Strike grounds British Airways at Heathrow

In July 2003, an unofficial strike by British Airways customer services staff caused heavy disruption at the company’s Heathrow base, costing it an estimated GBP 40 million. The dispute was triggered by the introduction of a new electronic attendance-monitoring system, but reflected deeper staff concerns over the management of working time.

Around 500 British Airways (BA) customer service workers, including check-in and ticket-desk staff, went on strike at the company’s Heathrow hub on 18 July 2003, in protest at the introduction of an automated swipe-card system for recording their attendance. The strike led to the cancellation or diversion of more than 500 flights affecting some 100,000 passengers, many of whom were left stranded at the airport. Staff returned to work after two days but the disruption continued as the company struggled to reposition aircraft and crew. Three unions had members involved in the stoppage, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), GMB and Amicus, though the strike was unofficial and not endorsed by them. There were threats to escalate the dispute by balloting members for further industrial action. However, talks between BA and the unions continued until a settlement was reached on 30 July.

The dispute came at a critical time for BA, and not just because it happened at one of the busiest times of the year. Business had already been hit by the global economic slowdown and the impact of the conflict in the Gulf and the outbreak of the SARS virus in Asia. The company is in the middle of a drastic cost-cutting plan which includes shedding 13,000 jobs in the two years to September 2003, around a quarter of the workforce. At the end of July, the company announced pre-tax losses of GBP 45 million for the second quarter of the year.

Causes of the dispute

The walk-out at Heathrow was in protest at the implementation of automated 'clocking' for work start and finish times, due to be introduced on 22 July. The strike occurred when it appeared that the company was to impose the new system on 2,500 staff after months of negotiations that had failed to address their concerns. Although some 20,000 workers elsewhere in the company already used the new system, for airport customer service staff the issue was controversial. The largely female workforce, many with young children, feared that full electronic control over rostering could lose them the security of fixed shifts and their ability to swap days with colleagues. They were also opposed to any moves to greater flexibility over scheduling, including sending them home during quiet periods and calling them in at short notice when required, though the company denied that this was planned. BA also claimed the issue was inflamed by inter-union rivalry, with the GMB trying to recruit members in competition with the TGWU and Amicus by adopting a more militant position. Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB, said that: 'The concerns of BA staff over changes to shift patterns and working practices are real and genuine. Our members are not traditionally militant workers. Many of them have family responsibilities and they are saying to us that they want to retain some balance between work and home lives.'

Settlement reached

After 10 days of talks, BA’s chief executive, Rod Eddington, directly intervened by personally meeting union leaders. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, also became involved following a request by the three unions to help broker a common position. The unions eventually agreed that 2,500 check-in staff at Heathrow and Gatwick airports will use the automated time recording (ATR) system from 1 September 2003, and the company agreed to separate the issue of wages from working conditions. A 3% pay rise which had been postponed since the beginning of 2003 as a result of the failure to reach agreement over ATR will be awarded, backdated to January, providing that staff accept the deal in consultative ballots. Management and the unions also agreed to establish a joint working party to discuss possible changes to hours, shift patterns, and the deployment of staff across terminals, to report by 17 September. Mervyn Walker, BA’s director of operations at Heathrow, said that he was pleased at the outcome: 'This is not from anybody’s perspective the unions backing down, or us backing down. This has been concluded in the spirit of compromise.' The GMB said that 'the company have agreed that the new system will not be used to introduce split shifts or annualised hours for staff who do not wish to be employed on that basis. Local discussions can take place to agree anomalies.'

Commentary

The BA dispute demonstrates that both management and trade unions need to be sensitive to the strength of feeling of shopfloor staff. Even with inter-union competition for members, it is unlikely that the unions anticipated the strike. Likewise, management seems to have misunderstood the depth of workers’ concerns in a context of sustained cost-cutting and job losses. The electronic time-management system could be seen as another form of surveillance to tighten control, undermining workers’ trust. BA’s insistence that the introduction of electronic time monitoring was 'an integral part of improving the efficient use of staff and resources', as the company’s press release at the close of the dispute put it, seems to belie assurances that ATR was designed to improve administration rather than help lever in changes to working practices. In the event, the failure to identify and act on the concerns of staff was not only financially expensive for the company. It was also damaging to its reputation at a time when it sought to market its brand against its low-cost competitors on the basis of high standards of customer service and reliability. Service sector companies should pay close attention to the concerns of their frontline, customer-facing personnel, who have significant disruptive capacity. The fact that, under UK law, unofficial industrial action is unlawful will not necessarily prevent it from happening.

The timing of BA’s decision to impose the new system, which was already generally in place across the company, also turned out to be a tactical error. It was not just that the potential costs of disruption were so much higher during the summer holiday period. The start of the school holidays also heightened staff sensitivities about their own future working time arrangements. A quarter of the 2,500 customer service staff work part time and nearly three-quarters are women, to whom juggling domestic and professional responsibilities can be a central concern. In the words of the GMB general secretary, Kevin Curran: 'It was a 21st century dispute where low-paid, mainly women, workers stood up and demanded dignity, respect and consultation from their employer. I believe that this dispute proves that time is the new money, and work-life balance and the quality of people’s lives will become a major part of the collective bargaining agenda.' Working time arrangements that provide flexibility for employees arguably form an important part of their overall compensation package, especially where pay is relatively low. In these circumstances, employers’ attempts to impose their own flexibility agenda may prove counter-productive. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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