British Airways faces summer strikes

Three trade unions with membership totalling nearly half of the workforce of British Airways (BA) balloted members on industrial action in June 1997. In response, the company is reportedly training managers to do the jobs of ground staff and cabin crew, and beginning the process of recruiting agency staff to replace strikers.

On 3 June 1997 the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) representing 9,000 British Airways ground staff and BASSA, the cabin crew union (linked to the TGWU) representing a further 9,000 employees, began balloting members over whether to take industrial action. On 9 June, they were joined by 4,500 members of the GMB general union. If the ballots support strike action, it is likely to take place in mid-July.

The catalyst for the action was essentially BA's wish to save GBP 1 billion by 2000, but there are actually two separate disputes. The first is with the cabin staff over pay restructuring, while the second, and probably main, dispute is that affecting ground staff, which was sparked off by the company's intention to contract out its catering services. The unions claim that they were not properly consulted and fear that many jobs would be lost as a result. One union official said that "the proposal to sell off BA's catering operation is a kick in the teeth for workers who have made many sacrifices to ensure the profitability of the business".

BA's chief executive, Robert Ayling, warned that the company had in place extensive contingency plans if members voted in favour of industrial action, but went on to say that: "I am optimistic that the employees won't support strike action, because it is not in their interest ...I have made it clear that we will only contract out catering services if we get a decent offer from a reputable employer".

Mr Ayling's optimism proved short-lived when, on 27 June, cabin staff voted by a large majority in favour of industrial action. The other two ballots were expected to follow suit on 30 June.

Although BA at first refused to confirm that it was training other staff to carry out duties in the event of a strike, by 9 June national newspapers were reporting that the company had set up a network of secret training centres in an attempt to break the strike. The company stated that it would be doing everything necessary to keep services going, including recruiting staff through two agencies. Newspapers put the number of recruits at well over 1,000. The advertisements, which made no mention of the fact that the recruits were expected to do the work of strikers, offered up to GBP 328 per week for jobs of three to six months' duration, with the possibility of permanent work.

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