In mid-March, security staff went on strike across several airports in Germany, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations. The strikes, organised by trade union ver.di, came as part of a wage dispute involving some 25,000 employees. Among other demands, they were calling on employers to raise wages for security staff by at least €1 an hour.
The strikes began on 14 March, when about 1,350 security staff staged a walkout. Air traffic was disrupted in Hannover, Leipzig, Berlin, Cologne/Bonn, Dusseldorf, and Munich.
The following day, the walkouts were extended to Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden. At Frankfurt, which had been expecting 770 flights that day, security checkpoints remained closed outside the transit area, and only passengers with layovers were able to progress boarding.
“We expect that transfer processes for connecting passengers in the transit area will still largely be possible. Nevertheless, also transfer passengers should expect disruptions and delays due to the strike,” tweeted the airport operator, Fraport.
Despite ongoing talks throughout the week, the two sides – ver.di and the Federal Association for Aviation Security Companies (BDLS) – failed to reach an agreement and further strikes took place on 22 March.
This time around, the walkouts extended to eight airports and caused widespread chaos – Dusseldorf airport saw 140 flights cancelled out of about 260, while the respective figures at Cologne/Bonn were 73 out of 123. Passengers were able to disembark, but not take off.
It wasn’t until 28 March, two full weeks after the walkouts began, that the dispute was resolved. Wage increases were promised in three stages over the next two years, albeit with the caveat that workers would not be able to strike again until 2024.
A lousy deal for airport staff?
On one hand, this latest round of strikes was frustrating for passengers and posed yet another blow to airlines at a hugely uncertain time. With the Omicron variant still dampening travel, the industry was contending with soaring fuel prices and the fallout from the Ukraine war.
Michael Hoppe, Secretary-General of the airline association BARIG, condemned the strikes, saying: “ver.di’s continuing uncooperative behaviour is causing immense damage to the aviation industry and the economy in general”.
Similarly, BDLS chief executive Matthias von Randow said the workers were “putting at risk the economic revival after the pandemic-related collapse.”
On the other hand, the strikes garnered almost 100% support among security personnel, many of whom were struggling to afford basic expenses, especially petrol. They were working harder than ever too, following mass layoffs during the pandemic.
While the workers did receive a pay rise – between 4.4% and 7.8% in the first instance, depending on their pay grade – not everybody was satisfied with the outcome. With inflation levels over 7%, many of the agreed pay increases actually count as a pay cut in real terms. World Socialist Web Site called the deal a “sell-out contract”, and the latest in a string of “lousy deals at… airport companies”.
Conversely, BDLS negotiator Rainer Friebertshauser warned that the agreed package “means massive cost increases for the employers, which are a particular burden in the current economic situation of the sector and hurt a lot.”
Airport workers strike across European airports
While the German walkouts are a particularly illustrative example, they were far from the only strikes (threatened or actual) to take place at Europe’s airports this spring.
London – At the start of April, baggage handlers at Heathrow Airport planned a walkout after being told that their pay would be frozen. This came amid revenue growth for their employer, Vanderlande Industries. Although the strike, arranged by the Unite union, was postponed following a pay offer, Heathrow could witness more walkouts over the months ahead.
As of 18 May, British Airways workers – mostly airport check-in and ground staff – are being balloted for industrial action. The issue in contention is a 10% pay cut they faced during the pandemic, which has yet not been reinstated. If they vote in favour, strike action would take place over the summer holiday period, with a view to causing maximum disruption.
“BA has now restored the pay of managers but has kept the cut for these workers. This is why our members have voted overwhelmingly to proceed to strike action. This is about paying the rate for the job,” said Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary.
Amsterdam – On 23 April, ground personnel at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport staged a walkout. The unannounced strike, by KLM baggage handlers, came in protest over poor working conditions. It caused widespread chaos, particularly since it was the start of the school holidays and Schiphol was already experiencing staff shortages.
Passengers were urged to stay away from the airport, with authorities declaring “the terminal is too full at the moment”. Over the subsequent four days, 150 KLM flights were cancelled.
“We do not expect the staff shortage to be resolved before the summer, but we do expect the quality of employment and the wellbeing of current employees to be protected,” said Joost van Doesburg, campaign leader at the Dutch union, FNV.
Warsaw – in late April, Warsaw airport narrowly averted thousands of flight cancellations, after air traffic control unions struck an eleventh-hour deal with the Polish authorities. Again, the dispute was around pay and working conditions. Air traffic controllers had seen their salaries slashed during the pandemic, sometimes by as much as 70%. Many had threatened to quit, rather than comply with new working regulations they claimed threatened safety.
In an agreement that will last only till July 10th, the Polish Air Navigation Services Agency (PANSA) agreed they would pay the workers the same salaries as pre-pandemic. Time will tell what happens over the longer term, but negotiations are set to continue.
A summer of chaos to come?
Clearly, industrial action at airports is nothing new. However, the recent surge of strikes points to an industry still experiencing shockwaves from the pandemic.
On one side, we have an industry that is trying to find its feet after the worst two years in its history. On the other side, we have the workers who are bearing the brunt of its narrow margins.
Given that this comes amid the worst cost of living squeeze in 60 years, it is perhaps not surprising that many airport personnel are resorting to drastic measures. According to trade unions, these walkouts reflect failings in post-pandemic policy, coupled with an unwillingness to match pay with the galloping pace of inflation.
“British Airways forced our members into pay cuts during the pandemic when they had little workplace power to fight back,” says Nadine Houghton of the UK’s GMB union.
“Now our members are back at work and staff shortages are hammering the company – it is their time to claim back what is theirs.”