Published March 24, 2010
LONDON – LONDON (AP) — The British Airways strike is getting personal — and nasty.
The money-losing airline, facing its second straight weekend of wide-scale disruption, on Wednesday revoked from striking personnel the free and heavily discounted air travel that has long been a treasured perk of employees at major carriers around the world.
British Airways executives informed the affected Unite union workers that those privileges, not being contractually guaranteed, had been unilaterally and permanently slashed, just like that. Here today, gone tomorrow.
"It's a perk that's of tremendous importance to the cabin crew, because it's not just cash in their pockets, it's something their whole family gets to benefit from," said Daniel Barnett, an employment lawyer with Temple Garden Chambers. "This is a move that's calculated to create angst on the part of the cabin crew, and might make them come back to the negotiation table more readily."
The Unite union immediately cried foul at BA's hardnose tactics, arguing that the ban on travel benefits violates British employment law.
Unite union leader Tony Woodley said the travel perks are given to employees as "custom and practice" and do not have to spelled out in a contract to be protected by law.
The union said on its Web site Wednesday the "vindictive" action would be challenged in any way possible.
"This is the clearest possible example of BA's bullying and contemptuous approach to its employees," the union said.
The deepening confrontation between Unite and Britain's flagship airline is spreading beyond the British Isles. The union has sought direct support from its counterparts in the United States and on mainland Europe, but although it has so far received only verbal backing, work stoppages may soon spread to other airlines.
Lufthansa's Cockpit union has called a walkout at all German locations from April 13 to 16 in a dispute over salaries, working conditions and job security. The planned strike was backed Tuesday backed by the 105,000-strong International Association of Airline Pilots Associations.
TAP Air Portugal pilots are also threatening to strike.
"I do think this will potentially spread like wildfire," said Philip Henson, an employment law specialist with the Bargate Murray firm.
He said Australia's transport workers' union had raised safety concerns about replacement staff used on BA flights, raising the prospect they may use health and safety issues to "create the equivalent of strike action" in support of Unite.
"There is more cooperation and dialogue among international unions, they are more prepared to support one another," he said. "We're seeing a bit of a groundswell that could spread beyond aviation."
He said signs of labor unrest at Britain's Royal Mail service and British Gas may signal new trouble spots as Britain deals with the financial problems caused by its dangerously heavy debt load.
Despite the rising tensions, it is possible that Wednesday's "permanent" revocation of strikers' travel benefits may represent a tactical decision that could be reversed as the drama unfolds. The valuable benefits may now be used as a bargaining chip, Barnett said.
"It's common sense to think this could be a tactic to enable British Airways to reinstate the perks as part of ongoing negotiations," he said.
The cabin crew staff had been warned ahead of time that the company planned to withdraw travel benefits from those who went on strike.
Barnett said it is likely the union would bring any legal challenge first to an employment tribunal to seek a ruling that the benefits are protected.
"If the right to discounted travel has become an implied term through custom and practice, then British Airways isn't allowed to remove it without Unite's agreement," he said.
Associated Press Writer Raphael G. Satter contributed to this report