British Airways (BAY.L) staff fighting planned cuts in cabin crew are to vote on strike action next month in a bad-tempered dispute that threatens to paralyse the heavily loss-making airline over the busy Christmas period.
The Unite union called a ballot of 13,000 BA members yesterday in response to BA's decision earlier this month to reduce the number of crew from 16 November as part of a desperate attempt to cut costs.
BA, which made its biggest ever annual loss of £401m in the year to April, has been negotiating with stewards for nine months over proposals to reduce its 14,000 cabin crew by 1,700 full-time posts. The ballot – about which BA said it was "disappointed" – was announced as the Royal Mail held fresh talks with the Communication Worker's Union in a bid to avert a planned strike by 121,000 postal workers this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
In further industrial strife, the RMT union has threatened retaliation against Network Rail over maintenance jobs; thousands of First Group bus drivers are protesting over a pay freeze; London Underground staff are in a long-running dispute; and rubbish is piling up on the streets of Leeds in an eight-week strike by refuse collectors.
BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, who has been battling to cope with the recession, high fuel prices and low-cost airlines, has already cut free snacks on short-haul flights and asked staff to work for a month without pay this year in an attempt to steer the airline to profitability.
Yesterday the former national flag-carrier announced it would reduce staffing on short- and long-haul flights, reducing, for instance, staffing on a Boeing (BA) 747 jet from a current complement of 15 to 14, against a legal minimum of 12. It will also slash the income of new recruits by one-third, while still offering them 10 per cent more than other airlines.
BA pointed out that it paid its cabin crew more than rivals, with stewards earning an average of £29,900 a year including bonuses and allowances, compared with £14,400 at Virgin Atlantic and less at budget airlines. In a statement, it stressed it was not changing individual terms and conditions and that three-quarters of crew would be put on new pay scales, increasing salaries by between 2 and 7 per cent.
"Our current cabin crew remain the best paid in the country by some way," the Heathrow-based carrier said, adding that more than 1,000 cabin crew wanted voluntary redundancy and 3,000 part-time working. "We have put together a package of changes, which despite the unprecedented financial circumstances facing the company, not only protects current cabin crew but also offers many new benefits," BA said.
Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, accused the airline of bringing about the ballot by imposing the deal rather than continuing to negotiate.
"BA management's determination to impose unacceptable contractual changes on cabin crew leaves us no alternative," he complained. "Negotiation, not imposition, is the only proper way to conduct industrial relations."
While promising to remain ready for talks, Unite said the proposed changes constituted a "fundamental attack" on the quality of the airline that would eventually damage its reputation and business in the long-term. The union said: "They will not only hit the customer service core of the business, but will forever undermine BA's international reputation as a premier airline with premier crew providing a premier service."
In a briefing note, Capital Economics consultancy suggested Britain's current industrial strife was much less serious than the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79. "Any disruption is likely to remain pretty minor," said UK economist Vicky Redwood.
"For a start, the workers at many of these companies have a history of taking industrial action and so are not necessarily representative of sentiment in the workforce as a whole.
"The bigger point is that the vast majority of companies have managed to cut jobs and reduce or freeze wages over the past year or so without too much trouble."