15 MARCH 2010

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Article from BTNews 15 MARCH 2010

COMMENT: BA v Unite

If it was not so serious it would be boring.  For the umpteenth week running AERBT is mentioning British Airways and the Unite union.

This time the news is very grave.  As readers probably already know cabin staff who are members of Unite will strike for three days from 20 March and for four days from 27 March in a dispute over pay and staff levels.

History shows that for the most part strikes never work.  The classic example is the miners’ confrontation of 1984-85 which effectively destroyed that trade union and the coal industry.  There are plenty of other examples.  The British car industry was replaced by overseas-owned assembly plants in the nineteen sixties and seventies due to the actions of “Red Robbo” and his friends.  If British Airways were to disappear its place would be taken quickly by international predators delighted to feast on the carcass of Heathrow, the world’s busiest (and most important) hub.

Just under 64% of the cabin staff actually voted to strike.   How many will actually walk out?

The BA strike is a tale of two egos (or perhaps even three).  Willie Walsh, an ex-pilot, plucked from the relative obscurity of running tiny Aer Lingus, and Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, Joint General Secretaries of Unite created in 2007 by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union.  Curious that Len McCluskey, Assistant General Secretary, fronted the most recent press conference last Friday.  Rumours have it that the trade union is far from united.

Mr Walsh has stated that the latest idea of a new ballot by the union is illegitimate since the strike dates have been announced. 

Behind the scenes senior labour party activist Charlie Whelan is the Political Director of Unite, and is also back working for Gordon Brown, his former boss.  BA recruited a former aide to David Blunkett, Julia Simpson, as Director of Corporate Communications when she left the Prime Minister’s office with Tony Blair’s departure prior to the T5 debacle.  Wheels within wheels?

The union has structured the strike dates very carefully and whilst BA has been robust with its statements regarding training up replacement staff the whole thing could be something of a stalemate.  The first three days of action is over a weekend, which whilst causing problems, will have no real effect.  Yes passengers will be inconvenienced but for the most part accommodation by other carriers is no problem, or they can move their dates if still happy to fly with BA.  The airline will also return monies paid.

Aircraft and crews should be in position for when the strike ends.

The second strike is really along the same lines as the first, but extended, and more harmful.  If the action were to continue on 14 April, as notified, one would expect that to be five days and really hurt.

BA is fat and flabby and needs time in a clinic.  That is hardly disputed.  Even the union has put up a cost cutting plan.  Other problems lay ahead with a possible strike by airside ground staff, also members of Unite.  Willie Walsh has said he would sort out the dilemma of the massive pension fund shortfall by mid-summer.  He is pushing ahead with the planned Iberia merger, which has not even been put to shareholders.  All this whilst the commercial side of British Airways seems to be in something of a freefall.  Rival carriers cannot believe their luck.

Let us hope that the whole situation can be quickly resolved.  British Airways flies the flag for Britain. 

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