British Airways and striking cabin crews both claimed the upper hand yesterday, on the first of three days of industrial action.
Despite having to cancel hundreds of flights, the airline said that 52 per cent of its Heathrow cabin crew had turned up for work as normal, and 97 per cent of its Gatwick crew, and that a full long-haul service was operating. Unite, however, said that 80 per cent of its 12,000 cabin crew members were in support of the strike, and that BA was operating only a third of scheduled departures.
Whoever is right, the strike piles ever more pressure on Gordon Brown and his government – with the media talking of a "spring of discontent" as the general election looms.
Disruption to the airline's services would grow worse today and tomorrow, the union said, as cabin crew returning from flights abroad joined the strike. "The disruption will become more serious as the days progress," a spokesman said, adding that BA was flying some planes with just a handful of passengers and Heathrow's Terminal 5 was like a "ghost town".
"They have 80 planes parked at Heathrow, but want people to see the planes flying to make it look like they are operating a better service," he said. "[Our] support shows how strongly people feel about this, and is in spite of the bullying by management. The appeal for people to cross our picket lines has obviously not worked."
But a BA spokesman said last night: "By 7pm, 1,157 cabin crew chose to ignore the call to strike at Heathrow and Gatwick." The airline insisted it had added services due to more staff turning up than expected. It admitted that it was flying empty long-haul flights to ensure timetables were regulated and crew were in the right place.
The three-day strike went ahead after Unite claimed it had been given a "mission impossible" when management tabled a worse deal in last week's last-minute talks to fend off the industrial action. "There's nothing on the table," a spokesman said. "The last offer was inferior to the present offer, so there's nothing to negotiate. BA has to get serious. Next weekend, we will go on strike again, except it will be for four days. BA cannot contend with a dispute like this, where all the cabin crew are so determined."
The airline does appear to be winning the battle for public opinion. An ICM poll for the BBC found that 60 per cent believed the industrial action was "unjustified", with 25 per cent expressing support.
BA claimed that the airline had "got off to a good start" as it implemented contingency plans. The company said it was confident of handling as many as 49,000 passengers today and the same number tomorrow, which compares with a figure of around 75,000 for a normal weekend day in March. It had, however, cancelled 1,100 flights over the next three days.
Some passengers are due to travel with other carriers such as Ryanair, or on specially chartered planes. And BA has arranged for more than 60 other airlines to fly BA customers.
The deteriorating situation remained an explosive political issue for Mr Brown, as the Tories tried to make capital out of the strike. The Prime Minister sought to calm the situation, repeating his call for an end to the strike. His view that "this strike is in no one's interest and will cause unacceptable inconvenience" was echoed by the Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, who also urged BA and Unite to negotiate.
However, the Tories maintained their assault on the Government over the row, recalling past industrial disputes in a bid to revive concerns over Labour's traditional links with the union movement. David Cameron complained that Mr Brown had not done enough to prevent the dispute descending into an all-out strike – and blamed Labour's reliance on millions of pounds of donations from Unite.
But, in a speech targeting the "vested interests" he claimed were blocking progress, the Tory leader also evoked the memory of Margaret Thatcher's battles with "the big union barons". He said: "She recognised that as long as there was a closed shop and no proper ballots, power would lie with the big union barons. They would continue to hold governments to ransom, to drag this country down. So she took them on."
Picket lines were mounted at airports, including Heathrow, and Unite said that no buses, which normally transport crew to work, had crossed picket lines this morning.
Unite's joint leader, Tony Woodley, accused BA of wanting a "war" with the union, saying that BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, had tabled a worse offer than one withdrawn last week.
Unite also claimed today that BA had failed to commit to extending the validity of the current industrial action ballot so that members could vote on any offer from BA.
At Terminal Five: 'I am willing to take a pay cut, but I won't be dictated to'
The skies were quieter than usual above Heathrow's Terminal 5 yesterday. Its departure area was similarly uncrowded.
Outside the terminal on the ground, almost as if to compensate, things were noisier than usual, as cheers from striking cabin crew answered tooting horns from passing lorry drivers.
The strikers were in defiant mood, yet fearful of reprisals from their bosses. Janet Long, a retired cabin crew worker who was orchestrating one of the picket lines, spoke for them.
"Obviously, the crew are very upset about having to go on strike. But it was a unanimous decision. We are entitled to go on strike and there comes a time when you have to say to Mr Walsh, enough is enough."
Not far away, in a sodden car park, a single mum stood next to the picket line alongside her car, where her two toddlers slept on the back seat. For her, it's not just a question of conditions, but one of fundamental freedoms.
A senior crew member, she is the sole provider for her two young children, and is struggling to make ends meet. She pays £54 a day to a nursery, from a salary of £36,000, and has a mortgage of £700 a month for a three-bed flat in south-east London.
"I consider myself fortunate to even have a job and fortunate to work for this airline," she said. "I've been here 23 years and I will continue to support them. I am willing to take a pay cut and pull back in what little I am spending. But what I won't do is not have my voice heard or be dictated to.
"At the moment I feel we are being harassed, we are being bullied. I have seen friends who are sitting at home, suspended for saying that they want to go on strike. My parents came from East Africa; they couldn't speak up out there. We came to the UK to be able to speak up. I feel this is a huge issue and I feel that bullying and intimidation is crossing the line in terms of civil liberties."
Meanwhile, inside the terminal there were certainly fewer passengers than one would expect at one of the busiest airports in the world.
Static airplane fins were lined up outside the lobby windows and people lay on benches or the floor, catching 40 winks between flights.
Nicola Royston, 33, travelling with her family and three young children, said she was managing to stay calm for their sake. She had been due to fly from London City airport to Geneva for a skiing holiday.
"We booked this six months ago: it takes us six months to pay for it. As we were about to board, we were told the flight was cancelled. We were transferred by taxi to catch the 3pm BA flight to Geneva. I'm a little nervous now. We saw the picket line, but we just hope our flight is not affected. It's so stressful. "
Andy McCorkellReuse content