British Airways won its bid for a High Court injunction today to prevent a series of crippling Christmas strikes by thousands of cabin crew.
Mrs Justice Cox, sitting in London, granted the order to BA, which challenged the union Unite's ballot of its 12,500 cabin crew members. The judge refused Unite permission to appeal although the union can apply directly to the Court of Appeal.
Ruling that the balance of convenience lay "firmly" with granting the injunction, Mrs Justice Cox said: "A strike of this kind over the twelve 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."
During the proceedings, which began yesterday afternoon, Bruce Carr QC, for BA, told the judge that the balloting process contained "serious and substantial irregularities".
The strike, due to start next Tuesday, would deprive "literally millions of people of a happy Christmas", he said.
Unite's joint general secretaries, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, said: "While we have never wanted this dispute it is a disgraceful day for democracy when a court can overrule such an overwhelming decision by employees taken in a secret ballot.
"We will of course be studying the judgment, but the fact remains that this dispute is not settled. Passing the buck to the courts to do management's job for them was never going to be the answer.
"BA must accept that there can be no resolution except through negotiation, failing which there will inevitably be a further ballot for industrial action.
"Given the clear mood of cabin crew about management's imposition of changes on their working lives, this means that the spectre of further disruption to the company's operations cannot be removed. Only a negotiated agreement can do that."
In her ruling, 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".
The union denied they were deliberately included and said any breach of the statutory provisions was accidental.
She said it seemed clear from the evidence that the union was aware, or certainly should have been, that the ballot included a substantial number of those who were shortly due to leave.
This considerably weakened the suggestion that a great deal of effort went into checking those who should be excluded, although the evidence did not permit a finding that there was a clear decision to include them.
The judge said she failed to see why it was not practicable or reasonable for the union to inquire of its membership whether it was leaving in November or December, as such a step had been taken for the month of October.
There was no document before her which showed the union issued clear instructions to its membership that they must not vote if they were leaving.
"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."
There was "insufficient evidence" to support the allegation of intransigence on the part of BA.
She said she did not consider it right to describe the breaches in the case as technical.
"Whatever the description, they are statutory requirements which all trades unions must comply with if industrial action is to be lawful."
She concluded: "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.
"The balance of convenience lies firmly with granting the relief sought."
She refused permission to appeal although the union can apply directly to the Court of Appeal.
BA said: "We are delighted for our customers that the threat of a Christmas strike has been lifted by the court. 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.
"In recent days, we believe Unite has formed a better understanding of our position and of the ways in which we could move forward.
"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 toward profitability.
"Financial success is essential to build the kind of business our customers want and provide long-term opportunities for our staff."
Bob Atkinson of travelsupermarket.com said: "We welcome this announcement. Unite should now call off this disproportionately extreme 12 day strike and staff should commit to work as normal so that the one million passengers booked with the airline can breathe a sigh of relief and carry on with their travel plans this Christmas and New Year.
"BA should now contact customers as soon as possible to confirm flights will be going ahead and normality has returned to the market. The threat of strike action has been hugely damaging for the British Airways brand and customer loyalty has been tested."
Acas chairman Ed Sweeney urged the parties to use the time ahead to "reflect on how to achieve a settlement to the dispute", adding that the conciliation service was ready to help find a way forward.
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