Cabin crew union seeks to avert strike ballot after new BA proposals

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The Independent Online

With the score standing at one million disrupted journeys, £150m in direct losses and untold reputational damage, the British Airways cabin-crew dispute may finally be moving towards a messy conclusion.

A third ballot of nearly 12,000 members of the union, Unite, was due to begin tomorrow. A vote in favour of strike action would have jeopardised BA passengers in the peak holiday month of August.

But yesterday Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of the cabin-crew union, Unite, announced that he intends to suspend the poll, in the light of new proposals from BA.

"The company has made it clear that the offer on the table will be removed if the strike ballot starts on Tuesday," said Mr Woodley. "It would therefore be inexplicable if we did not put this offer to our members."

Cabin crew have taken 22 days of strike action since March this year. The dispute began over BA's imposition of new rosters on flights to and from Heathrow. But the latest ballot is over concerns that have arisen from the stoppages: the deployment of what the union calls "scab labour" to work as cabin crew on flights during strikes; disciplinary action taken against dozens of union members; and the removal of strikers' staff travel privileges. BA has offered a partial reinstatement of cheap flights, but with the loss of all rights earned through seniority.

The union has always stipulated that any settlement must include full restoration of travel perks.

BA has started advertising for 1,250 new cabin crew on inferior terms and conditions to existing staff. The airline welcomed Mr Woodley's announcement, but was at pains to describe it as a "statement from the Unite leadership". Managers believe that the union's main cabin-crew branch, the British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa), is a maverick organisation which Unite's leaders struggle to control.

One industry insider told The Independent that the joint general secretary's move was aimed at "pulling the rug" from beneath Bassa. "Since BA's new proposals don't begin to address the issues in the ballot, the only reason to suspend the ballot is so that Unite can retreat from the dispute with some dignity still intact."

The union has indicated that around 7,000 cabin crew have taken strike action, but BA puts the figure at around 3,000. When the latest poll was announced, BA said it would run its entire long-haul operation from Heathrow, and most of its short-haul flights from the airport. Gatwick-based cabin crew have not taken part in strikes in any significant numbers.

The winners of the dispute so far have been BA's rivals, who have picked up hundreds of thousands of passengers who have chosen, or been forced, to use other airlines. But Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, called for an end to the increasingly bitter dispute. Speaking to LBC Radio, he said: "I don't think it's particularly good for the industry, and it's very sad to see an airline like British Airways and their staff and the management tearing themselves apart."