Back in November, three trade unions which represent the majority of staff at British Airways took the unusual step of joining together to submit a collective pay claim to significantly improve base pay and profit sharing bonuses at the airline. Despite intensive negotiations both sides have so far managed to come to an agreement and the final offer that was tabled by British Airways in February fell significantly below what the unions want.
What makes this dispute different from others that we’ve seen in recent years is that all three main unions at the Heathrow-based airline are involved – meaning that if staff go on to vote for industrial action the entire operation could grind to a halt. The three unions are the British Airlines Pilots Association (BALPA), the Unite Union who represent cabin crew and the GMB service who serve many ground staff including check-in agents, gate staff, engineers and baggage handlers.
The unions want a 5% pay rise for all staff, as well as improved profit-sharing bonuses and the introduction of a share buyback scheme. They’ve described British Airways a “profit-making powerhouse” with an “austerity approach to pay negotiations” after the airline failed to meet their demands.
Instead, it’s understood British Airways has offered a 2.7% pay rise, while also rejecting an improved bonus scheme or share buyback programme. Unions claim the offer will fall below the forecast rate of inflation in the United Kingdom, meaning that in real terms staff will be worse off if they accept the offer.
Over 25,000 union members have now been balloted on the pay offer and the results are unanimous. Nearly 97% of union members who took part in the ballot voted to reject the pay offer that was tabled by British Airways. To make matters worse, around 93% of members said they would back a second ballot for industrial action – which could include strikes – if British Airways doesn’t now make an offer which is acceptable to the unions.
In a joint letter sent to union members which we’ve seen, the unions say they remain committed to resolving the dispute and are open to new negotiations with the airline. However, it’s now understood that initial strike dates have already been pencilled in for May, although a second ballot would be needed to ratify such drastic action.
A similar joint pay bid made by a collective of unions at Air France last year led to considerable and damaging strike action. The industrial action cost Air France over €650 million and led to the resignation of the airline’s then chief executive, Jean-Marc Janaillac.
This couldn’t really come at a worse time for British Airways – the airline is meant to be celebrating its centenary and plans to unveil a brand new and very long awaited Business Class seat in the next few months. The fear of Brexit chaos will also be weighing heavily on the airline so taking a hit from damaging strike action should be the last thing that executives want.
In a statement, British Airways told us they were continuing “open discussions with our trade unions.”
“Our pay proposal is fair, reasonable and reflects typical pay awards given by other companies in the UK,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.