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Aviation Industry moves to restore 'normal' operations


If you’re an environmental campaigner excited about all the activity around Green New Deals, Build Back Better and Just Transition, the statement issued by aviation employers and trade unions jointly makes for pretty depressing reading. A manifesto to Build Back The Same, the statement essentially amounts to a plea for lots of government money so that aviation can go on as it was before the catastrophe of the covid pandemic, with a few green tweaks added on for good measure.


Worse, if you are both an environmental campaigner and a trade unionist, the statement is doubly depressing:


  • First, a ringing (and embarrassing) endorsement of the environmental community’s worst prejudices about trade unions, that they are part of the problem not the solution, and

  • Second, that capitulation to an employer that is constantly attacking you seems like a better option than demanding a truly progressive solution that secures jobs and protects the planet.


That second point is the key: it’s not just a happy coincidence that real job security and action on climate change go hand in hand, they are two sides of the same coin. What we need to do to combat climate change involves work, lots of it, and that means jobs (including in the aviation industry). It also has implications in terms of ownership models, workers rights, democratic accountability, overcoming inequality - all the things workers should be fighting for. By contrast business as usual will mean returning to a backs-to-the-wall struggle against economic efficiencies, the imperative to realise shareholder returns and profits, and therefore job cuts, deteriorating terms and conditions, and automating good jobs out of existence. It begs the question ‘how many times do you need to be kicked in the teeth before you realise this person is not your friend?’


And what about the thousand of jobs already lost, as meticulously described in the statement? These jobs are not coming back, and will be joined by thousands more if traffic, as is stated, does not return to 2019 levels until 2026. Leaving aside the environmental impact of aviation, those years up to 2026 represent a circle that cannot be squared - what are workers meant to do in the meantime? Is the statement seeking a five-year extension to the furlough scheme for aviation workers? And how many employers do we really think will set about re-hiring over that period rather than implement automated processes and dispense with other jobs as unaffordable? Unions alignment with this plan may come from a place of desperation, we can understand that, but right now we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something better for all.


At least a dozen of the bullet points in the statement are about securing government money, in the form of bailouts, loans, special arrangements, tax relief, suspension of other payments. This industry, bastion of free market liberalisation and deregulation, wants the government to cover the costs of maintaining airports and air navigation charges through the crisis. No problem with that; bring them into public ownership now. Make aviation workers public employees and protect their jobs. Oh, that’s not what they meant?!


‘We have seen a clear call from across the industry and the union movement for a plan for how the aviation industry can return to normal’ – in fact, PCS has consistently called for aviation workers to be protected during a transition to a green and publicly owned integrated transport system. And in this pandemic, the other aviation unions have joined them in lobbying government for a comprehensive plan to assure the retraining and redeployment of workers in the industry due to the recognition of likely job losses and the length of time for air travel to return. That demand also called for redeployment to decarbonisation projects specifically, and for public ownership of the air traffic service, and rightly so. It was there in the New Economics Foundation report, though that bit isn’t quoted! The NEF report also called for negotiated limits on redundancy rates, a review not a suspension of taxes in the sector, and ‘attaching conditions to all financial support to suspend shareholder dividends, to end excessive executive pay and unethical tax practices, and to require investment in green technology and decarbonisation’.


What is noticeable about the statement is how much of it is about generating self-fulfilling prophecy, talking the employers preferred policy into existence:


  • ‘…preserve specific domestic and international routes’ – this is a defensive statement, we all know that one of the ‘quick wins’ of a climate friendly transport policy is the immediate replacement of domestic flying. This statement is intended to counter that.

  • ‘a commitment to invest in technology to reduce the carbon footprint…’, this is a glib way of seeking to exclude all measures other than technological ones from the climate debate, i.e. no place for demand management, progressive tax schemes, let alone thinking more deeply about how we live. There is a definite place for technology in future solutions but not as sole panacea for a greedy industry.

  • Funding for ‘next generation security tech’, for ‘airport modernisation’ and ‘trialling and implementation of current and future seamless journey technology’ – these should immediately ring alarm bells for trade unionists as they sound like further steps in the loss of jobs to automation. Even if that isn’t the case, no union should be agreeing to these statements unless accompanied by clear and unequivocal guarantees of continued employment, either in current jobs or training and redeployment for other roles.

Any trade unionist with an interest in climate will find the joint statement bitterly disappointing. It comes across as hanging on in the hopes that a few crumbs will drop from the table. As workers we need to grasp this opportunity for change before the door slams shut, by organising, campaigning and demanding so much more at this pivotal moment in history.


Tahir Latif

Ex-PCS Aviation Group President

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