Strike ballots threaten more chaos at London airports

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The Independent Online

Passengers at Heathrow and Gatwick could face severe disruption next month after union leaders announced ballots on industrial action at both airports.

The threat of official strikes by 2,500 British Airways check-in staff follows the introduction yesterday of a new "swipe card" system for clocking on at both airports.

Attempts were to resume today at the conciliation service Acas after through-the-night talks to settle the dispute which led to widespread flight cancellations at Heathrow over the weekend after an unofficial walk-out. A second wildcat stoppage, expected after the imposition of the new system at noon yesterday, failed to materialise.

Sir Bill Morris, general secretary of the and General Workers' Union (T&G), who took a personal interest in the dispute, said the overnight talks had been "constructive" and would resume again at 5pm.

The airline yesterday held back from disciplining any staff for refusing to co-operate with the new procedure and managers said they were prepared to check in employees manually as well as with the new system. There has been no disruption so far at Gatwick.

A spokesman for BA said the new arrangement had been introduced so that the company could ascertain, for safety and security reasons, who was on the premises at any one time.

The largely female check-in staff fear it will enable management to introduce a new system of flexible hours that will disrupt their childcare arrangements.

One check-in worker, who would not give her name, said: "This used to be a job which we loved but we are now at the end of our tether. What comes next? They will probably force us to swap shifts without agreement."

The GMB and Amicus unions decided to ballot their members on official action at the two airports, but the T&G decided not to hold a vote after the invitation to attend meetings at Acas.

Allan Black, a national official of the GMB union, said that after two days of fruitless talks the union had decided to press ahead with a ballot among its 900 check-in staff members at the airports. "We urge the company to be sensible and co-operate so that we can have open discussions that will lead to an end to this dispute which has caused such a headache for the travelling public," he said.

Mervyn Walker, BA's director for Heathrow, briefed Acas officials yesterday morning and was due to attend the negotiations later.

He said: "We should all be talking and any involvement from Acas is welcome and helpful to us because we want to get this resolved."

Management has come under fire for imposing the controversial new system at one of the busiest times of the year and risking disruption. But a company spokesman explained that managers had been trying to negotiate with employees' representatives for more than a year.

He said the procedure had been introduced three years ago for baggage handlers and for staff involved in aircraft movements.

After a chaotic weekend in which tens of thousands of passengers saw their flights cancelled, British Airways said yesterday that it had all but cleared the backlog of passengers. Just 20 people were put up in hotels on Tuesday night. More than 13 hours of talks between the two sides, which ended early yesterday, failed to resolve the dispute.

Anthea Robinson, flying to Durban said there was clearly room for negotiation. She believed BA would come out the loser. "If people don't trust the service, they won't use it. I travel a lot and I won't be using BA again."

Devon Fearon, on his way to New York, said: "Sometimes people forget what a big deal it can be when small changes are made to the way you work.

"People can be upset, it can hurt morale. There must be room for them to agree in the middle somewhere. If it does get through the workers will just have to get used to it."

What is the dispute about?

The cause

A new electronic swipecard system for British Airways check-in staff. The clocking-on procedure has been introduced at Heathrow and Gatwick.

What British Airways management says

The new arrangement operates throughout the industry and will allow the company to ascertain who is on the premises, which will be helpful for both safety and security purposes.

It is a more efficient, computer-based system that will replace a "school register" book. It will help management to plan staff rosters.

What the check-in staff say

It will allow the airline to introduce a flexible working system which will force irregular hours on staff ­ including female employees with childcare issues. The company will dock the pay of those turning up for work a few minutes late or those who leave early.