Thomas Cook Airlines pilots are taking strike action against real-term pay cuts, leading the way for the potential of united airline worker action.

Friday 8th September saw the first strike by UK airline pilots since the mid-1970s, in a dispute over pay. The British Airline Pilots’ Association has announced three more strike days in the autumn. With organised and united action, pilots could hit the bosses' where it hurts - in their profits - and win an important and inspiring victory.

Friday 8th September saw the first strike by UK airline pilots since the mid-1970s. The turnout in the ballot amongst Thomas Cook Airlines pilots was 88%, with no less than 91% of pilots voting to take action in a dispute over pay. The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) has announced three more strike days in the autumn.

The dispute follows nearly eight months of negotiations over a pay rise that was due in April. Thomas Cook has offered a 1.5% rise, but the union asked for at least an increase matching inflation plus catching up with other comparable airlines, along with better travel facilities for pilots. It is believed the threat of closing down regional bases and completely disrupting pilots’ and their families’ lives is a factor in the discontent too.

BALPA General Secretary, Brian Strutton, said:

We have taken this course of action extremely reluctantly, but with no sensible pay offer on the table, we have no other option. Thomas Cook pilots have faced year-on-year, real-terms pay cuts, and cuts to terms and conditions, and our pilots have said ‘enough is enough’.

Whilst it is true that no flights were disrupted, because of a combination of bringing in management pilots and third party non-union labour, this strike was a significant event and brings hope to a workforce that has been on the defensive for decades.

Mood of anger

The mood amongst pilots is probably best summed up by quoting a Thomas Cook pilot on PPRuNe, one of the main online pilot forums:

Being relatively new to the company I could not even attempt to convey the deep history of betrayal pilots at my airline have faced but I'm hoping some esteemed colleagues will chime in with the detail. For the first-time British pilots have got their collective might together in order to act. We sincerely hope our professional colleagues at other airlines take advantage of what we're doing and become inspired/motivated to do the same.

Airlines regularly attempt to undercut competition by a mere pound or two just to appear at the top of pricing lists. To effect this, something has to give. In almost every case it’s the terms and conditions of the workforce (not just pilots, but cabin crew, engineers, ground ops and even those in the office). This might be "good" for the consumer but it is a catastrophe for those who wish to earn a decent living and as important wish to continue to enjoy working within the airline industry. However, any savings airline management recoup by stealing from the employees are seen as "management performance targets achieved".

For years and years UK pilots have been forced to give in to demands and requirements from management, plotting a course to the current crisis point. All too familiar now is the sight of airline management slashing and burning their way to their own bonuses in the bank, then moving on to do the same in a different company.

Contrast this with the many hoops pilots have to jump through. There are all kinds of thorough checks, references, CVs, psychological tests, interviews etc., and all we do is fly the aircraft for which we've been trained in the manner that the company’s SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] dictate. On the other hand, managers in critical positions just seem to float in on a dodgy handshake under the table cloth.

Stop the rot

However, it is not just a matter of “bad” management. The problem is fundamental. As we explained in our article on the Germanwings crash a few years ago:

The truth is, a cancer has been eating away for quite some time at the aviation industry as a whole. Low cost airlines have initiated a race to the bottom and through sheer market forces legacy carriers have been forced to follow suit. In order to understand how it came to this we have to go back a few decades.

In most of Western Europe most flying jobs were with national government-owned unionised flag carriers. They were the standard bearers, worldwide ambassadors and advertisers for their countries. Great pride was taken in them, by them and by their employees. It was a coveted position and very well paid.

Later came the charter/holiday carriers, some of whom survived, while many others went bankrupt or were taken over. In all aspects it was still a respected and well remunerated profession, with standards in services and terms and conditions that were well understood by all.

Then came privatisation and the governments sold their investments to public shareholders. Now profit was the only parameter. Lo and behold, it was discovered that this was a vocational industry; people would sell their grandmothers for a step on the ladder, and pay to do it. The accountants couldn't believe their luck and the cancer started to spread. This was at a time when the market was deregulated and anyone could start up an airline flying from anywhere in EU to anywhere in the EU. Cut price was the answer. Dog eat dog became the mentality. Pilots became commodities.

(Germanwings crash in the Alps: sick pilot a symptom of a sick industry)

Not a light bulb shines, not a telephone rings...

The truth is that a reduction in terms and conditions over the past decades would never have happened had a united pilot workforce, particularly in the UK, flexed its muscle.

In a distorted way, this industrial muscle is recognised by the people at the top; relatively speaking, pilots have done better than other groups of workers. Yes, it is true that (like air traffic controllers) pilots are relatively well paid (though no more so than other well-organised workers, such as London tube drivers) - but this has to be seen in the context of a massive responsibility for human life, often crippling fatigue, chaotic rostering, and ever growing job uncertainty.

Pilots all over the UK will look to the industrial action of their Thomas Cook colleagues as inspiration for when we enter negotiations with our own management. This is living proof that pilots can be organised and will strike back when provoked.

It is often emphasised by socialists that not a wheel turns, not a phone rings, not a light bulb shines without the kind permission of the working class. How true this is for the power of the working men and women in the flight deck! A shutdown of air services would have an international impact on the bosses’ profits within days - but it is a power that, sadly, has never been fully exercised by aircrew.

It is up to us now to start making this power fully conscious of itself.