The prospect of the longest cabin crew strike in British Airways' history was averted at the eleventh hour last night after the airline's last-ditch attempt to secure an injunction was granted by the High Court.
The first of four five-day walkouts was scheduled to start this morning. Coinciding with further delays caused by volcanic ash from Iceland, it would have seen the airline incur costs of up to £138m and disrupted the travel plans of nearly 2 million passengers.
But in a dramatic course of events that is likely to infuriate trade unions, BA was granted the injunction last night after it argued that Unite, the union representing cabin crew staff, had mishandled the announcement of a strike action ballot result in March. Citing a technical point under section 231 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations act, the airline won on the ruling that Unite had allegedly failed to adhere to its statutory duties of providing a detailed breakdown of the ballot results to all its members.
Mr Justice McCombe granted the injunction shortly after 5pm yesterday, arguing that a "balance of convenience" had led to his decision. "I am unable to say it is sufficiently clear that the union took the steps required by law at the time they were required," he said last night. The decision was met with dismay by Unite. It promised to appeal against the decision in a move that could see it return to the Court of Appeal as early as today.
The union's joint leaders Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson branded the judgement "an absolute disgrace", calling it "a landmark attack on free trade unionism and the right to take industrial action".
"Its implication is that it is now all but impossible to take legally-protected strike action against any employer who wishes to seek an injunction on even the most trivial grounds," they said.
It was the second loss in court for Unite in six months. BA won an injunction against a 12-day strike over Christmas after Mrs Justice Cox said the union's ballot should be deemed invalid as it had included workers who had already accepted voluntary redundancy.
Unite's national officer Steve Turner said that "decent citizens" had voted in an open ballot which had then been ruled out by the judiciary, and that an appeal would be launched as quickly as possible.
Disputing the ruling, he argued that the union said it had done everything possible to publicise the result of the ballot correctly, including uploading it on the union website, as well as posting notices on cabin crew locations at London airports and despatching text messages and e-mails to get the strike ballot result across to members.
Yesterday BA, whose chief executive had kept a tone of circumspect for much of the day, appeared jubilant. "We are delighted for our customers that Unite's plans for extreme and unjustified strike action cannot go ahead," a statement from the airline said.
It added: "We hope all sections of Unite, including the leaders of the cabin crew branch Bassa, will take this opportunity to pause and focus on achieving the early and peaceful end to this dispute which the travelling public and all our employees want."
Unite and its main cabin crew branch, Bassa, wanted to push ahead with BA's longest walkout over the airline's decision not to fully reinstate staff travel perks that were withdrawn from the 5,000 crew who joined seven days of walkouts in March. Crew in March were taking action over cuts in cabin crew numbers.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, which had an Easter strike prevented by a similar legal argument, said yesterday: "We warned after the [Easter] judgment that it bent the anti-trade union laws even further in favour of the employers and so it has proved. There is no doubt that this new Con-Dem government wants to effectively outlaw strikes in publicly used services before they swing the axe at our hospitals, schools and fire stations, and the courts are the battering ram to make that happen."