British Airways is facing the threat of highly disruptive strike action over the busy summer holidays after check-in agents and other ground staff voted overwhelmingly to support a walkout in a dispute over restoring pre-pandemic pay.
Around 700 “primarily low-paid women” who are employed under a so-called ‘A Scales’ contract agreed to take a 10 per cent pay cut at the height of the pandemic and now that demand is surging back they want their pay restored.
The workers, who are represented by the Unite and GMB unions, don’t want a pay rise despite soaring inflation. They simply want a pandemic-era pay cut reversed in the same way that the unions claim British Airways has already done for management-level employees.
The demand seems entirely reasonable but British Airways doesn’t appear to want to budge. Instead, the Heathrow-based carrier has offered a one-off payment worth 10 per cent of basic wages for the affected workers but has refused to make the offer permanent.
In an internal memo, BA’s interim head of operations at Heathrow Tom Dollery said he was “sorry that it has reached this point and that the unions are continuing to move forward with this course of action”.
Dollery said that in response to the strike threat that the airline was “fully committed to working together to find a solution, because to deliver for our customers and rebuild our business, we have to work as a team”.
The simplest solution would be to restore the 10 per cent pay cut but British Airways fears that by doing so it would invite every other work group that accepted pay cuts during the pandemic to then demand the full restoration of pre-pandemic wages and conditions.
British Airways used the opportunity provided by the pandemic to try to completely rewrite the terms and conditions of some of its largest union-represented workgroups. The airline was labeled a “national disgrace” over its behaviour towards employees and its controversial ‘fire and rehire’ strategy.
Despite the fierce criticism, BA managed to push through significant cost savings in the form of wage cuts, greater productivity and reduced terms and conditions.
As an example, the Unite union claims longer-serving cabin crew accepted a 30 per cent pay cut even after a compromise solution was reached with the airline. The local union has already indicated that if another workgroup has pandemic-era wage cuts restored, then they will demand the same.
In other words, if British Airways does the reasonable thing and restores the 10 per cent pay cut to check-in staff, it will invite every other workgroup that suffered a pandemic pay cut to then demand the airline restore their wages and pre-COVID working conditions.
To make matters worse, we already know that the appetite for industrial action amongst other work groups is exceptionally high. Over 97 per cent of BA workers represented by the Unite union say they will support a strike in a non-binding consultative ballot.
The union is yet to decide whether to move forward to a formal strike ballot but the mood music is not looking good for either the airline or its passengers. Unite says it has offered BA a “short window of opportunity” to restore wages before a strike is called.
If BA is unwilling to meet the demands of the unions, a strike is likely to be called to coincide with the busy summer holidays from late July through to the end of August.
A spokesperson for the airline maintains that BA is facing an “extremely challenging environment” and has racked up losses of more than £4 billion during the pandemic.
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.