Passengers lose out as union rivalries fuel dispute

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The Independent Online

The industrial conflict at British Airways is characterised by mutual suspicion and enmity ­ much the worst of it between the unions.

Despite denials yesterday, the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) and the GMB union are at daggers drawn. Put simply, the T&G is adopting a relatively moderate stance in the dispute over the installation of an electronic clocking-in system for check-in staff while the GMB is the most militant and Amicus is caught in the middle.

Sir Bill Morris, the general secretary of the T&G, is prepared to "do a deal" over the introduction of the so-called swipe cards for check-in staff, while Kevin Curran, leader of the GMB, has said that his organisation will continue to resist them until there is a negotiated settlement.

Clearly it is a question of emphasis, but one that betrays deep differences in the unions' approaches.

Brendan Barber, general secretary-elect of the Trades Union Congress, will attempt to bang a few heads together today. He is due to see leaders of the three unions involved in an attempt to forge a united front. It will not be easy.

The animosity between the T&G and the GMB springs partly from the fact that the former is by far and away the largest union at British Airways and the latter would dearly like to attract some of its members.

Check-in staff, where the GMB claims to be in the majority, are genuinely angry over the airline's decision to introduce the new clocking-in procedure.

Mr Curran's union ­ arguably as part of a recruiting campaign ­ has decided to reflect that mood in its negotiating stance. The GMB has prepared itself for a ballot on official industrial action and will simply press a button to set it in train if talks break down.

The T&G points out that eventually, as with most industrial disputes, there will be an agreement based on a compromise. It has suspended any preparation for a ballot until the talks have run their course.

As Sir Bill said yesterday millions of workers throughout the country use swipe cards and it should be possible to negotiate their introduction for the check-in staff. The T&G leader allegedly endorsed a company proposal for introducing the procedure at the end of last week. Sir Bill denied that he had, but the other two unions remained sceptical yesterday about his denial. Such is the relationship between the main employees' organisations.

The fundamental problem is that the members of T&G and the GMB perform similar tasks. That is the case not only at BA, but throughout industry. A merger between the two unions has long been mooted, but foundered on the substantial egos of Sir Bill, who is retiring in October, and John Edmonds, who was recently succeeded by Mr Curran.

It is hoped that Tony Woodley, the incoming general secretary of the T&G and Mr Curran, the newly elected leader of the GMB, will pave the way for what seems to be a logical amalgamation.

Critics of Sir Bill in his union suggest that his moderation in the airline dispute is a product of an alliance with Downing Street and his aspirations for his future as a member of the Great and Good after his retirement this autumn.