LONDON — British Airways PLC cabin crew begin voting today on whether to strike in a long running dispute over pay and working conditions — while the airline starts training other workers to take over their duties.
The Unite union called the vote after BA won a court order stopping workers from carrying out a planned walkout over the Christmas and New Year travel period.
The new ballot of some 12,000 cabin crew closes on Feb. 22, which means that a strike could be called for as early as March 1, although Unite has pledged not to walk out over the busy Easter holiday period.
Workers are unhappy about changes to staffing and pay, including a pay freeze in 2010, a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow airport.
In an increasingly acrimonious dispute, BA argues the plans are necessary to ride out its dire financial situation — the carrier has been one of the airlines hardest hit by the global recession because of its heavy running costs and reliance on increasingly unpopular premium fares.
The airline on Monday began training pilots, baggage handlers and engineers in cabin crew duties, leading Unite to warn that inexperienced replacement crews would put BA’s passengers’ at risk in emergency situations.
The union said that a 21-day fast track training program is no substitute for the minimum three-month course given to permanent cabin crew.
“Not only does this show contempt for the crew, what message does it send to passengers who have paid to be cared for by a premier airline?” said Len McCluskey, Unite’s assistant general secretary.
The airline said that any training program for replacement staff would meet strict safety standards.
Unite and the GMB union, which represents around 7,000 check-in staff and baggage handlers, have issued a joint statement warning all BA employees that if they take up the company’s offer to become strikebreakers they will be putting their permanent jobs at risk.
But the pilot’s union, Balpa, has angered Unite by deciding to take a neutral stance about its members becoming emergency crew.
“We understand a number of pilots have responded to BA’s call for volunteers to keep the airline operating through any strike and from their postings it is clear that this is out of concern for their own futures and that of other employees,” said Balpa general secretary Jim McAuslan. “For the avoidance of doubt, Balpa’s position on this is neutral and we will not dictate to our members.”
Unite was forced to drop plans for a 12-day strike over the Christmas and New Year holidays after Britain’s High Court backed BA’s claim that the ballot was illegal because it included around 800 members who had taken voluntary redundancy packages and had already left, or were in the process of leaving, the airline.
Some 92.5 percent of the workers voted “yes” in the rejected ballot, which had an 80 percent turnout.
But some of those workers voiced second thoughts about its severity amid a growing backlash from the British public, raising doubts about the success of a second ballot.