British Airways cabin crews started voting on industrial action yesterday in the long-running dispute over pay and working conditions.
Plan for a two-week strike over Christmas were ruled illegal by the High Court just days before they were due to start, because the ballot had included votes from staff who subsequently took voluntary redundancy.
Formal negotiations between BA and Unite, mediated by the Trades Union Congress, were initiated after the strike was called off. But the talks broke down last week after Unite announced plans to hold a repeat ballot.
BA's 12,000 cabin crew have until 22 February to vote. If approved by union members, industrial action could start as early as 1 March. But, after the furore among BA passengers at the prospect of a Christmas strike, Unite has ruled out any action over Easter.
BA says it is still "happy to talk to Unite at any time about these issues, without pre-conditions". But it is training non-cabin staff to take over their colleagues duties if necessary. "We have said all along that in the event of a strike we will do everything we can to protect our customers' travel plans," a spokesman said yesterday. "One of the ways of doing that is to have some temporary trained crew who can take over the roles of the normal crew."
But Unite has slammed the plans, claiming the airline is "intimidating" its crews with "macho threats" to replace them with "vastly inexperienced volunteers". "Not only does this show contempt for the crew, what message does it send to passengers who have paid to be cared for by a premier airline?" Len McCluskey, the assistant general secretary, said.
In the first strike ballot, cabin crews voted by nine to one in favour of action, with an 80 per cent turnout. The dispute focuses on job cuts, changes to contracts and a two-year pay freeze.
Next week, a separate case brought by Unite against BA reaches court. The trade union claims that, by reducing its cabin staff by one, the airline has breached the contracts of the remaining crew. An attempt to obtain an injunction against the changes last November failed, but the matter will have a full hearing next week.