Another week of turmoil at British Airways, involving record losses of over £500 million, more industrial unrest with Unite, and culminating in a near-riot by bitter airline staff at ACAS on Saturday night.
This dispute has now been running for over 15 months. This is highly unusual in post-Thatcher Britain, with all its obstacles against Union-organised strikes. What is going on here? The parties seem to have got themselves into a spiral of ‘lose/lose’, where it’s more important to damage the other side’s interests than to secure their own. If that’s the case, then how on earth are they going to break that cycle and strike a deal?
The headlines this morning were all about the ACAS Headquarters being invaded by ‘left-wing’ protesters, jostling and abusing Willie Walsh. They had apparently gathered as a result of Derek Simpson tweeting about the progress of the talks from the negotiating room.
From a PR point of view, the incident is a gift to Willie Walsh. It enables him to continue to paint Unite and its fellow Stewards and Stewardesses Union, BAASA, as extreme, divided and unreasonable. He could also be seen on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning, piously declaring how shocked he was to find Unite’s Simpson tweeting the confidential nature of the discussions in real-time. Some commentators have even been moved to sympathy for Walsh as a result of him being cornered by militants in this way.
However, it may be more revealing to consider why this behaviour is happening, rather than just condemning it out of hand.
This kind of gratuitously aggressive behaviour looks like it results from a ‘lose/lose’ attitude. This is the kind of attitude that develops when one party to a negotiation feels that the other side is determined not to give them a ‘win’. Sometimes a revenge psychology develops in which the aggrieved party says to itself ‘Well if you’re not going to give me a win then I’m going to make bloody sure you lose as well’. This frequently tips the other side into a lose/lose attitude too, and a counter-productive ‘tit for tat’ process develops in which each side forgets what it originally wanted and just focuses on causing damage to the other party.
If Unite and BASSA have a lose/lose attitude now, it can only be because BA and Willy Walsh spent too long playing ‘win/lose’ and giving the Unions no prospect of a win.
This would accord with reports of Willy Walsh himself having a very abrasive attitude to the negotiation. He has been variously described by Unite representatives over the past weeks as ‘macho’, ‘petty’ and ‘vindictive’. Walsh himself now seems to reciprocate this attitude, describing Unite as ‘dysfunctional’ and out to ‘destroy’ BA.
This has seen him apparently lose focus on his original negotiating aim (to deliver £62 million of savings) and instead get embroiled in a fist fight at far greater expense to the airline (the strikes so far have cost BA £40 million and it’s estimated the further planned strikes will cost BA up to another £140 million).
If both parties now have a lose/lose attitude then the parties are going to find it hard to reach agreement. What needs to happen is that both sides change their approach to a ‘win/win’ attitude, in which each side is permitted to obtain an acceptable amount of what they want.
Given that both parties are going to need to work together going forward it should not be difficult to see why this attitude is sensible all round. However, when the parties are mired in ‘lose/lose’ attitudes this is easier said than done.
A shift in the climate of the negotiation from ‘hostile’ to ‘cool and objective’ or even ‘open’ needs to take place. Going to ACAS is a step in this direction, but I would suggest the parties need to go further.
New talks should take place at a completely different venue that shifts the moods of the parties and focuses them positively. How about on an aeroplane flight, where each side can be reminded of the real purpose of the business they are arguing about? And each party should bring along different representatives to engage in the discussion, who have not been brutalised by the negotiations so far. Messrs Walsh, Woodley and Simpson should arguably not be there at all. These representatives might not bring the same baggage to the conversations, and so would have a better chance of re-setting the climate.
If that can be done, then the parties have a chance of re-exploring their issues positively and coming up with a deal which saves face and addresses each side’s needs.
Failing that, either one side is going to end up imposing a win/lose solution on the other, (which will not last, as nobody likes to end up as a loser) or the talks may continue to stay grounded for some time yet.