Union anger as BA strike is blocked

Judge issues injunction after hearing of 'serious irregularities' in ballot

The great Christmas getaway was back on for a million air passengers yesterday after a judge ruled that a planned 12-day strike by British Airways cabin crew was illegal.

Union leaders reacted with fury to the ruling, which they described as a "disgraceful day for democracy", but BA executives were exultant at winning a postponement, at least, of industrial action until after the lucrative Christmas and New Year period.

Cabin crews who had been expected to walk out on Tuesday will now be expected to work as normal after Mrs Justice Cox granted an emergency injunction after hearing of "serious and substantial" irregularities in the way the ballot was carried out.

However, union leaders have not yet ruled out the option of going to the Court of Appeal in an effort to overturn yesterday's ruling. "We are studying the judgment in detail and will have to take legal advice. No decision has been made," said a spokesman.

For Unite, the union representing the cabin crews, the decision was a severe blow to its hopes of taking on the airline during a time of maximum financial pain to the company.

It has promised to organise another ballot for strike action but it will be weeks before the poll can be organised and the votes counted.

Derek Simpson, who with Tony Woodley jointly leads the union, said he could understand the "euphoria" of passengers who would have faced travel misery if the strike had gone ahead, but he remained furious at what he described as BA's "macho management" tactics in imposing new working conditions on staff.

"There is something wrong with a law that allows an employer to impose change but prevents a union from fighting back," he said after the hearing at the High Court in London. "We will certainly re-ballot. Our members will be incensed by this.

"The only good thing to come from this is that people will get away for Christmas. It was never our intention to disrupt passengers."

He said the union had been trying to get the company to the negotiating table but feared the airline would use the court ruling as an excuse to refuse to take part in further talks.

At BA the mood was one of jubilation after learning that the strike had been ruled illegal. A company statement said: "It is a decision that will be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families in the UK and around the world. There was never any need for a strike and we hope that Unite will take this opportunity to reflect before deciding its next steps. We believe the public would want that too. It has also become very clear that our customers do not believe that old-style trade union militancy is relevant to our efforts to move British Airways back towards profitability."

The two sides remain at odds over changes to the way cabin crew work and are recompensed but a narrow hope of a peaceful end to the dispute emerged last night when Ed Sweeney, the chairman of the industrial conciliation service Acas offered to negotiate a deal.

During the court hearing, BA had argued that the ballot, in which 92 per cent of union members voted for industrial action, should be overturned on the grounds of electoral irregularities. In particular, the airline complained that staff taking voluntary redundancy who would have ceased to be employed by the time of any strike had been allowed to vote.

Mrs Justice Cox did not accept Unite's argument that it did what was "reasonably practicable" to comply with its obligations to exclude from the ballot those members who were taking redundancy, but was thwarted by BA's "intransigence".

She said there was no indication that the union had instructed members not to vote if they were leaving, and said: "That would have been a practicable and reasonable step for the union to take but it was not taken, despite the opportunity to do so."

She added: "A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year."

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