Up to 11,000 cabin crew workers with British Airways (BA) are set to strike from Monday to Wednesday of next week. The T&G union has called the strike following a massive 96 percent vote for strike action.
The union has named further strikes on 5 to 7 February and 12 to 14 February. The T&G were in talks with BA bosses as Socialist Worker went to press.
The strength of the mood for strike action among cabin crew was shown by the high turnout and big yes vote in the ballot, and the jubilant mass meeting of over 1,000 union members at Heathrow last week.
The dispute is over the imposition of a sickness policy which cabin crew say is forcing people to work even when they are ill. It is also against grade changes that effectively cap pay for about half the workforce.
British Airways further angered cabin crew last week by trivialising the issue of sickness. A letter from BA's chief negotiator released to the press claimed that the T&G members were demanding an agreement that meant they didn't have to fly if they had a cold or an ingrowing toenail.
Willie Walsh, the current chief executive of British Airways, joined the company in October 2005. He came with a reputation for 'standing up' to the unions.
In his former post as chief executive of Irish airline Aer Lingus, he drove through the sacking of over a third of the workforce. He also had a programme of outsourcing across the airline, leading at one point to a three day lock-out of the workforce.
Walsh said at the time, 'Some people have been critical that [Aer Lingus] focused too much on profitability. We make no apologies for focusing on profit.'
A strike by cabin crew would hit British Airways hard – it is estimated that a three day strike would cost the company over £100 million.
The threat of a strike on this scale has pushed Walsh into calling for conciliation service Acas to intervene.
The last official strike at BA was a three day strike by cabin crew in 1997 which cost the company £125 million.
Since then there have been unofficial strikes by ground staff in 2003 and 2005 which cost BA around £85 million.
This is a crucial dispute for the T&G and other airline unions. In addition to the cabin crew dispute there is an ongoing battle over pensions at BA.
The GMB union which represents around 4,500 BA workers is opposing BA's pension plans. It is currently holding an indicative ballot for action. GMB national officer Ed Blissett says that BA's pension proposals would disadvantage the lowest paid workers.
Last week the Amicus union joined the pilots union Balpa in recommending acceptance of BA's proposals.
The T&G – the biggest union at BA representing around 20,000 workers – is still discussing the proposals.
The T&G is campaigning for union recognition across the low cost airlines and recently won recognition at Flybe.
These campaigns take place in the context of the protracted dispute by the T&G following the sacking of over 600 Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow in 2005.
A successful strike by BA cabin crew can help secure conditions and the future of union strength across the industry.