Ministry helps BA beat strike

Leak reveals plan to provoke walk-out by ground staff
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The Ministry of Defence has been co-operating with a secret plan to dismiss up to 3,000 British Airways ground staff if they go on strike.

A confidential BA document leaked to The Independent reveals that hundreds of senior Heathrow employees have been training for strike-breaking duties at RAF Wroughton, Wiltshire.

The memorandum reveals that under the "snow plan", managers would be needed to keep a basic service running for four to six weeks until outside contractors were brought in on a permanent basis. The recruitment of an alternative workforce was now a "priority", according to the paper.

Around 1,600 managers, approximately half of the total number at Heathrow, would be drafted in to fulfil all the duties of the ground staff responsible for stowing baggage and freight and towing aircraft into position.

The plans form the biggest such covert operation since Rupert Murdoch recruited a shadow workforce for his Wapping print works, but much of the labour movement's fury will be directed at the Ministry of Defence for allowing its property to be used for such a plan. RAF Wroughton is a hospital base which is being sold, but is still owned by the MoD.

In the internal BA memo, management discloses its concern that a plan to cut pounds 1bn from costs by 2000 has encountered most opposition from ground staff, who are seen as the "highest area of risk" for industrial action.

According to union sources, managers are talking about "day zero", scheduled for 15 January, when the company will impose new employment conditions hoping to provoke a walk-out.

Management has demanded agreement over the changes by 10 January.

As part of the contingency plans some managers will have to be trained on wide-bodied jets such as the 747 and 767. Senior employees have already gained experience of the 767, but directors are insisting that training on the 747 take place away from Heathrow so that suspicion is not aroused. The memo reveals that a TriStar had been found at Bournemouth in Hampshire which was being evaluated for its suitability.

Union officials argue that there are inevitably safety implications when only partially trained managers are towing large aircraft with thousands of gallons of fuel on board.

The "snow plan" was originally envisaged as a means of providing between 50 per cent and 75 per cent of services during severe weather.

Under the strike-breaking strategy, it is envisaged that the limited timetable could be provided by managers.

George Ryde, a national officer at the Transport and General Workers' Union, called the tactics dishonest and unethical and said they smacked of corporate paranoia.

"We see ourselves as saving BA from itself. We are not going to be goaded into industrial action," he said. "With talk of a `day zero' they seem to be adopting a Pol Pot approach.

"It's impossible to ask our staff to co-operate with company plans to reduce their terms and conditions if they've got a hidden agenda to dispose of workers."

A BA spokesman said the company's first objective was to maintain an uninterrupted service. There were routine procedures for ensuring that services were not disrupted and they were frequently up-dated. He said the company was attempting to reduce costs, to secure the future of the company and its employees, but it was not seeking to provoke industrial action.