atmosphere is fine, we all seem to have a good time. A big garbage container is rammed against the barricade, a guy jumps on top of it and waves a DHL-flag in front of the faces of the water canon drivers. On the other side a small group blocks the motorway, discussion with the car drivers. If they have a good reason, they can pass. The cops arrive, with a water canon as well, the workers occupy the motorway on the other side of the bridge. In front of the administration the cops had a little go at the workers, we answer with some more bottles and one or two stones. There is no division over that amongst the protesters. We make friends with a guy working as a parcel delivery driver for DHL since six years, making 60,000 k in Antwerpens town centre every years and being fed up with it. He says that all DHL workers should go on strike now, because otherwise the management will finish them up one department after the other. Meanwhile the union delegation is back, the people gather around the loudspeakers. Only some short announcements, that the negotiation will carry on, that nothing is definite yet. What else can they say in this situation. The demonstration disperses on the way back to the buses and trains. Just when most of the people are out of sight the cops catch some young workers who they might have picked out during the skirmish. A short fight, it smells like revenge and wanting to teach a lesson.

Some history
* At Bruxelles airport there has been an occupation of workers of the bancrupt airline Sabena in winter 2001, with some fights with the cops.

* In April 2003 DHL workers in Germany (Hamburg, Dormund, Bremen) walked out for higher wages. In Hamburg 260 people worked for DHL.

* In May 2003 DHL workers in Belgium struck against the centralisation of parcel service of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. 400 people blocked the distribution centre in Ternat/Limburg.

* In December 2003 the DHL headquarter in the US announced to sack 2,900 people, due to the take-over of the airline Airbone by DHL aviation Astar. About 44,000 people are employed by DHL in the USA.

* On the 30th of January 2004 DHL announced the losure of the distribution centre in Paris-Garonor, which would have cost 280 jobs. The workers blocked the depot, other depots in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux are blocked as well. In France about 12,000 people work for DHL, this year about 1,200 jobs have been cut.