BA faces strike ballot over plan to slash jobs and pay

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Leaders of more than 20,000 workers at British Airways were authorised at the weekend to call a strike ballot if the company forces through a "Day Zero" plan for massive change.

Union officials meet BA management this week in a last-ditch attempt to elicit compromises from the company which is planning 5,000 redundancies as part of a pounds 1bn cost-cutting initiative.

The company has told employees' representatives that it wants agreement by this Friday. Union officials understand that senior managers have drawn up a Day Zero plan to implement the new employment conditions on 15 January if there is no deal.

This week's talks will concentrate on management demands for wage cuts of up to 30 per cent among ground staff at Heathrow and cabin crew working for the regional arm of BA.

While employees have been offered relatively generous severance terms if they do not accept the new package, the wage cuts are thought to be among the most severe ever contemplated by a major employer in modern Britain.

The company has admitted that managers at Heathrow have undertaken training to take over the jobs of ground staff in the event of a strike. Sources among cabin crew also believe stewards and stewardesses currently working for other airlines may also be taken on at short notice if it becomes necessary.

Union officials believe BA may be deliberately provoking industrial action in order to dismiss strikers and employ contract workers on lower rates. Senior employees' representatives argue however that strikes may be the only option and that management would not be able to keep the airline going if employees walked out.

George Ryde, national official with the Transport and General Workers' Union, has elicited pledges of support from workers on the continent and in the US who have promised to refuse to handle BA aircraft operated by strike-breakers.

Mr Ryde received backing for strike ballots at a 400-strong meeting of BA shop stewards on Friday. While some of the more militant activists are anxious to take on the company soon, others are more cautious, arguing that the timing of any ballot would be critical to a "yes" vote. Some employees who have shown an interest in taking severance have been warned by management that they could lose the offer if they strike.

A number of shop stewards believe the 15 January date for forcing through the changes may now be changed after it was revealed in The Independent.

Despite record profits, management is attempting to save pounds 1bn by 2000. Robert Ayling, BA chairman, says the cuts are essential, not only for the maintenance of profits, but for the the company's survival amid increasing global competition.

A spokesman pointed out that industrial action had not been endorsed by union members and that no disruption was scheduled. Contingency plans were in place however.

"We are surprised by the news from the union," he said. "It comes without warning. The union should raise its concerns with us, which it has not yet done." Without the efficiency plan jobs would be threatened by the turn of the century. Most of BA's competitors were also cutting costs, he said.