Leaders of three of the country's biggest unions threatened the chief executive of British Airways yesterday with more industrial action if he tied a pay increase for check-in staff to the introduction of an electronic system for clocking in.
Union representatives made diplomatic noises in public after separate meetings with Rod Eddington but in private demanded that he award a 3 per cent pay increase immediately or face official strikes. So far, Mr Eddington has insisted that the salary rise for check-in staff, due from 1 January, would only be paid if staff agreed to the new "swipe card" system.
Despite the united front on pay displayed in the meetings with the chief executive by Sir Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Kevin Curran, leader of the GMB union, and Paul Talbot, assistant general secretary of Amicus, there are considerable differences between the three organisations.
Brendan Barber, general secretary-elect of the TUC, who brokered yesterday's meetings, will attempt to resolve the arguments in meetings today. Mr Barber hopes the unions will reach a common position in time for fresh talks later today at the conciliation service Acas. If the TUC leader fails, the negotiations may not start.
British Airways check-in staff, whose two days of unofficial action beginning on 18 July caused massive disruption at Heathrow, fear the new procedure will lead to the introduction of flexible shift systems.
Union officials who met Mr Eddington said BA had "learnt a lesson" about not imposing new working practices without agreement with the staff. Mr Curran said BA had lost the trust of its workers. He made clear that the staff remained opposed to the swipe card system being imposed. "My members are telling me they will not accept imposition. They are fearful that other issues will be imposed," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Mr Eddington said: "We have had very sensible and constructive discussions. We are both committed to finding a sensible, negotiated settlement to this problem."
Mr Talbot said that he believed none of the BA check-in staff had been using swipe cards since the airline introduced them on a voluntary basis last week.
Similar staff employed by the other main British airlines at Heathrow bmi and Virgin do not have to use a swipe card system. However, American Airlines has used such a procedure at the airport for "a number of years".
BAA the privatised airports authority that owns Heathrow warned that the dispute was damaging the reputation of the airport.
Margaret Ewing, BAA's finance director, said: "Most passengers don't see a distinction between British Airways and Heathrow. They see headlines about Heathrow being a disaster without realising that other airlines operate out of Heathrow. We would look to BA to resolve this quickly because it is doing short-term damage to Heathrow's reputation, and that is very important to us."
While its staff protest about the possible effects of electronic monitoring, BA is bringing in electronic systems for the procurement of everything from fuel to napkins.Silla Maizey, the airline's procurement director, said that a package of "spend management" software was being installed that would cut the company's £3bn annual procurement bill by 10 per cent. She is also cutting down the number of suppliers to BA from 14,000 a few years ago towards a target of 2,000.
Many of them are being forced either to merge to compete for business, or are being squeezed out by bigger rivals.