A mass meeting of more than 2,000 British Airways (BAY.L) cabin crew yesterday rejected chief executive Willie Walsh's cost-cutting plans, renewing fears of a summer of strikes at the beleaguered airline.
At an assembly near Heathrow organised by Unite, the trade union that represents the majority of cabin attendants, staff voted against BA's plans for up to 2,000 job cuts, as well as pay reductions and changed working conditions. The meeting endorsed Unite's alternative proposals, which it claims could save £130m through limited redundancies and a two-year pay freeze.
"[BA cabin crews] have sent a very clear message that they don't want us to make any further concessions that would lead to an assault on their terms and conditions," a spokesman for the union said yesterday.
In the words of Mr Walsh, the carrier is "fighting for survival", battered by high oil prices, tumbling sterling and collapsing passenger numbers, particularly in business and first-class. The company recorded a £401m loss in the year to March, a spectacular drop from last year's record £922m profits.
Against such a backdrop, the group's labour relations have hit a patch of turbulence. Of the five separate negotiations over pay and productivity packages put together by BA management in response to the crisis, only one – with the airline's engineers – has been formally agreed.
Consent from the pilots is expected imminently. Balpa, the pilots' union, has recommended its members vote "yes" to proposals including 78 voluntary redundancies, a 2.6 per cent two-year pay cut and deferred share options, although the ballot does not close until next week.
But the remaining three tranches of workers are proving more difficult. Alongside the cabin staff that registered their opposition yesterday, BA's ground staff, who are also represented by Unite, and its administrators, represented by the GMB union, have also refused to accept the terms on offer. After talks dragged on beyond the management's 30 June deadline last week, BA requested assistance from Acas, the arbitration service. The first Acas-brokered meetings are to take place tomorrow.
BA wants to cut staff numbers by 3,700 by March, of which 2,000 will come from among its 14,000 cabin crews and another 1,000 from administrators such as check-in staff. A proportion of the reductions will come from natural wastage, but Mr Walsh has refused to rule out compulsory redundancies.
The airline is keen to play down the possibility of strikes. A spokesman for BA said: "Everybody knows the position that airlines are in, so there is no reason to think that there will be industrial action and nobody has been talking about that. We are all focused on the Acas phase of negotiations."
Similar arguments with cabin crews, in 2007, were only resolved the day before the planned strike, costing the airline millions of pounds.
BA has already cut 2,500 jobs, just under 500 of them management roles. It has also offered all staff the option of taking unpaid leave, switching to part-time, or working for no pay (although still eligible for overtime and allowances).
The trade unions branded the move "insulting", but nearly 7,000 of the company's 40,000-strong workforce signed up, 800 of them to work for free for up to a month. The scheme will save the company around £10m. Mr Walsh and the finance director, Keith Williams, are forgoing their salaries this month, saving the company in the region of £100,000.