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British Airways crew begin five-day strike

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 23 May 2010

British Airways cabin crew have started a five-day strike, as the long-running dispute over jobs and pay continues.

British Airways tailfins (Getty)

The five-day strike by British Airways cabin crew started at midnight after the Unite union announced yesterday that the strike would proceed, despite the latest round of talks.

The airline said it planned to operate 60 percent of long-haul flights and 50 percent of short-haul flights from London's Heathrow Airport, allowing 70 percent of passengers to reach their destinations.

Flights from two other London airports, Gatwick and City, were not affected by the strike, which follows several others and is expected to last five days.

A further two strikes are planned if the dispute cannot be resolved first.

British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh and leaders of the labour union Unite, which represents the cabin crew, blame each other for a breakdown in communication.

"I made an offer to Willie Walsh yesterday to put back our people's travel concessions that he's vindictively and foolishly taken away from them and I would personally call this strike off," Unite co-leader Tony Woodley said today. T

he issue of travel allowances for cabin crew has become a major sticking point in the conflict, which comes at a difficult time for BA. The airline last week announced a record full-year loss of £531m.

The latest round of face-to-face talks between managers and union leaders, on Saturday, came to an ill-tempered halt after protesters from a tiny left-wing political party invaded the venue.

It also emerged that Derek Simpson, joint leader of Unite, had been sending real-time updates to the microblogging site Twitter from inside the confidential talks, angering Walsh who appeared on television on Sunday to complain about it.

Strike details
24-28 May: BA will operate as normal from Gatwick and London City. Heathrow will operate at 60 per cent longhaul capacity and 50 per cent shorthaul. BA plans to serve 70 per cent of passengers overall.

Unite has also planned strikes for 30 May-3 June and 5-9 June. BA advises all customers to check its website on a regular basis.

The Channel 4 News website is also carrying regular updates with BA travel information.

Yesterday's negotiations ended in disarray when demonstrators stormed the office where the meeting was taking place.

Members of the Socialist Workers Party managed to get to the 23rd floor of the central London building housing the offices Acas, the conciliation service.

The talks were abandoned amid chaotic scenes as negotiators, including Willie Walsh and Tony Woodley, Unite's joint leader, were surrounded by chanting demonstrators, who were later ejected by police officers.

Travel writer Simon Calder, of The Independent, believes that any resolution of the talks this weekend will not make "a blind bit of difference to British Airways passengers".

He said: "The 20,000 or so who have already had their journeys disrupted wouldn't be able to get their original flights back because BA is already making cancellations. Paris, Amsterdam, Edinburgh - all cancelled today as the airline gets its plans in progress."

Reporting for Channel 4 News on Saturday evening, Benjamin Cohen said the real sticking point is thought to be the loss of travel perks by those who took part in strikes last month, as well as the sacking of BA staff accused of being ringleaders in the present dispute.

The talks were thrown into further confusion on Saturday when it emerged that Derek Simpson, Unite's joint general secretary, had been using his Twitter account to issue regular tweets in the course of the negotiations.

What's the point of a private meeting?
Part of the point of private meetings is that exactly what is said isn't made public, not by the main protagonists themselves, blogs Benjamin Cohen.

Sure, press officers and spin doctors do give the media "lines", but it's not the same - it's a lot less direct.

Twitter does open up a world of openness, Mr Simpson is right that he was listening to his members (at least those who tweeted to him) during the meeting, and you could argue that it is slightly democratic.

But isn't the point of having an elected official at a trade union for them to represent all of the members at the meetings, not just the handful that follow him on Twitter?

It also means that if and when the two parties agree to end the dispute, the running commentary may work against any joint statements. Hardly good for long term industrial relations, I guess.

Read Benjamin Cohen's full blog

Mr Simpson's tweets in the course of Saturday afternoon included the following assertions –

Responding to the tweets on the Andrew Marr show, Willie Walsh said: "Sending out his version of events to the wider audience, that really did undermine my confidence in his desire to resolve this situation."

But Mr Simpson has justified his use of a social networking site. Tweeting late yesterday evening, he wrote: "Remember the days when Union leaders were condemned for ignoring members… Now the complaint is we are listening to them!!"





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