The British Airways (BA) is mainly comprised of British Airways Plc and other subsidiaries such as the British Airways Holidays Limited. At present, it is one of the leading airlines with a massive network across the globe. BA is catering to the needs of passengers and freight services in more than 72 countries through 149 destinations. The airlines carried up to 70 million passengers and almost 2000,000 tonnes of cargo. The UK based airline network recruits up to 85% of its employees from its own country.
An industrial dispute broke out in the spring of 2010 between the airlines and Unite. The latter is UK general union comprising more than two million members. Apart from the employers and employees, this dispute also involved political parties, media, government and the customers. Till today these strikes have been a concern for the company and is currently dealt by its management. An effective solution for the same has not been settled but the magnitude and occurrences of these strikes has reduced considerably. The review below shows an analysis of how the entire story started and how it has been going on till today.
The British Airways has 13500 flight attendants out of which 12000 are Unite members. A whopping 81% of the cabin crew staff who were the members of Bassa, Unite’s cabin crew branch voted for industrial action. It occurred in February 2010 to oppose the proposed staffing cuts and change of working conditions. This entails a former ballot towards the end of 2009 that advocated 12 days of strike action. It was challenged by BA in the high court that granted the request for an injunction against this strike. It was based on a balloting error that violated the Trade Union Act of 1992 (The Guardian 2014).
The mentioned ballot was basically a reply to the unilateral decision of the airline in reducing cabin crew by one person on long haul flights. It was to lower down costs based on a last year pre tax loss of £ 401 million. Unite replied to cabin crew with the claim that such ruling marks that extent to which law is used against the interests of the working population. It shows how a determined employer with limitless resources frustrates your actual right by withdrawing labour at the last moment in an effort to make sure your voice is heard. Despite large scale negotiations, no further progress touched the ballot in Feb 2010 for resolving such disputes (The guardian 2010).
During March 2010, seven days of strike action occurred during two different occasions. The airline responded by taking a number of steps. Firstly, it withdrew the perks of discounted travel for air stewards that were a substantial benefit. Secondly, cabin crew from different airlines, used volunteer crew and chartered jet were borrowed. Some of BA pilots substituted for the striking cabin crew.
After such actions, BA reported of the bill likely to be £45 due to the strike action. There also reports of carrying up to almost 400,000 less passengers compared to a year ago during same period which shows a decline of 15%. Another airline Ryanair reported a rise of 23%. BA hired planes and crew staff from rivals for operating 79% of long haul flight schedule and 58% of short haul trips during the seven days strike period (BBC 2011).
The main cause of the dispute is related to the management’s efforts in lowering the operating costs. It is due to fall in demand, rising competition and increasing non labour charges such as fuel prices. Labour costs form a major cost in the airline industry and is one of the key reasons for making profit. The cabin crew forms the biggest part of the workforce. For lowering the cabin crew costs by up to £140 m annually, BA management suggests on employing newer crew on minimal favourable terms and conditions. They’ll be on a separate fleet freed from costly and unaccommodating demarcation lying between cabin crew hired for short haul and long haul services.
Reportedly, Unite grew insecure that new workers would be excluded from collective bargaining with existing employers. Thus, the workforce could be divided despite the permission to join the union. They’ve also suspected the new workforce of facilitating the integration of low paid workers, work intensification. There was also an insecurity that new fleet is a plan to occupy the best profitable routes for marginalizing existing workforce (Afed 2010).
Even though these plans could be significant for workers, Unite won’t participate in discussions on new fleet suggestions. This is due to fears of pre emptive strike likely to be inducted and serve a basis for legal action by the airline. BA also made further proposals for cutting down the operation costs. It includes doing away with seniority mechanism of promotion and reshuffle of cabin crew functionality. They also have plans to bring payment structure in line with their competitors who as per reports pay cabin crew less than BA (Eprints 2011).
The claims and counter claims on the result of the strike action stood as a distinctive feature of the dispute. For example, BA had claims of support weakening for supposed industrial action. It was based on their observation that during the second of these two strikes, more of the cabin crew was busy working and more flights were also operating. Chief Executive of BA, Willie Walsh claimed that the airline had over 60,000 passengers across 470 flights on Saturday during the second strike. On previous Saturday, the numbers were 43,000 on 350 flights.
Len McCluskey responded to such claims marking them a grand con trick of British Airways. He further said that BA is making these claims after spending millions of pounds bay dumping passengers on other carriers. Passengers expecting to go on their trustworthy BA airline will be transferred to carriers they’ve probably never heard of. They’ll be serviced by a group of low graded pilots and managers pretending to be a crew. BA inflicts a trash on its brand in its desperation to divide the workforce, expressed McCluskey (Constant Contact 2011).
The media has played a role here in structuring mass opinion. It has acted as an outlet where these claims and leaks of confidential information were pitched to solidify the position of respective parties. This strike also received the attention from the political quarters. It took place in a run to a general election in UK where Conservative Party chief David Cameroon attempted to gain political mileage. He expressed that PM Gordon Brown has displayed a weak point in his attitude to deal with a dispute. It is a failure to come in the aid of the non strikers and supporting the unions (WSWS 2010).
Brown responded by calling the strike as deplorable and unjustifiable. He observed it not in the interest of the masses and urged to call off proposed strike action. As per some reports, the government was also afraid of the political consequences springing from this industrial action and their impact on election results. This was particularly with reference to the climate of rising unemployment .The vulnerability of job losses was clouding the public sector during the subsequent months. Due to these conditions, Brown had been reportedly desperate in his attempts to settle the dispute.
An intriguing build up to the dispute was the claims of certain commentators. They said that the plans of the airline’s management in terms of second fleet, responding to strike and approach to further negotiations lead to a planned effort to divide Unite by macho management. It was seeking to dissolve the strength of the union which has been a feature of fraught history of industrial relations in BA (Reuters 2010).
BA was particularly accused of being forcefully intervening in their refusal to restore pre-strike peace offer. Unite said that it could have been forming the basis of a deal to finish the dispute but they provided a worse offer in order to regain the money lost in dispute by the new revised deal.
According to BA, these claims are unacceptable. They are of the belief that Unite and their cabin crew branches had many opportunities to reach an agreement on cost reducing programme. Unnecessarily, they’ve opted to pursue strike actions, said BA. Unite floated warnings that the clash was watering the seed of a lengthy internal conflict in British Airways. After the settlement of the recent dispute, Unite expressed that a sense of mistrust and ill feeling will penetrate within the management, their members and within the employees. Similarly, it will also take place between the strikers and the ones who decided to pass the picket lines. This will also not spare the pilots who were filling in as the cabin crew during the industrial strike (Daily Mail 2010).
In order to deal with this problem, the management has deployed several policies and underwent through various changes as per mutual agreed standards between the management and the cabin crew members. In order to ensure that the company does not get into similar problems in future, some of the possible recommendations to be abided by would include:
After evaluating the case of British Airways and the cabin crew strikes which had been a concern for the airline for many years now, it is well understandable that labour relations are a critical element for profitability of an organization. If organizations do not pay heeds to worker interest and try to enforce their decisions, it is more than likely to impact their progress and business efficiency. Further, British Airways seems to have responded in a stronger manner and has better measures in place today. The rate of such unrest have been brought down to the minimum and the company is constantly working on ensuring that such situations do not arise again.
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