There is a lot of room in this system for bargaining, for demand and supply, etcetera, to alter the balance in favour of one side - the employer - or the other - the employees. That's where unions have come in - a historical fact, an organic part of the economic system we live under. In every country where industrialisation and capitalism come to dominate, you get trade unions. Workers will form them, to defend their interests against bosses who, given half a chance, will squeeze workers to do more and more work for less and less money. Papers such as the Daily Mail can fulminate against this state of affairs as much as they like - the alternative, a state with no trade unions to speak of, is usually called a dictatorship.
All this granted, in any industrial dispute you have a choice of sitting on the fence, or picking a side. As you might expect, I'm supporting the BA cabin crew who have voted to go on strike. They've persisted against judges ruling their first ballot illegal for the most tendentious reasons; the predictable howls of the press; and now the idiotic statements by Gordon Brown, desperately trying to curry favour with middle class voters whom he cannot imagine having any higher concern than whether they will get away on holiday on time.
Len McCluskey of the cabin crew's union Unite wrote a good piece for the Guardian yesterday where he laid out some of the issues:
Some people believe it is wrong that BA cabin crew get paid more than colleagues at other airlines. According to that argument, competition among staff means levelling down pay, while boardroom competition means levelling it up. I make no apology for the fact that union-organised employees are better paid than the majority of private sector workers denied our support and protection. That's what we are in business for.
And cabin crew bear no responsibility for BA's difficulties, and should not be singled out to pay for them. It was not cabin crew who fouled up the launch of Terminal 5, with its devastatingly bad publicity. It was not cabin crew who organised the fuel price-fixing racket which has cost BA hundreds of millions in fines. The airline's reputation for dirty tricks? Not cabin crew but management.
It is no surprise, then, that BA is also inept at industrial relations. But it takes a special sort of mismanagement to build on these catastrophes by then getting into a confrontation with the very people smarter airlines use as a marketing tool – the cabin crew on whom passengers depend for their safety and comfort.
Over the last few months these employees have been bullied by some of the airline's pilots, harassed by its managers, demonised by its PR specialists and stalked online by its internet snooping brigade. It is testimony to the determination of these "middle-England" employees that they have twice voted for industrial action to defend their dignity in the face of these tactics, worthy only of a Victorian mill owner.
But BA cabin crew have not been blind to the economic realities of the airline's position. They offered the company a package of savings which would have more than met their requirements – an extraordinary £60m worth of concessions. The fact that BA prefers the greater risk and cost of industrial action makes it clear that there is another agenda at work here.
This dispute is now a clash between two brands. The BA brand – a premium airline in which skilled professionals deliver a quality service for passengers. And the Willie Walsh brand – all threats, bluster and grandstanding – a brand that Walsh will no doubt wish to take on intact to his next employer, whatever the wreckage left in his wake.