Union boss accused of inciting illegal strike at Heathrow

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The leader of one of Britain's biggest unions has been accused by his own activists of inciting an unlawful walkout at Heathrow that left 100,000 passengers stranded, according to senior Westminster sources.

Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G), is alleged to have urged baggage handlers to take illegal industrial action, which cost British Airways up to £45m.

Mr Woodley denies any such involvement. But if the accusations by the T&G's Heathrow shop stewards are proven, the union, one of the Labour Party's largest financial donors, could be forced to pay compensation to BA, plunging the union towards bankruptcy.

When the baggage handlers walked out in August the T&G leader publicly repudiated the stoppage and ordered them back to work.

But a source said the shop stewards have signed statements alleging that, behind the scenes, Mr Woodley encouraged them to walk out in sympathy with 700 workers sacked by Gate Gourmet, a catering supplier.

Three stewards face disciplinary hearings for allegedly leading the strike and, while the process has yet to be completed, the new chief executive of BA, Willy Walsh, is convinced their involvement has been proved beyond doubt and is determined to dismiss at least two of them.

The walkout by the baggage handlers clearly amounted to unlawful sympathy action, leaving the union open to claims for compensation unless it distanced itself from the strike.

Officials at the union have warned there could be a ballot on a lawful stoppage if the shop stewards were fired. However the T&G might think twice if the airline threatened to "go public'' with the stewards' signed statements.

In the weeks after the strike, management set up a confidential phone line so employees could tell the company how the strike was instigated. The airline has compiled hundreds of pages of evidence relating to the shop stewards' involvement.

Gate Gourmet was once a subsidiary of BA and some of the dismissed workers were relatives of the baggage handlers.

Mr Walsh, who took over from Sir Rod Eddington in September, is keen to show the union he is capable of taking a tough line. Sensitive negotiations are under way about the company's pension fund which is showing a £1bn shortfall.

He is also determined to introduce new working practices at Terminal Five to which all BA operations at Heathrow are to be switched in 2008. Although he has promised there will be no compulsory redundancies, the introduction of new technology at the terminal is expected to result in 1,000 job cuts among the 3,000-strong check-in staff.

A spokesman for the union said: "We completely refute any suggestion of any involvement by Tony Woodley in the unofficial action along the lines apparently being suggested by anonymous sources. The T&G disassociated itself from the unofficial action and did all it could to secure a return to work within deadlines set by BA."