UK union's proposed strike could destroy British Airlines

Unite, Britain's self-proclaimed largest union, lost its bid to stop British Airways from changing their cabin crew staffing. The union is now threatening to strike. 

Toby Melville/Reuters
A British Airways Jumbo Jet taxis past parked aircraft at Heathrow Airport in west London Feb. 5. Unite union workers are threatening to strike over proposed changes to British Airways' staffing levels.

In the High Court this month, Unite lost their attempt to have British Airway’s change in cabin crew staffing levels declared illegal. Unite argued that the reductions in cabin crew numbers were detrimental to workers’ conditions, in breach of their contracts. However, Sir Christopher Holland held that the negotiations and collective agreements were ‘discursive’ rather than ‘contractual’, so were not ‘apt’ for incorporation. In other words, BA cabin crew did not have a contractual right to the existing staffing levels. Furthermore, BA has the right to make ‘reasonable’ alterations to the conditions of newer staff if they give sufficient notice. BA’s ‘less-than-extreme changes’, in light of their financial situation, ‘cannot be condemned as unreasonable’.

Unsurprisingly, Unite used safety concerns to dramatise their cause. However the levels proposed by BA are well above Federal Aviation Authority recommendations (American guidelines are applicable because the jets being flown are of American design). Furthermore, Unite ‘unwillingly’ agreed in November to work to these standards voluntarily, pending the outcome of February’s litigation. So just how dangerous have the last four months been? Was my safety put at risk when I flew BA in December? Although having an extra trained person on hand will marginally improve safety, Sir Christopher understood that the difference can ‘t justify the cost when the airline is suffering financially.

After the judgment, Len McCluskey, the assistant general secretary at Unite, was adamant that further industrial action was on the table. True to his word, earlier this week, 80.7% of BA cabin crew, on a 78.7% turnout, balloted to strike. This time, there will be no prospect of the High Court declaring it illegal. Of course, being neither a shareholder nor an employee at British Airways, there is hardly any pressure on Mr McCluskey to call off the disastrous action he is forcing on BA – his job and salary at Unite are about as safe as they come.

Unite seem to want to stop BA’s managers from managing the company. Their website “details” proposals they made to heal the financial woes at BA, but the “plans” simply wont save enough money. Moreover, according to Friday’s judgment, a large cause of the breakdown in negotiations has been the infighting within Unite. The cabin crew contingent in Unite’s membership has come from both the TGWU and Amicus, and the divisions that drew the factions apart twenty years ago have engendered ‘mutual rivalry, hostility and mistrust’.

Unite accuses BA of creating a ‘two-tier workforce’, in which new recruits are offered ‘bargain-basement wages’ (known to you and I as ‘10% above market rate’), as well as merit-based, not seniority-based, promotion structures. These are sensible moves being made by management in an effort to manage the company. They are being blocked by a Union that can’t even manage its own affairs.

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