Long-running dispute between British Airways and Unite union continues

In May and June 2010, the UK trade union Unite carried out a series of industrial actions against British Airways. The strikes were the latest in a series of industrial actions taken by Unite against the airline. The dispute has centred on cost-cutting measures proposed and implemented by British Airways, as well as issues concerning the terms and conditions of Unite members. Both sides appear to be deeply entrenched and the dispute could continue during the summer of 2010.

Background to current dispute

In December 2009, a strike ballot was held by Unite the Union (Unite) among its British Airways (BA) members concerned about job losses, a pay freeze and changes to the work practices of cabin crew. The proposed strikes were supported by Unite members, but the airline sought an injunction against the union on the grounds that Unite had not followed the correct balloting procedures. The industrial action was blocked by a UK court. A second ballot was held in February 2010, and a series of industrial actions by Unite against BA followed in March 2010. BA responded to the March 2010 actions by withdrawing travel benefits for employees who had participated in the action.

Strikes continue in May and June

On 20 May 2010, and following the failure of further negotiations and a further legal dispute over their right to call industrial action, Unite announced a series of five-day stoppages for May and June 2010. One of the main triggers for these strikes was the removal of travel concessions by BA from those workers who had gone out on strike in March 2010. Five-day actions were called for 24 May, 30 May and 5 June 2010. Negotiations between Unite and BA aimed at avoiding these actions, facilitated by the UK Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), broke down after members of the far left Socialist Workers Party disrupted the negotiations, and Derek Simpson, joint General Secretary of Unite, was found to have been using an electronic device to interactively update Unite supporters via the internet during the course of the negotiations.

The planned actions went ahead and were the focus of considerable political and media attention. The final day of action, held on 9 June, was the 22nd day of action in the dispute in 2010.

Current position

Assessments of the effects of the strike varied between Unite and BA. According to Unite, there was ‘huge disruption’ to the number of flights BA was able to operate and the union claimed that the 22 days of industrial action had cost BA some GBP 154 million (€186.5 million as at 10 June 2010). BA insisted that it had operated efficient services during all of the walkouts, and claimed that more crew had turned up for work during the later disputes compared to earlier ones.

Both parties continued to hold the other responsible for the dispute. According to Willie Walsh, the Chief Executive of BA, ‘Unite have failed to ground British Airways, and we are continuing to fly and we are continuing to work … They have failed in their efforts. There is no trade-off [concerning Unite’s demands] … This is about the future viability of the airline.’

Unite’s Assistant General Secretary Len McCluskey said: ‘While Unite views this as a process where both parties must compromise, BA’s CEO prefers to see this as a siege against his own workforce. This bunker mentality suggests that the true objective is not cutting costs, but crushing the workforce.’

Commentary

The ongoing dispute between BA and Unite represents one of the most high profile and protracted disputes in recent UK industrial relations history and has also placed a considerable strain on the resources of both parties. BA announced an annual pre-tax loss of GBP 531 million (€642.8 million) in May 2010, and losses incurred as a result of the strikes will only worsen the company’s financial predicament. The length and scale of the action will also have placed a serious burden on the resources of Unite.

Talk of the dispute continuing throughout the summer will also be a cause of worry to the UK public authorities, and British members of parliament have already signed a motion expressing ‘deep concern’ that a deal has not been reached between the parties. Given the apparent determination of both sides not to be perceived as giving in to the demands of the other, however, it is possible that the dispute could continue throughout the summer of 2010.

Thomas Prosser, IRRU, University of Warwick

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