British Airways cabin crew started a five-day strike Monday after last-ditch negotiations over the weekend collapsed, casting the shadow of long-term travel disruption over the upcoming holiday season.
British Airways (BA) cabin crew began a five-day strike on Monday after last-ditch weekend talks with the airline’s management over pay and working conditions failed to produce agreement.
Talks came an acrimonious halt on Saturday evening when protesters from the left-wing Socialist Worker’s Party stormed the meeting between Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, co-presidents of Unite, the union representing cabin crew, and British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh. Walsh was harangued by protesters and had to be escorted out of the building by police.
Staff travel allowances
After discussions broke up on Saturday it emerged that Unite co-president Derek Simpson had been feeding live comments about the meeting to social networking site Twitter.
"About to make another attempt to persuade [BA chief executive] Willie Walsh to stop trying for regime change and stop being vindictive", he tweeted at 10:14 am, the first of 13 posts that day.
Walsh said Sunday he was “shocked and angry” when he found out, saying the move “undermines the discussions that took place and raises questions about how the trade union operates.”
Simpson has indicated he is ready to apologize to Walsh for his “twittering”.
The long-running dispute between BA and Unite cabin crew members centres on jobs, pay and working conditions.
A Unite spokesperson, speaking under condition of anonymity, told FRANCE 24 that cabin crew and management had reached a broad agreement on pay and were “very close to a deal” before talks broke down on Saturday. According to Unite, the main sticking point now is the reinstatement of staff travel concessions - heavily discounted flights available to off-duty cabin crew, which were taken away from workers who went on strike in a first wave of protests in March.
“If British Airways reinstates travel concessions we will call off the strike” the Unite spokesperson said, echoing Woodley’s public appeal to Walsh on Saturday. Unite accuses the BA chief of “bullying and intimidating” staff by removing the travel allowances and refusing to negotiate openly and fairly.
BA responded in a statement that it had already offered to hand back travel concessions as part of an overall deal, and accused union leaders of “negotiating through the media” instead of taking up an offer of further talks.
"We had agreed to a request from ACAS [an organisation dedicated to resolving employment disputes] to meet (Sunday) afternoon and are surprised that Unite did not take advantage of this," said the statement.
“From British Airways’ perspective, travel allowances are not a sticking point,” BA spokesperson Tehreem Ashraf told FRANCE 24, although she declined to give further information on negotiations because discussions are still ongoing.
No date has been set yet for further talks, although both sides have indicated they are open to fresh negotiations.
The threat of ongoing travel chaos looms if talks do not resume, with Unite warning that this week’s strike could be followed by two other five-day walkouts, on May 30 and June 5.
The disruptions could affect thousands of air travellers and also hit football fans hoping to get to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup, if the strike is extended.
BA has indicated that it plans to operate 60% of long-haul flights and 50% of short-haul flights from London’s Heathrow airport this week, allowing 70% of passengers to reach their destination. Flights from two other London airports, Gatwick and City, should not be affected by the strike.
“Flight provisions have gone well so far. All British Airways flights scheduled Monday morning are off the ground”, Ashraf told France 24.
The strike could cost BA more than £100 million (116 million euros) and disrupt the travel plans of more than 600,000 people, British Airways said in High Court documents last week. It comes at a difficult time for BA, who last week announced a record full-year loss of £531 million (617 million euros).
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