Working In These Times
The Possible British Airways Strike: A View from Heathrow
Court clears way for another strike; will flying public be too annoyed to care about stakes for workers?
As I was getting ready to leave Chicago for a bike trip in Europe with my parents on May 17, I was dismayed to learn that London's Heathrow airport was closed early in the morning because of ash from the Icelandic volcano. And that wasn’t the only advisory notice: My airline also warned of a threatened strike to start May 18, by the Unite union which represents cabin crews on the airline.
I couldn’t help but think that if my flight was canceled because of the volcano May 17, and the strike started May 18, I might never get out of Chicago. Well, the ash ended up staying away, and a British High Court ruled the potential strike illegal.
But then, Thursday morning (May 20), the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals, and Britain’s largest union, which represents 90 percent of the airline's cabin crew members, threatened to strike for five days on May 24 and again on May 30 and June 5 if its concerns were not addressed. Union joint general secretary Tony Woodley stated:
BA must now accept that negotiation not litigation is the only way to secure the settlement we all want. However, further strikes will be unavoidable if the company does not immediately work with us to address the outstanding issues.
Woodley sent a letter to investors calling British Airways’ behavior bad business acumen, especially since the company puts much stock in brand cultivation and they are now alienating the workers who deal most directly with customers.
After the High Court decision, the airline’s website had this to say:
We are delighted that Unite's plans for extreme and unjustified strike action has been called off. We are sorry the court judgment cannot undo the disruption already suffered by some of you who were due to travel during the early days of the union's industrial action.
A new statement said, “We are very disappointed that Unite's appeal has been upheld and that the union intends to go ahead with strike action.” A year ago, the union had agreed to forego pay raises and make other concessions to help the airline survive the economic crisis.
But the union warned the company it would not be taken advantage of:
Unite is sounding a note of caution that the union will not accept wholesale restructuring of the business smuggled through under the guise of the global slump.
If the volcanic ash were taking sides in this battle, it’s hard to tell whose side it was on. The weeks of turmoil and lost profits already caused by the volcano and the threat of more airport closures surely made airline administration even more anxious than they would normally be about an impending strike – seemingly a bargaining chip for the union. By the same token, the frustration and logistical hassles caused by the volcano in the recent past and potentially in the near future may also have turned the court and the general public against the union threatening to strike.
Even with the strike ruled illegal, the labor dispute was very much evident when I traveled May 17-18. Many people arriving in Heathrow from abroad May 18 had rerouted their connecting flights with other airlines because of the impending strike. That meant they were in for trouble if their British Airways international flights were delayed, causing missed connections, as ultimately happened with my flight.
Whether by coincidence or not, check-in lines at British Airways counters at Chicago O’Hare and at Heathrow moved extremely slowly. I was curious as to how other British Airways employees felt about the cabin crews’ dispute. I also wondered if it was coincidence that our flight sat on the runway for three hours waiting to unload some fuel…could it be part of some kind of work slow down?
An apologetic letter from management said the threat of “industrial action by the Unite trade union that represents our cabin crew” meant there would be changes to service through May 23. These included no special dietary meals because “we have had to order a different product specification in preparation for the threatened strike as we were unable to plan with any certainty how many cabin crew would work as normal.”
I had to wonder how disbursing a relative handful of vegan meals would suddenly become impossible –even on flights still operating – in case of a strike. It also reminded me of the vast scale of the airline industry and all the related logistics (British Airways alone handles 100,000 meals a day) – hence the vulnerability of such a complicated system, which could be thrown off-kilter by one small segment of the workforce being unable or unwilling to do their jobs.
The airline offered free rebooking within a year or options if a customer decided to switch airlines, saying, “we understand that you may not wish to fly with us on this occasion.”
I have to admit, I was very relieved the strike did not ruin my long-awaited vacation plans. But it did serve as a healthy reminder that even in these days of extremely low unionization rates, unions still do have much power to disrupt major industries, especially in the transportation sector…and even when uninvolved individuals are adversely affected – from a missed family vacation to someone losing a job because they can’t get to work – the public will hopefully see the bigger picture and react with solidarity rather than spite.