David Prosser: Unions and employers both have much to lose
Friday 13 May 2011
Outlook The end of the dispute between British Airways and its cabin crew is to be welcomed, but there may be a lesson to be drawn from the way in which the agreement was finally reached. Note that a settlement has been agreed within a few months of new leaders taking the helm at both BA and Unite, the trade union that represents the staff. Was that the key?
Certainly, the public stance of Willie Walsh, who headed BA until its merger with Iberia saw him move upstairs to run the International Airlines holding group, has always seemed fiercely entrenched. No less so was the position taken by Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, the joint leaders of Unite until earlier this year.
By contrast, Keith Williams, the new BA chief executive, and Len McCluskey, Unite's new general secretary, were noticeably warm about each other yesterday.
No industrial dispute is pleasant, but when the antipathy of individuals involved towards the other side begins to get in the way of a deal, it is time for them to step back from the negotiations.
One irony of the headline-making BA dispute, however, has been that for all the talk of public and private sector cutbacks prompting a big increase in industrial action, the number of days lost to strikes in Britain remains low by historical standards.
Neither employers nor trades unions can afford for that to change. Times are difficult enough for businesses – and for publicsector employers too – without having to cope with an uptick in damaging disputes with their staff. As for the unions, vocal calls to curtail their rights further, through new legislation on the majorities needed for strike action, say, have yet to find favour with thisGovernment. But that might change should there be a marked increase in strike actions.
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