British Airways' chief executive Robert Ayling was forced to adopt a more conciliatory tone with the airline's largest trade union, the Transport and General Workers' Union when, during a three-day strike by cabin crew in early July, BA ground staff voted to reject the package of terms and conditions linked to the planned sale of the catering operation.

Ayling's vision of BA in the year 2000 as an airline buoyed by ground-breaking agreements with modern-thinking trade unions had already been shaken by the strike led by Bassa, a unit of the TGWU, over the imposition of new cabin crew pay and working conditions.

BA's apparent desire to break Bassa, its largest cabin crew union, stems from management's view of the TGWU, and Bassa in particular, as a vestige of UK 1970s-style militant trade unionism.

But the airline softened its confrontational stance at presstime after the ground staff vote, calling for talks with both Bassa and Cabin Crew '89, the BA-fostered break-away union which has signed the new cabin crew deal. BA is unwilling to review the deal unless TGWU/Bassa can put forward solid proposals before the talks to achieve the targeted £42 million ($70.9 million) in savings from mainline cabin crew, a saving the union has already agreed to in principle. Further talks were expected with ground staff representatives on catering.

BA claims Bassa officials left negotiations in March but Bassa branch secretary, Mike Coleman, says the union was deliberately sidelined. 'They completed an agreement in secrecy with Cabin Crew '89.'

The three-day strike, which could cost BA up to £100 million, took place amid accusations of misinformation on both sides and alleged intimidation of strikers by BA, making it difficult to gauge the level of strike participation. Sick leave levels jumped during the strike due to the hard line taken by BA management. Employees were told in writing that they faced dismissal and individual liability if they joined the strike and the airline let it be known that it had 3,000 trained cabin staff 'waiting in the wings'. The carrier also threatened loss of travel concessions and promotion prospects until March 2000, loss of entitlement to early retirement or voluntary severance, and indefinite derostering unless employees agreed not to join future strike action.

Throughout the strike BA also threatened to sue the TGWU for damages and to take out an injunction to prevent further strikes.

The cabin crew deal and proposed sale of the catering operation are part of a plan to achieve £1 billion (US$590 million) in annual savings by March 2000 under the Business Efficiency Programme (BEP).

According to one BA source, the BEP aims to maintain inhouse operations only where labour costs and productivity are competitive. 'We do not want to pay more for a job or function than the market rate. We do not want to have an internal cost for doing a job which is higher than someone on the outside can do it for.'

Union sources accuse BA of wanting to establish a 'virtual airline', by selling off and contracting out businesses outside the core airline. BA catering staff have made the concessions needed, they argue, and are now being repaid by plans for a sell-off.

The cabin crew are an exception to the market rate rule and have been offered an increase in basic pensionable pay of about 18 per cent in exchange for more flexible working conditions.

Jackie Gallacher

Source: Airline Business