BA vote to strike in protracted row over staff levels

Millions face travel uncertainty as airline labels ballot result 'unjustified'
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The Independent Online

British Airways cabin crew have voted overwhelmingly to strike in a move likely to cause massive disruption to flights in the run-up to Easter and lose the airline ten of millions of pounds in revenue.

The industrial action had been due to take place over Christmas but BA won a legal challenge when it emerged that the union had balloted hundreds of members who subsequently left the airline. Yesterday Unite announced the result of a re-ballot over changes to staffing levels. Cabin crew voted by a majority of 4-1 in favour of industrial action, on a turnout of 80 per cent. All but four per cent of BA's stewards and stewardesses are Unite members.

In the first ballot, conducted in November and December, the majority in favour of strike action was 92 per cent. Unite's assistant general secretary, Len McCluskey, blamed "enormous intimidation, pressure and bullying" by the airline for the decline. BA had warned any cabin crew who strike that they will lose their travel concessions permanently. Mr McCluskey said: "We want to concentrate people's minds on the meaningful negotiations that are taking place under the auspices of the TUC."

The airline was far from conciliatory. A BA statement called the ballot result "very disappointing", and said the renewed threat of industrial action was "completely unjustified". Virgin Atlantic, BMI and easyJet were last night jubilant. Unite has promised not to strike during the first two weeks of April, when most schools are taking their Easter holidays. Effectively, that means any action must take place during March. More than two million people are holding British Airways tickets for flights during next month, and all face prolonged uncertainty about their travel plans.

Talks between the two sides about how to reduce costs in the light of BA's record losses have been going on for more than a year. Last November, management imposed reductions on the number of crew on flights to and from Heathrow. A High Court action in which Unite sought to overturn the imposition was thrown out last Friday. The judge concluded "management reasonably had urgently to do something (and had to be seen to do something) in the interests of the company, its employees and its financial backers".

The gulf between the two sides is evident from a fact sheet circulated before yesterday's press conference. The union said the "sweeping changes" imposed by BA included the reduction of three crew aboard flights to Brazil: "Where there were 15 crew to care for more than 300 passengers, there are now 12." But BA said the reduction was, in fact, from 16 to 14. Talks have been complicated by an internecine battle between two factions within Unite, BASSA and Amicus, who have refused to sit in the same room together in negotiations.

The mathematics of any industrial action are complex. About 60 per cent of BA's total cabin crew workforce voted for a strike. Not every member of cabin crew who voted "yes" is likely to strike, while some of those who voted "no" will join their colleagues in a stoppage. Strength of feeling is much higher at Heathrow than it is at Gatwick, where lower crew complements were already in operation. One senior industry figure said last night: "Many voting 'yes' will not strike, and that's why Unite hasn't announced industrial action, as they would be defeated by no-shows."

While negotiations continue, BA's management has been working on ways to minimise the damage a strike would cause. Several thousand ground staff, managers and pilots have been trained to act as cabin crew to enable the airline to operate a significant number of the airline's 650 daily flights. BA is also known to be negotiating for "wet-leased" aircraft, chartering in capacity together with pilots and cabin crew from other airlines.

Meanwhile anger within the travel industry at the protracted dispute intensified. David Speakman, founder of Travel Counsellors, said: "By not giving a strike date, Unite are putting the airline in more jeopardy."

Pilots suspend strike

A strike by about 4,000 pilots at German airline Lufthansa has been suspended – with union officials agreeing to resume negotiations. The action – which had been scheduled to run for four days – was called off after less than 24 hours of delays and cancellations for passengers. There will be no further action until at least 9 March, the union said