British Airways cabin crews have voted for a fresh wave of strikes, inaugurating yet another round in the two-year dispute that has cost the airline £150m and seen 22 days of industrial action so far.
Some 78.5 per cent of the valid vote – or 5,751 staff – voted "yes" to further industrial action in the row over pay and conditions, said the Unite trade union, which counts 10,000 BA cabin crew among its members.
Unite did not fix any strike dates yesterday, and will have to give at least seven days' notice before taking action. But when he launched the ballot before Christmas, the union's general secretary-designate, Len McCluskey, joked "don't go on holiday" and refused to rule out strikes over Easter or on the Royal Wedding day in April.
Yesterday, Mr McCluskey stressed that the ballot was the fourth time in 13 months that BA crews had "expressed their dissatisfaction with management behaviour".
"Surely BA management must now wake up and listen to the voice of its skilled and dedicated employees," he added. "This dispute will be resolved by negotiation, not litigation or confrontation, and it is to negotiation that BA management should now apply itself. We are ready."
But BA said the "yes" vote represents less than half of its cabin crew, given the 75 per cent turnout for the ballot. The airline blamed the ongoing dispute on internal politics at the union and called for negotiators to accept the most recent deal tabled.
"Tony Woodley [Unite's joint general secretary] shook hands on a deal in October and Unite said it would recommend it to members, but then reneged on its promise," the company said. "This U-turn reflected the union's deep-seated internal divisions, especially its dysfunctional relationship with its crew branch, Bassa."
The airline has contingency plans that will allow all flights from Gatwick and London City airports, and all long-haul flights from Heathrow, to run as normal regardless of a strike by crew members.
The core of the dispute with Unite is about the terms and conditions of cabin crew jobs as BA aims to cut costs and bring staffing levels in line with rivals. But after the walkouts strikes started last year, the focus shifted to the handling of the situation, with accusations of bullying and intimidation on both sides. A particular bugbear for the union was BA's withdrawal of travel perks from staff who had participated in the strikes.
BA reinstated the staff travel scheme – which offers a 90 per cent discount on stand-by tickets – for all crew members in October, in a move which looked set to resolve the problems. But the deal fell apart after the airline refused to reintroduce the seniority scale giving longer-serving staff priority until 2013. Acrimony between the two sides flared again as Unite moved swiftly to ballot for further industrial action.
The latest "yes" vote came just as BA's long-anticipated merger with Spain's Iberia finally took effect yesterday. BA shares on the London Stock Exchange were suspended, and the newly formed International Airlines Group (IAG) stock will begin trading in London and Madrid on Monday morning.
BA and Iberia will continue to fly under their separate brands, despite the merger. But Willie Walsh, the BA chief executive, is stepping up to take the top job at IAG, supported by Antonio Vazquez Romero, the Iberia chief executive, as group chairman.
The BA chairman, Sir Martin Broughton, will be deputy chairman of the new group. Mr Walsh will be replaced at BA by its former chief financial officer, Keith Williams.