Striking BA workers love the company – they just don’t like its management

Reading the newspaper coverage of the planned British Airways strike, you could be forgiven for thinking we were back in the 1970s with mad union leaders hell-bent on suicidal militancy. Even CEO Willie Walsh has accused the union Unite of cynically misleading the cabin crew. The image of politically motivated union leaders calling reluctant workers out on strike to further their own ends is a well-established stereotype but does it really stand up in 2010?

Although they complained bitterly about them at the time, Thatcher’s trade union reforms gave the unions a democratic legitimacy they had previously lacked. Their leaders now have to be elected and no-one can call a strike without a secret ballot. Leaders are, therefore, only militant if their members want them to be and they can only call people out if a majority want to strike. Sixty-four percent of the British Airways cabin crew, eighty-one percent of those who voted, backed the strike action. That’s a pretty clear majority. If that many staff really have been cynically misled by union leaders, BA must employ must employ more than its fair share of dupes.

It is clear that, unless the BA cabin crew are somehow more gullible than the rest of the population, the majority of them support this strike. So why would they back a strike that might endanger the future of their company?

A feature of the culture in many organisations, especially uniformed ones, is an attitude which I call organisational patriotism. Just as people can be patriotic about their country while, at the same time, thinking that the government stinks, employees can strongly identify with a company while being ambivalent or even hostile to its leaders. Such attitudes are often found in uniformed organisations, such as airlines, ambulance trusts, fire brigades and railway companies. The first time I came across it was when I worked for a breakdown organisation. There, a roadside patrolman summed it up when he said, “A lot of us don’t like what the managers are doing to our company.”

In other words, it’s our company and that crowd are ruining it. Business leaders spend a lot of time trying to get employees to identify with the organisation in the assumption that this will make them more favourable to the viewpoint of the management. That isn’t always how it works. It is possible for employees to identify strongly with their company yet still be strongly opposed to its current leaders.

Something like this seems to be happening at British Airways. Many of its staff have worked for the company for years. People joke about having the company logo stamped on them and bleeding red-white-and-blue. Their fear is that the current leadership wants to completely change their airline. This comment from Julie Parks, a stewardess quoted in the Times, neatly expresses this attitude:

I have always wanted to fly. It is one of those things that you just seem drawn to. It is not an easy job to get into. It is quite lonely. You are away from friends and family, you miss parties, weddings and birthdays. But you get into it. It breaks you down and then builds you back up. That is why we are so proud to work for British Airways — we are BA, it has become our lives. You are living with your colleagues. When you put that uniform on you are so proud. That is why I feel it is so wrong, what is happening to the company.

I appreciate there are a lot of jobs that take it out of you. We are happy to compromise for the love of our job and the rewards we get out of it. I love my job and I think most of us do, and that is why we feel so passionately that BA is being led in the wrong direction.

Hardly the attitude of someone who wants to bring the company to its knees is it? The last line conveys a similar attitude to that of the breakdown patrolman quoted above; it’s our company and they are ruining it.

None of this is to say that the strike action is justified. In all probability, if the strike is successful and BA is stopped from re-organising its working practices and cutting costs, the airline will continue to decline. Its financial situation is dire and it faces competition which will only get fiercer. It might not go bust next week or even next year but, unless it can reduce its costs, eventually it will go the way of Alitalia – dependent on bailouts and prayers for its survival.

It’s not going to be pretty. A management team determined to reduce costs facing workers who believe that the managers are out rip their company apart and change it into something unrecognisable. Hints that British Airways might sack union activists and the union’s  attempt to globalise the strike will do nothing to ease the confrontational atmosphere.

It is probable that we will see a number of disputes like this in the coming years. Patriots often hark back to a golden age and organisational patriots are no different. What they cherish is the memory of a country, or a company, as it was. They feel unsettled by what it has become and fear the direction in which they think it is going. Many of the organisations which will come under the strongest pressure to change are those with high levels of organisational patriotism.  Public sector bodies, such as hospitals, ambulance trusts, some local authorities and, especially, the BBC, have workforces which strongly identify with their organisations, although not always with their management.

Many of these organisations which will be transformed beyond all recognition over the next few years. A lot of the patriots won’t like it and will resist just as bitterly as the BA staff are now doing. Expect to hear more employees like air stewardess Julie Parks complaining that the managers are destroying the organisation they know and love.

It’s somewhat ironic that, at a time when companies spend large sums of money on employee engagement and getting workers to identify more strongly with the brand, many of those organisations which have this in spades are being dismantled. Senior executives might say they want employee brand-identification but they only want it if it’s the right sort.

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2 Responses to Striking BA workers love the company – they just don’t like its management

  1. Strategist says:

    Great post, but I’m a tad unclear as to your final conclusion, and more importantly, what you think the union should do.

    On the former, are you saying that they’re not dupes of the union, as accused by Willie Walsh, or dupes of the current management, but they are still dupes? (dupes of nostalgia or dupes of the uniform, as evidenced by that lovely quote) And so are you saying that the only un-dupelike position is to never offer a shred of personal loyalty or commitment to an employer over & above that which you are paid for directly?

    On the latter, it seems quite clear that the union wants to negotiate a deal on reducing costs to help the company while Willie Walsh is hell bent on using this as an opportunity to break the union.

    You seem to have fallen for a myth that BA is about to go bust. (It’s really rather weak to cite an Indy leader in evidence – its editor Roger Alton is pretty much the definition of Fleet Street uninformed & clueless, and this is just a regurgitation of what BA’s PRs have fed him.)

    Walsh is taking a business decision to invest millions in provoking then defeating a strike in order to be able to push around his workforce at will in future. This is the action of a management that thinks the company is not in immediate risk but can make higher profits in the future without a unionised workforce.

    The only language Walsh understands is the bottom line, and so only a solid strike which costs him more than he had budgetted for can bring him back to the table. Or see him pushed out by his own board/shareholders to be replaced by a more unifying leader.

  2. thehrd says:

    One of the issues with what you term “organisational patriotism” is it almost inevitably harks back to a bygone age in the same way that the Daily Mail and Telegraph manage to infer that “it all used to be so much better before [add current campaign of choice]”. Unfortunately the world changes and evolves and publicly quoted organisations have no choice but to change too, or shareholders will demand their pound of flesh.

    In the past there were no low cost airlines, fuel prices were not as ridiculously high and routes were protected. That isn’t the case anymore. Sure it would be nice for the workforce to come along in an engaged way, but if they don’t do you not change, who has the right of veto?

    The final point I would make is in relation to the Unions and particularly Unite. The National Officers there are some of the most careerist I have ever seen. Kudos and recognition is not achieved through a lack of action and a stable work environment. To say that the TU leaders are only militant if their members want them to be is unfortunately simply not true.

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