THE LONG-RUNNING dispute between British Airways and its cabin crew staff, represented by the giant union Unite is escalating after the workers voted by 81 per cent in favour of strike action, while BA management is pulling out all the stops to try again to use anti-union laws and intimidation and demonisation of the workers to try to stop the strike. And the company has started training scabs to take the places of striking workers.
Effectively management is doing its utmost to deny its workforce the legal right to strike and to impose on them unacceptable job cuts, changes to terms and conditions and cuts in wages for future recruits.
The company is also in dispute with the pilots’ union Balpa over holiday pay.
BA late last year unilaterally reduced cabin crew on long-haul flights by at least one person to reduce costs after the company posted a pre-tax loss of £401m last year.
The union then balloted successfully for strike action and planned a 12-day strike in December. But BA won a court injunction on the basis that a few of those balloted had been made redundant before the strike could happen and so were ineligible to vote.
Unite announced last Monday that in the strike ballot among BA cabin crews, 80.7 per cent of all those who returned their ballot forms voted yes to industrial action on a 78.7 per cent turnout. 7,482 of crew members balloted voted yes with 1,789 crew voting no; 11,691 ballot papers were issued.
Announcing the ballot result, Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey said: “With this overwhelming vote in the teeth of BA harassment and media misrepresentation, BA’s cabin crew have made clear that the deep sense of grievance they feel about their treatment by their employer remains...
“The only way forward for this airline is if all parties can negotiate a solution to the issues before us. In recent weeks we have been in serious discussion with BA. We sincerely hope that the continued strength of the vote by crew will give BA pause for thought.
“Meaningful negotiations are continuing at the TUC and bringing them to a successful conclusion is the only way to resolve this dispute. That is why we are not announcing dates for industrial action at this stage.”
Cabin crew are concerned that the reduced crew will impact on service standards but are also very worried that BA’s refusal to consult on these changes means that the company has broken with the long-standing negotiating structures.
BA condemned the “very disappointing” ballot result and urged Unite to consider another High Court ruling last week which the sanctioned cuts in staffing levels on flights.
“We will not allow Unite to ruin this company,” said BA. “Should a strike take place, we will do everything we can to protect our customers’ travel plans as far as possible.”
Len McCluskey, speaking for the union before the ballot result was announced, responded to the court ruling, saying: “Today’s regrettable judgement makes absolutely no difference to the substance of our dispute with British Airways. We remain in negotiations with the company and hope that management will address the real concerns of cabin crew. Should they fail to do so industrial action remains a possibility.”
McCluskey said BA’s 11,700 Unite-affiliated cabin crew would not walkout over Easter, to avoid disrupting families’ holiday plans.
But there is support among the cabin staff for a strike next month lasting at least 10 days.
A walkout by cabin crew is likely to ground most of BA’s operations, although BA is training hundreds of auxiliary crew after calling for volunteers from its 38,000 workforce.
Unite is preparing for another attempt to stop the strike using anti-union laws.
Unite lawyers are concerned that BA may accuse the union of striking over plans to put new, lower-paid cabin crew on a separate fleet of planes. The plan, dubbed “new fleet” by BA, has been shunned by Unite in peace talks because BA could injunct a strike over the move under European Union law.
BA used a similar legal argument to block a walkout by the pilots’ union, Balpa, in 2008. Balpa had threatened industrial action over the launch of OpenSkies, a subsidiary that flies from Paris to North America, using a separate pilot workforce.
Balpa lawyers are also facing BA in the new Supreme Court this week in a long-running dispute over holiday pay. For five years Balpa has been seeking to secure proper holiday pay for pilots, based on what they actually earn rather than on just their basic pay without allowances.