Thousands of British Airways cabin crew are to be balloted for fresh strikes in their bitter dispute with the airline, threatening disruption to flights in the New Year, it was announced today.
Unite accused the company of continuing with its "vicious war" against the workforce, saying it had "no choice" but to give its members another vote on whether to continue with industrial action.
The move came just hours after shareholders of BA and Spanish carrier Iberia voted in favour of a £5 billion merger of the two airlines.
The green light from the shareholders means the creation of a new parent company for the two carriers - International Airlines Group (IAG).
BA accused Unite of breaking a promise on an agreement last month to end the 14-month-long dispute, saying the new ballot would create "fresh uncertainty" for customers and damage the interests of thousands of workers at the airline.
Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, told a news conference the union was making sure its membership records were up to date before starting the new strike ballot so it could avoid a repeat of legal action by BA a year ago which led to the union calling off planned strikes over Christmas.
He added that Unite had accepted an invitation from the conciliation service Acas to hold talks with BA next Monday.
Balloting is set to start in the next few weeks, with the result due in early January, so that strikes could be held from mid-January.
Cabin crew have taken 22 days of strike action this year, costing the airline more than £150 million, in a dispute which started over cost savings but developed into a row over staff travel concessions withdrawn from those who took action as well as disciplinary action.
Mr Woodley said between 60 and 70 union members had been disciplined over the dispute and five had been sacked, accusing BA of "hounding" its staff.
"BA told us it was a business in crisis. They demanded structural change. These changes have been made and this business is now in profit with senior management filling their wallets with the spoils.
"Yet BA is determined to continue with this vicious war against its workforce. It is time for BA to put its passengers first - and the best way to achieve this is to resolve the issues between us, which would not cost BA a single penny and yet would bring priceless stability and peace to the company.
"This airline has conducted a year-long assault on cabin crew collectively and on many of them as individuals. We will not stand by while this airline bullies our members out of their jobs, and if it takes strike action to bring BA management to its senses, then that is the road we must, regretfully, travel."
Unite said a number of issues had to be addressed before the dispute could end including an immediate restoration of staff travel concessions, binding arbitration of disciplinary cases and restoration of wages docked from cabin crew who were genuinely off sick during the strikes.
A BA spokesman said: "Tony Woodley shook hands with us on an agreement in October, and said he would let cabin crew vote on the deal with a recommendation for acceptance.
"Unite has broken this promise and instead has now chosen to create fresh uncertainty for customers and damage the interests of thousands of its own members within British Airways.
"We have said for some time that Unite is dysfunctional, and the disagreements between different sections of the union have been played out in public.
"In recent days, Unite has changed its position yet again, calling for fresh talks then announcing a strike ballot before such talks take place.
"Should any industrial action take place, we are confident that our well-established contingency plans will allow us to operate normal timetables at Gatwick and London City airports. At Heathrow, we will aim to run a substantial proportion of our short-haul programme and 100% of our long haul operation.
"Today we have taken a big step toward our merger with Iberia. This will create a stronger business for the long-term benefit of our customers, our shareholders and our employees.
"Unite wants to lurch backwards to old-style union militancy. We are moving forwards."