Battle of BA begins as last-ditch talks collapse

Recriminations as airline 'hawks' refuse to re-table original pay offer to cabin staff / PM appeals for Unite to call off the strike, as Tories highlight Labour's links to union
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The Independent Online

Thirteen months of ill-tempered negotiations ended yesterday afternoon when talks broke down between British Airways and the cabin crew union, Unite. During the next three days, many of BA's cabin crew will strike in a bitter dispute over cost-cutting and working practices. They risk the permanent loss of travel perks, while the airline has vowed to fly two out of three passengers booked to travel. The battle of British Airways has begun.

War was declared when a last-ditch attempt to seek agreement, brokered by the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, collapsed. The union was prepared to reconsider an offer tabled by BA's management the previous week, which included partial reinstatement of cabin crew on services to and from Heathrow as well as guarantees to existing staff. But this proposal had been abruptly withdrawn when the union announced a strike eight days ago. BA demanded that any new settlement included recovering the costs incurred as a result of the strike call. Unite rejected any such terms.

Both sides in the most serious dispute in UK aviation history expressed fury after three days of talks foundered. Tony Woodley, Unite's joint general secretary, said the "hawks" on BA's board of directors had prevailed.

"I am extremely disappointed for the travelling public and our members, but this union will now support our members, while remaining open for talks with the company," he said. "It is with great disappointment that I have to say the strike will go ahead. It is an absolute disgrace and an insult to our people that Mr Walsh tabled a deal that reduced the amount of pay on offer. It is mission impossible and quite frankly ridiculous to expect anyone to go to their membership with a worse offer."

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, responded with a degree of antipathy that he had not previously revealed in public. "We have spent 13 months in negotiations. BA has been at the table, ready, willing and able to negotiate. If people want a scapegoat, they will have to look somewhere else." He then appealed over the heads of union officials, saying: "We are confident our cabin crew would accept our latest offer if Unite put it to them".

The strike was announced on 14 March, three months to the day after Unite revealed an overwhelming majority in favour of industrial action and a 12-day strike aimed at grounding the airline over Christmas and New Year. A High Court judge ruled that strike unlawful because of flaws in the ballot; voting papers had been sent to crew who had left the airline.

A second ballot proved almost as emphatic, with 80 per cent in favour on a turnout of 80 per cent. Between the two strike calls, BA managers had 13 weeks to prepare an emergency schedule. Of the 200,000 passengers holding BA tickets for travel on the next three days, the airline expects around 65 per cent to travel on its own aircraft. Unite rejected the forecast, saying: "BA should enter this schedule for the Booker Prize for fiction. It is an accomplished work of fantasy." The airline is relying on non-striking cabin crew, augmented by volunteers – from ground staff to pilots – who have undergone short training courses.

"Tens of thousands of BA people stand ready to serve our passengers and BA will be flying and will continue to fly," said Mr Walsh. Unite has deplored the use of what it called "scab labour", and has demanded assurances from the Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, on safety and security. In addition, BA has chartered fully crewed aircraft from eight airlines to fly short-haul services from Gatwick and Heathrow. Many passengers will receive what is termed a "simplified service", entailing only basic food and drink with no hot meals – even in first class.

Gordon Brown appealed to Unite last night to abandon the industrial action amid anger in Labour's high command over its potential political impact on the party. He hopes the management and unions will resume talks before next week's planned second wave of strikes.

Downing Street said: "This strike is in no one's interest and will cause unacceptable inconvenience to passengers. He [Mr Brown] urges the strike be called off immediately."

David Cameron, the Tory leader, will say today: "Will the Prime Minister come out in support of people who would cross the picket line? No, because the Unite union is bankrolling the Labour Party."

But a Labour source said: "To hype this up as some sort of spring of discontent is ridiculous. The public won't like them playing politics with this."

Spring of discontent: Other strikes

Signallers vote for walkout over jobs

Railway signal workers have voted to strike in a dispute over jobs, threatening disruption to rail travel in the coming weeks, including Easter. The Rail Maritime and Transport union said 54 per cent of its members backed strikes. Maintenance workers belonging to the RMT have already voted to strike in protest at the 1,500 job losses at Network Rail. The RMT and Network Rail, which wants to cut jobs and change working practices to allow more maintenance work to be carried out at weekends, have agreed to seek conciliation through Acas. The RMT said more than 150 MPs have now signed an Early Day Motion opposing the planned cuts and calling on the Government to intervene.

Civil servants in Budget Day action

More than 200,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union will walk out next Wednesday – the first ever strike on Budget Day – as part of a long-running dispute over the terms of civil servants' redundancy pay. Union leaders took to the streets of Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell's Dulwich constituency in south-east London as part of the build-up to next week's strike. Ms Jowell has been leading the Government's case over cuts to redundancy pay, which the union maintains will cost civil servants tens of thousands of pounds. The union has already held a 48-hour strike and is planning further industrial, political and legal action unless the dispute is settled.