David Prosser: Unite must handle second ballot better

Outlook: By targeting the Christmas holidays, it alienated members of the public
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The particulars of employment contracts at British Airways are so complicated and wide-ranging that it is almost impossible to work out which side is more in the right in the airline's dispute with its workforce. As a general rule, when an industrial dispute reaches this level of bitterness, management must shoulder some blame for having failed to take its workforce with it. On the other hand, cabin crew and their unions must be aware that about 20 airlines went bust last year and that their employer remains loss-making.

Still, if Unite has even half a brain, it will handle this second ballot better – and not just by managing to conduct a vote on strike action in line with the letter of the law (goodness knows how much members' cash has been wasted on legal fees that would not have been incurred had the union not been so incompetent first time around).

The only achievement Unite has managed so far has been to pull off the rare trick of garnering public sympathy for a large corporate organisation. By targeting the Christmas holidays with such a lengthy strike, it alienated members of the public who might have backed it and also damaged BA's prospects for the future, hugely undermining confidence in the airline's ability to get passengers to their destinations.

This time round, Unite's leaders need to develop a sense of proportion, or at least ballot their members on different options for strike action, rather than taking a yes vote as a mandate for an all-out dispute lasting the best part of two weeks. And while the union is considering its approach, British Airways – which has hardly been conciliatory during these negotiations – has to work on a compromise too. It's the least passengers are owed.

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