British Airways (BA) workers at Heathrow have voted to strike during the school summer holidays, in a move set to cause more travel chaos as the industry struggles to recover from the COVID pandemic.
Members of the GMB and Unite unions overwhelmingly supported the prospect of industrial action over pay with 95% of those voting, at both unions, backing strikes on turnouts of 81% and 63% respectively.
It means that more than 700 BA check-in staff and ground-handling agents could walk out at the height of the summer season.
No strike dates have been announced, as the unions suggested that they wanted to give the airline some time to change its mind on the key issue.
The unions are seeking to reverse a 10% pay cut on workers that was imposed during the pandemic when global lockdowns grounded flights.
Around 13,000 jobs were also cut by BA.
The airline has offered a 10% one-off bonus but not a return to the same pay as before.
“With grim predictability, holidaymakers face massive disruption thanks to the pig-headedness of British Airways,” Nadine Houghton, GMB National Officer, said in a statement.
“GMB members at Heathrow have suffered untold abuse as they deal with the travel chaos caused by staff shortages and IT failures. At the same time, they’ve had their pay slashed during BA’s callous fire and rehire policy,” she said.
“What did BA think was going to happen?”
Unite officer Russ Ball added: “The problems British Airways is facing are entirely of its own making. It brutally cut jobs and pay during the pandemic even though the government was paying them to save jobs.”
BA ‘extremely disappointed’
It is understood that if strikes do go ahead, those balloted for action at Heathrow make up less than 50% of BA’s customer-facing team.
The airline responded: “We’re extremely disappointed with the result and that the unions have chosen to take this course of action.
“Despite the extremely challenging environment and losses of more than £4bn, we made an offer of a 10% payment which was accepted by the majority of other colleagues.
“We are fully committed to work together to find a solution, because to deliver for our customers and rebuild our business we have to work as a team.
“We will of course keep our customers updated about what this means for them as the situation evolves.”
Analysis: British Airways still appears to have a Heathrow problem
To judge from today’s vote by check-in staff, who are members of Unite, BA still appears to have a Heathrow problem.
The airline’s comment today that its Heathrow-based employees had declined an offer that had been accepted by colleagues elsewhere across the network is eerily familiar to the remarks made by Sir Rod all those years ago.
To that can be overlaid the generally challenging industrial relations at BA – which are a legacy of its past as a state-owned industry.
Union membership is significantly higher in the public sector than in the private sector and it is no coincidence that it is companies that were once state-owned – like BA, Royal Mail and, to a lesser extent, BT – which tend to have worse industrial relations than most private companies.
The strike action threatens further damage for BA as it struggles to get back on its feet following the COVID crisis to date.
Its efforts have been hampered by IT failures and staff shortages – the company refusing to confirm that it had shot itself in the foot during an inquiry into the recent air travel chaos by MPs earlier this month.
The PM’s spokesman urged the unions and BA to resolve the row.
“We don’t want to see any further disruption for passengers and strike action would only add to the misery being faced by passengers at airports,” he told reporters.
“We expect BA to put in place contingency measures to ensure that as little disruption (as possible) is caused and that where there is disruption that passengers can be refunded.”
Wave of discontent
The prospect of strikes also follows a wave of discontent expressed by workers across the country in recent months.
Many are demanding higher wages to deal with the cost of living crisis.
About 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at Network Rail and 13 train operators have walked out this week.
The RMT’s general secretary has warned that rail strikes could “escalate” unless a settlement is reached for all workers in the industry.
Mick Lynch told Sky News that more train drivers might enter the dispute – and “other people are balloting in this industry too”.