Published on December 24th, 2016 | by Jim Lee


No strike action to disrupt Christmas travel as Unite Union call off strikes at British Airways and at UK airports

In a brief statement on 22nd December, Unite the Union, (more commonly known as Unite), confirmed that the Christmas strike by British Airways ‘mixed fleet’ cabin crew, had been suspended. Unite’s cabin crew members had voted to strike on Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day in the UK), in a dispute about pay and conditions. Confirming the suspension, British Airways issued a statement welcoming the suspension. The resolution of the threatened strike came after lengthy, if hastily arranged, discussions at the ACAS or the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. British Airway’s statement said that it was pleased the strike had been called off and confirmed it would be operating its normal schedule over the Christmas period.

Unite said that the decision to suspend the planned industrial action followed a revised offer from the airline, which had earlier offered a 2% pay increase. The union said that renewed offer, would now be put to a ballot of its 2,700 plus mixed fleet members, at British Airways.

Commenting on the settlement, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey said: “Over the past four days, and indeed the past two years, this union has worked tirelessly to find a resolution to the issues causing our members concern”. He acknowledged that it was always the public that suffered whenever there was a dispute but noted; “Any dispute is only brought about because there is a failure between management and the industrial relations within that company”.

Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey

“We now have a new offer from the company which we will put to our members and it will be for our members now to decide if British Airways has done enough to meet their concerns” he added.

In conclusion, he said he wanted to pay tribute to the cabin crew members, who have been determined to achieve a negotiated settlement. “Their commitment to secure a better deal for all of their colleagues is something we should all admire.”

War of words

In spite of the suspension, relations between the two parties remained frosty. British Airways had described the proposed action as “calculated and heartless” adding that it was “completely unnecessary”. Taking a hard line they said that they were “determined that it would fail”. British Airways had previously faced down the Union and were determined to maintain operations in the event of a strike. British Airways ‘Mixed Fleet’ is a Cabin Crew team who fly a combination of long and short-haul destinations and since 2010, all British Airways new cabin crew employees have joined the ‘Mixed Fleet’. Currently they represent some 28% of BA’s cabin crew and are exclusively based at Heathrow.

British Airways has also alleged that the union was coordinating the industrial action, citing simultaneous strike threats by airport baggage handlers, on the railways, and by workers in the post office, all over the Christmas period. The Union has denied this.

For its part, even as the talks at ACAS were getting underway on 19th December, Unite issued a statement warning British Airways against making “misleading statements”, while talks were ongoing. Both sides had agreed to an embargo on comments during the negotiations. The Union claimed nevertheless that the airline had issued a statement quoting misleading pay figures.

In a comment Mr McCluskey said: “It is deeply disappointing that British Airways has put out misleading commentary to the media and broken an agreed embargo on comments while negotiations are ongoing. “Unite is focused on trying to achieve a negotiated outcome for our members many of whom are young men and woman who have been under paid for years. Unite has consistently raised the issue of ‘mixed fleet’ cabin crew pay over a number of months, yet British Airways has refused to listen”.

To illustrate the point, he added; “The wages British Airways quote are misleading, new entrants to ‘mixed fleet’ are paid a basic of £12,192 (around €14,582) per annum. The food allowance that pilots receive is 15% more than that of the young women and men who make up ‘mixed fleet’ cabin crew”.

Hopefully the revised offer is enough to avert future action at the airline.

Two days of strikes by Swissport UK airport workers represented by Unite averted

In a separate dispute, over 1,500 check-in staff, baggage handlers and cargo crew, members of Unite, employed by Swissport, the world’s largest ground and cargo handler, across 16 UK airports, had threatened strike. The union has Swissport members at Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Doncaster, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow, Leeds/Bradford, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton and Stansted.

Announcing a two day strike on 16th December, the union confirmed that its members would walk out for 48 hours at 00.01 on Friday 23rd December in what it described as a long-running pay dispute, and plans to seriously erode terms and conditions.

Unite members had voted by 62.5% to reject a 4.65% three year pay deal for 2015-2017, which the union argues, would “barely keeping pace with inflation”. It added that the staff were also angry that detrimental changes to terms and conditions had been linked to the pay deal. The changes are believed to include freezing overtime payments for the foreseeable future and restructuring pay.

Outlining the union’s position, Unite national officer for civil air transport Oliver Richardson said: “When you break down the headline figures – 1% in 2015, 1.25% in 2016 and 2.4% in 2017 – they are barely keeping up with inflation”. He went on “The Company only wants these increases to be applicable to basic pay and not the other elements that make up ‘pay’ such as overtime”. “The dispute has been compounded by the high-handed attitude of the management in making proposals that would seriously impact the workforce’s terms and conditions, such as freezing overtime payments” he added.

In a statement on 17th December, Swissport said it was disappointed “to learn of the impending strike action by members of Unite, despite having matched the pay demands previously made by Unite”. It confirmed that representatives of the Company have “pro-actively contacted officials of both Unite and ACAS in an attempt to resume talks aimed at ending the dispute”. It added that numerous offers had been made to the Union since April 2015, adding that the Union had refused to put many of these offers to their members, for consideration. It said that its latest pay offer “was in line with what the union representatives had previously indicated they were prepared to accept”. This would give all staff an overall increase of 4.65% on their current basic rates of pay, together with additional holiday pay, and increases to overtime rates and other pay supplements for the majority of the workers, covered by the agreement. Over 6,000 staff are employed in the airports involved, but less than 1,200 were included in the ballot which rejected the offer by a majority of only 296.

The suggestion that the company had “pro-actively” been involved in an attempt to resume talks was strongly denied by George Brash, Unite’s Northern Ireland Officer. He said: “Unite invited management to join ACAS-brokered negotiations to find a resolution, an offer they have finally accepted. Unfortunately ahead of these negotiations they have sent a letter to workers seeking to misrepresent the facts, and which claims they organised the ACAS negotiations themselves.”

Nevertheless, this resulted in a conciliation meeting with both Unite and ACAS on the 20th December. As part of its proposals Swissport had offered to enter into a binding arbitration process with ACAS and Unite in return for Unite calling off the proposed strike.

In spite of the talks opening badly, they were to end well, and on the afternoon of 20th December the union announced “a breakthrough” and that the strike had been called off. Unite shop stewards would now take the offer, back to their members.

Commenting on the breakthrough, Mr. McCluskey said: “That the strike is called off is obviously good news for Unite members and very welcome news for passengers.

“No worker likes taking strike action but often the threat of it is the only way to make headway in very frustrating circumstances” he added.

In conclusion Unite said it had been working towards measures that would address the problem of chronic low pay at Swissport with some baggage handlers earning only pennies about the government’s minimum wage level of £7.20 (around €8.46).

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About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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