BA cabin crew vote for strike action

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Cabin crew at British Airways are understood to have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action, threatening a summer of severe disruption for holidaymakers and business travellers.

Union leaders are today expected to announce that around three-quarters of the 9,000-strong workforce have voted in favour of strikes.

Both of Britain's main airports at Heathrow and Gatwick will be hit by the dispute which could turn into the airline industry's version of the Wapping dispute and the miners' strike of 1984-85, where fundamental issues of union rights are settled.

A strike vote among 9,000 ground staff, the result of which is due next Monday, is predicted to show a similar majority in favour of action.

Inevitably, the Transport & General Workers' Union is expected to co- ordinate any disruption by ground staff and cabin crew. Flight staff are protesting at an offer on pay and conditions, and airport workers are angry over a plan by BA to sell off the company's catering division.

Meetings next Monday and Tuesday are due to decide the exact nature of industrial action, which could come in the form of 24- to 48-hour strikes. Given the statutory seven days' notice of industrial action, BA employees could walk out any time from 7 July.

Yesterday, Bill Morris, General Secretary of the T&GWU, replied to a letter from Robert Ayling, Chief Executive of the airline, who warned that stoppages could "destroy" jobs. Mr Ayling warned the union leader that the airline had to be competitive, but that it was committed to positive relationships with modern trade unions.

In his reply, Mr Morris defended the union's position point by point and expressed amazement at the company resources devoted to preparing for a dispute rather than seeking to avoid one. Audio and videocassettes, letters, leaflets and news-sheets have been sent to employees' homes putting across the management's point of view.

The airline has gone on record warning the union that alternative staff would be used to ensure that BA services are maintained. Managers have been trained in ground handling and an employment agency has been called in to provide temporary staff.

If the dispute goes ahead, it will be the first major industrial conflict under the new Labour Government. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, has personal links with both Mr Ayling and Mr Morris - although the Government will not want to be seen to be interfering.