BA cabin crew dispute inflamed as union official sacked

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A union official representing British Airways cabin crew was sacked today, inflaming the bitter dispute which has led to a series of strikes and could flare up again before the end of the month.

Duncan Holley, branch secretary of the British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa), a section of the giant Unite union, worked for the airline on its Eurofleet business.

He is the fifth union member to be sacked by the airline following a series of walkouts in March which crippled flights and cost BA millions of pounds.

Unite is balloting its 12,000 members on a new offer aimed at resolving the long-running dispute, with officials "strongly" recommending rejection.

The union could set new strike dates early next week if the cabin crew vote to reject the new offer, with the result due tomorrow.

Mr Holley said he had been sacked for his union activities, including taking time off to carry out his union duties.

A Unite spokesman said: "The company's vindictive operation of the disciplinary procedures seems designed to hinder any peaceful resolution of this dispute."

The union will lodge an appeal against My Holley's sacking.

Mr Holley said BA had always allowed him to take time off work to undertake union duties, but this changed when he asked to be away from work last December.

He said he had important union work to conduct, dealing with the dispute which later led to the strikes, but BA refused to give him time off.

He took time off and was subsequently charged with gross misconduct.

Mr Holley, 54, who worked for BA for more than 34 years, said: "My dismissal is a political decision because I have done nothing wrong. They have sacked me in the middle of a dispute - the timing says it all.

"I was only carrying out my union duties, as I have always done. I am not surprised because BA was saying in January that I was going to be sacked."

Mr Holley said he was originally due to attend a meeting with BA last week but it was postponed until today, just hours before the ballot of Unite members ends.

He will continue as Bassa branch chairman despite his sacking.

A BA spokesman said: "It is entirely appropriate and reasonable for us to investigate serious allegations of misconduct.

"The company's disciplinary process has been in place for many years and has been agreed with all of the airline's recognised trade unions, including Unite.

"As a responsible company, we would not divulge details of individual cases."

Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, said in a letter to the cabin crew that BA was treating staff like second-class citizens - "branded" for going on strike.

Mr Woodley said the reasons the union was urging rejection were the failure of BA to restore travel concessions taken away from those who went on strike, and disciplinary action against more than 50 union members.

"The charges in the great majority of cases are entirely trivial and barely worthy of a slap on the wrist, let alone the sack.

"This evidence of victimisation and draconian punishments - in some cases directed against your representatives - render worthless the words in the offer designed to rule out such behaviour."

Mr Woodley added that Unite had lost trust in BA's commitment to finding a solution to the dispute.

He said: "Any agreement is only as good as the integrity and sincerity of those putting their names to it.

"By their actions and behaviour throughout the dispute, and continuing to this day, it is impossible to take BA management's words at their face value.

"I have had a considerable experience of strikes and disputes. Normally, the sort of issues we are referring to here - the removal of sanctions imposed during a strike, the speedy and sensitive winding-down of all but the most genuinely serious disciplinary issues arising from a dispute - are straightforward matters of industrial common sense, dealt with swiftly once the issues of substance between the two sides have been resolved.

"Yet in this case it is precisely on these issues that management has proved most intransigent of all."

Mr Woodley made it clear to his members that rejecting the offer could mean them having to "take a stand" against BA again.

Under the offer, travel concessions would be restored to those who used them to get to work, but Unite said most of its members would only receive them again if they met a "long list" of commitments and without accumulated seniority.

Mr Woodley said: "This means that those of you who have supported the strike could lose 30 years or more of seniority, and for the rest of your working lives at BA would go to the back of the queue in the exercise of these concessions behind those who tried to break our strike."

The second sticking point is the suspension of more than 50 workers on charges arising from the dispute, including the five dismissals.

Mr Woodley claimed there was evidence that many of the disciplinary cases resulted from a "covert collusion" between senior management and pilots.

A BA spokesman said: "We have put a fair offer to Unite that addresses all the concerns the union has raised during the past 14 months of negotiations.

"It offers our cabin crew the assurances they have been asking for, and so we are asking them to accept the proposal and put this dispute behind us."