|Volume 50 Number 20, May 30, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Various major airlines are making mass redundancies in response to the fall in demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has precipitated a crisis in the industry. British Airways announced the loss of 12,000 employees on April 28; Ryanair said on May 1 that 3,000 jobs in Europe were to go; and on May 5, Virgin Atlantic stated that it was to shed 3,000 jobs in Britain and stop flying from Gatwick. Flybe, which had already been struggling for some time, ceased operations altogether on March 5.
Now easyJet has announced that it plans to make up to 30% of its workforce of 15,000 redundant. This comes after suspending all flights since March, placing most of its workers onto the furlough scheme, and on the back of staff taking pay cuts.
The company, which is set to restart flights on June 15, declared: "To effect the restructure of our business, easyJet will shortly launch an employee consultation process on proposals to reduce staff numbers by up to 30%, reflecting the reduced fleet, the optimisation of our network and bases, improved productivity as well as the promotion of more efficient ways of working."
"Productivity", from the company's narrow private perspective, means the bottom-line profit per hour of work employed. This profit is the added value appropriated by the company itself and paid to its owners of equity, its shareholders. This added-value itself is a claim on the total new value produced by the workers, part of which is claimed by workers as wages, benefits and pensions, or via the government as far as it funds social programmes. The remaining new value is the added-value, the total capitalist profit, divided between the holders of the company's equity and debt, and the government for its activities as the representative of capitalist interests.
It is the new value produced by the workers that is the source of profit; yet the company's narrow perspective treats that work as a cost to be cut. Although the product of aviation, and any transport industry, is not a tangible object, it is a very valuable commodity nonetheless.
The purpose of "optimisation" and "efficiency" is to attempt to produce the same bottom-line result with fewer staff. These are blanket terms to mean maximising their claim through a variety of means. They might pile on the pressure to work unpaid overtime, or work through breaks. They might also attempt to force concessions on the wages, benefits and pensions, influence the government to reduce corporate taxation, cut social programmes, or demand direct pay-the-rich schemes such as state subsidies. Finally, they might attempt to drive up the "productivity" of their workforce. Typically, this means increasing the rate of production through, on the one hand, technological solutions or changing how work is organised, and on the other, intensifying the work itself by applying pressure and demanding more of their employees.
In other words, such "restructuring" is about pushing the workforce to get more for less, and is an ultimately fruitless strategy. Where the changes are sustainable, they become generalised in the industry and the rate of return inevitably falls as the value of the product reduces as a result. Where unsustainable, staff either go into action over the concessions, or burn out. Furthermore, the productive forces are themselves destroyed wholesale, adding to the chaos in the economy as a whole.
Trade Unions' Response
Pilots' union BALPA condemned what it called an "ill-considered knee-jerk reaction", pointing to the company's own conservative projections of recovery by 2023.
BALPA General Secretary Brian Strutton said: "Before coronavirus the UK aviation industry was world leading. But now aviation workers are facing a tsunami of job losses. There is no more time for delay. The UK Government should follow the example set by others in Europe and around the world, recognise that aviation is vital to the UK economy and keep to the promise made by the Chancellor on March 17 to help airlines."
Lindsey Olliver, Unite easyJet officer, also labelled the move "an unnecessarily hasty decision". "The workforce is currently furloughed under the government's job retention scheme and the airline will continue to receive support until at least October. It has also received a government-backed loan of £600m and has committed to expenditure on new aircraft," she said.
There is a need for caution here, however, and workers need to be clear on sticking to their own perspective. The government is incurring a massive debt from private lenders during the pandemic. This is of significant concern, as a decade of austerity has brutally illustrated.
On the basis of vitality to the economy, industry and lenders are demanding huge handouts at this time.
"We realise that these are very difficult times and we are having to consider very difficult decisions which will impact our people, but we want to protect as many jobs as we can for the long-term," said chief executive Johan Lundgren. "We want to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic an even more competitive business than before, so that easyJet can thrive in the future."
In other words, we wish to amass as much profit as possible to ensure we have the greatest rate of return; this is what it means to be competitive, and it is for the workers' good too. But the implicit admission is that competition can no longer sort out which business, or even whole industries, are vital to exist.
The workers cannot be diverted into demanding state support for business with the aim of continued "business as usual", of the maximisation of profit and competitiveness.
State funding of whatever form comes from the public value that workers have produced. It is the workers, the producers, who should decide what this value is used for. They demand a say over what role aviation plays in the economy and how that economy is directed; they demand a say over their claims and conditions of work. It is the workers themselves who should decide what is vital, and further, what is meant by vital. What is vital is that which is aimed in favour of the public interest.
In this regard, the degree to which these companies are blinded to the public interest by their overriding pursuit of profit in their state of competition is revealed by their attempt to blame the measures to contain the virus. In particular, the industry is up in arms over the plans to quarantine those arriving from abroad for 14 days, due to come into force from June 8. Such attempts to derail the effort to control the pandemic in pursuit of private interests must be condemned. Workers must fight for their rights and dignity.