The union that represents thousands of British Airways cabin crew says it will “move towards industrial action with immediate effect” over the airline’s alleged proposals to permanently lay-off 12,000 employees and ‘fire and rehire’ the rest on lesser terms and conditions. Industrial action would likely involve strike action that could cripple the already embattled airline.
In a letter to British Airways chief executive Alex Cruz, the head of the Unite union described the plans as “despicable” and said Cruz had “dragged the good name of British Airways through the mud”.
“I am both staggered and offended by your arrogance,” Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union wrote in the letter to Cruz that has been viewed by PYOK. The letter was sent on Monday afternoon and sets out the position that the union will now pursue industrial action without delay.
British Airways gave notice to its 42,000 strong workforce in April that it planned to make up to 12,000 employees redundant. The remaining workers would be expected to reapply for their jobs and sign new contracts – a process that has been dubbed ‘fire and rehire’.
Unite claims some cabin crew would be expected to take a pay cut of over 50 per cent. All crew would also take on extra responsbilities and sign up to productivity improvements. In response to the proposals, the union initially refused to negotiate and launched a high-profile campaign accusing the airline of “betraying Britain”.
Throughout the process, the airline says all of its proposals are subject to consultation and that no final decisions have been made. A British Airways spokesperson says the aviation industry is facing the biggest structural change in its history and action must be taken now if the airline is to survive the Corona crisis.
“For more than 100 years British Airways has been flying millions of people around the world. Today that world remains largely closed,” a spokesperson commented. This is the biggest challenge the airline and our industry has ever faced. Sadly, the global pandemic has resulted in job losses across every industry. Many airlines have already made thousands of staff redundant.”
“We are not immune to this crisis. We have to adapt to survive, so we will continue with the proper, lawful consultative process and we will keep inviting union representatives to discuss our proposals to the serious challenges we face. It is not too late to find solutions – as we have done with BALPA – and to protect jobs.,” the statement continued.
Along with other airlines, British Airways doesn’t believe the industry will experience a significant recovery for another two to three years. BA’s parent company is currently burning through £20 million per day and a surge in Coronavirus cases in the United States is compounding the airline’s problems.
New quarantine restrictions on travellers returning from Spain is also likely to further heap pressure on the troubled airline.
But McCluskey has hit back at accusations that he didn’t understand the financial difficulties facing the airline. “How dare you suggest such a thing,” he shot back at Cruz. “I have attempted for months to try to get you to understand the need to treat your workers with respect and dignity and this is the only way to get through this pandemic together,” the letter continued.
McCluskey says the union will work “every hour” to convince BA not to follow through with its plans which are set to take effect on August 7. At the same time, industrial action procedures will now commence.
While it is much easier for cabin crew in the UK to strike than in some countries such as the United States, strict rules must still be followed. The union will need to give British Airways at least seven days notice before carrying out a ballot and then several more weeks for a ballot to take place.
If workers vote in favour of taking industrial action, the union would have to give a further seven days notice before employees are legally allowed to walk out. The soonest a strike could take place, therefore, is not until late August at the very earliest.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, strike action would have provided the union with very little leverage but with lockdown restrictions slowly being eased, British Airways is still only operating a fraction of its normal schedule and so it’s unclear how effective a walkout could be.
The uncertainty, however, could convince already wary travellers of putting off booking tickets with even more disruption on the horizon. Last year, the union threatened strike action in a separate pay dispute but agreed on a deal at the last minute. In 2017, British Airways faced months of strike action from newer cabin crew who complained of being on “poverty pay”.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.