Why Margaret Thatcher and BA needed their Willies

The BA dispute appears to be an old-fashioned Union versus Bosses confrontation as the company struggles to introduce a major shift of culture. The BA board has brought in Willie Walsh, a ‘tough’ leader with a track record of success through a confrontational style that has echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s . How will this influence the efforts of the company to achieve a transformation in its operational culture?

In days gone by, Industrial Relations in Britain was said to be symptomatic of The British Disease. Governments repeatedly found themslves in bitter conflicts against organised labour. The ultimate threat available to the Trade Union leaders (be the dispute ‘official’ or unofficial was a ‘breakdown in negotiations’ leading to the Unions unleashing their weapon of last resort, withdrawal of labour.

However, the old maxim was frequently disproved. The threat was not more powerful than its execution. The strikes seemed easier to start than to finish. (Interestingly, the most famous strike of all, the General Strike was rather quickly resolved). Sometimes the ‘reason’ for the strike was a bafflingly trivial incident or issue to the public whose daily life was being disrupted.

Efforts to achieve a more collaborative culture in place of strife largely failed. The bitterness of the disputes if anything reinforced the confrontational culture within which they occured.

Tony Blair has hardly concealed his admiration for the political achievements of Margaret Thatcher who appeared to have out-confronted the Unions a decade earlier. He was to achieve his victory over traditional Labour symbolically through the removal of Clause four from its constitution.

News of my death has been exaggerated

Defeat of an idea is harder than the defeat of its leading supporters. Labour’s so-called awkward squad has remained, in the party and trade-unions, and a reminder to Tony Blair that culture change (like regime change) is never simple. Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G Union is to play a part in this unfolding story at BA.

The protagonists in the BA dispute

Willy Walsh was brought in to British Airways with a reputation as a successful industry ‘lifer’. He joined Aer Lingus as a cadet Pilot of 18, and left as CEO in 2005. In the meanwhile he had been attributed with playing a major role in the transformation of Aer Lingus:

Successfully reinventing Aer Lingus as a profitable no-frills airline, while other established European flag carriers went to the wall, he slashed costs by 30% and shed more than a third of staff. He refused to apologise for the swingeing cuts, saying “we make no apologies for focusing on profit”.

Not distracted by a stand-off with unions that led to a three-day lockout in 2002, Mr Walsh once claimed in an Aer Lingus staff publication that “a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”. It is a comment unlikely to have been missed by the Transport & General Workers Union (T&G), whose members voted for the forthcoming strikes at BA.

Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G Union is also a transport industry lifer, but in the Auto-industry. His reputation as a left-wing traditional socialist was confirmed in his overwhelming victory to the T&G leadership in 2003 where he replaced the popular Bill Morris, and defeated a candidate known as a supporter of Tony Blair (and by implications his New Labour policies).

Woodley/Walsh seems to be lining up as the major battle. They have entered negoatiations in stage two. However, the story can not be reduced to a simple slugging match between the two.

In stage one, the T&G was represented by Jack Dromey, the candidate Woodley defeated as Union leader. He has recently hit the headlines for another reason in the Cash for Peerages scandal, spiced up because of his marriage to another Blairite (and a cabinet minister, Harriet Harman).

BA in stage one may have been hindered by the imminent retirement of their most senior and experienced ‘people person’ Neil Robertson.

Where does Margaret’s Willie come into all this?

Margaret’s Willie comes into this partly because it seemed such a nice headline. But wait, there’s more. One of Mrs Thatcher’s sayings was in recognition of the debt she owed to her close friend and cabinet colleague Willie Whitlaw. (“Every Prime Minister needs a Willie”).

Maybe the humour was unconscious or in a flash of rarely observed irony from the Iron Lady. Avoiding tempting puns, I suggest that MT was acknowledging the benefits of a combination of her sort of leadership style with someone to play a moderating role. Superleadership, in effect, with other team members compensating for the excesses of the dominant figure.

IN an earlier post to this Blog, I explored the possibility that a dispute over sick employees may raise questions over sick leadership. In which case, at BA at the moment, Willie Walsh may well need his Willie Whitelaw. As maybe Tony Woodley as well

Jack Dromey as Willie Whitelaw?

Well, that would make a nice simple story. Life’s not like that. TW seems to be the one taking a conciliatory stance. Jack Dromey, whever his location on the tricky political dimension left to right, has had his earlier moments of industrial heroism. His track record is not exactly that of a non-confrontational leader. Indeed, he played quite the opposite role in the famous Grunwick dispute which lasted two years and ended in defeat for the Non-Unionised workers involved.

2 Responses to Why Margaret Thatcher and BA needed their Willies

  1. Celtic warrior says:

    If Willie Walsh said “you get nowhere in negotiations by being reasonable then he was only following the immortal George Bernard Shaw. Didn’t he say that “All progress depends on the unreasonable man? ”

    Willie got a long way at Aer Lingus by being scarily unreasonable

  2. Tudor says:

    Thanks, Celtic Warrior. Yes the great wordsmith did say something like that. I’d like to hear any sacrily unreasonable story you have (under customary rules of decorum of course) about WW and his time at Aer Lingus. It may shed light on future posts as BA retruns to the spotlight from time to time …

    He may have changed some things. Once I was refused admittance to an AL lounge on the grounds my wife’s passport did not have her married name in it, and so she obviously couldn’t be an appropriate person to accompany me. Now I can’t see Willie putting up with sort of nonsense..


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