Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

British Airways, Union in Talks to Avert Christmas Strikes

  • Airline meets with Unite at U.K. conciliation service Acas
  • Carrier says it will take steps to operate full timetable

British Airways and cabin crew representatives held talks on Monday aimed at stopping strikes that would hit thousands of passengers flying in and out of the U.K. over Christmas, as Prime Minister Theresa May’s government clashes with trade unions over a wave of industrial action.

The Unite union and BA, a unit of IAG SA, agreed to meet in London in an attempt to resolve a row over pay and working conditions before as many as 4,500 employees based at Heathrow Airport walk out on Dec. 25 and 26, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service said in a statement.

British Airways said separately that it will implement “detailed contingency plans” to ensure that it’s able to operate a full schedule during the festive period regardless of the outcome of the talks, in which flight attendants are seeking to improve on a 2 percent pay offer this year.

“We are making sure that this attempt to ruin Christmas for thousands of our customers fails,” Alex Cruz, who heads the division, said. While BA has 16,000 cabin crew, those involved in the dispute work on a range of aircraft, so that a walkout would impact both short- and long-haul routes. Unite said negotiations at Acas were continuing into the early evening.

The standoff at the biggest U.K. airline is one of a number of industrial disputes to hit the country this holiday season, with strikes scheduled for the railway network, mail service and airport baggage handling. BA hasn’t suffered a single strike since the last action by cabin crew in 2010. That dispute, which saw 22 days of walkouts in a year, ended in defeat for unions in 2011 after workers accepted a deal that included drastic salary cuts for new recruits.

Motives Questioned

Politicians have urged workers to reconsider what has been dubbed the “Christmas of discontent” -- after the 1978-79 “winter of discontent,” when Britain was crippled by walkouts -- while members of May’s cabinet have reacted with dismay to reports that the real target of the action is not employers but the Conservative government.

Ministers say they sense the strikes are motivated by politics, as unions are funders of the opposition Labour Party. “Labour’s refusal to condemn their union paymasters shows how out of touch they are with ordinary working people,” said Patrick McLoughlin, the chairman of May’s Conservative Party and a member of her cabinet, in a post on Twitter on Sunday.

A report in The Sunday Times newspaper claimed that Sean Hoyle, president of the RMT rail union, vowed to use strikes on Southern region trains to topple the Conservative government, a claim which the union has denied. David Gauke, chief secretary to the Treasury, said the allegation was “more evidence” that unions were “motivated by political objectives not passenger safety.”

Mick Cash, the RMT union’s general secretary, said his members would rather be at work but had genuine concerns about safety. “We are a serious industrial trade union, and we are not part of some conspiracy to bring the government down. We are focusing on the concerns our members have over safety on the railways,” Cash told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 live.

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