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BAA workers back airport strike vote

By Kris Jepson

Updated on 12 August 2010

As airport workers employed by BAA at its six UK airports vote three to one in favour of strike action in a dispute over pay, aviation expert Mark Pilling tells Channel 4 News airport based industrial action is "very rare" and BAA has "limited options".

BAA airport (Reuters)

Airport workers employed by BAA at Heathrow, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh have voted by three to one in favour of strike action in a dispute over pay, the union Unite said.

Brian Boyd, the Unite national officer for civil aviation delivered the results of the union's ballot at a news conference.

He said: "The number of ballot papers returned was 3,055. The number of papers found to be invalid were one. That's a total number of valid papers counted was 3, 054.

"Of that 3,054, we had 2,263 Unite members voting 'yes' for industrial action and we had 791 voting 'no' for industrial action."

"That represents a 74.1 per cent vote in favour of strike action across the six BAA airports.

"The clear mandate means that if strike action goes ahead, BAA faces a total shut down of its six airports, which are Heathrow, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Southampton.

Speaking to Channel 4 News Mr Boyd said that the industrial action was an "opportunity" for negotiation with the BAA.

"BAA have not yet realised the contribution their employees make towards the profitability of this business," he told Channel 4 News.

"While we've been in the throws of this industrial action BAA have actually put out a memo to their senior managers offering them an incentive and a bonus which actually flies in the face of what they are actually telling the public.

"We want something that is actually a reward for the contribution that our members make. We don’t put any price on it.

"The strike action ballot is an opportunity for us to say to the company, come back and negotiate something that we can put back to our members. That’s the principal of an industrial action ballot."

More than 6,000 workers for BAA at the six airports may now go on strike. These include firefighters, security and support officers and engineers.

The union must give a week's notice of a stoppage, so airports could shut in the week before August Bank Holiday weekend, causing chaos for thousands of holiday-makers.

Mark Pilling, the editor of Airline Business told Channel 4 News the ballot for airport based industrial action is very rare and BAA has limited options.

He said: "The only contingency plans you can have in place, is a bit like BA: put people in place that can do the job. In the case of BAA it looks very difficult because striking firefighters aren't the type of people you can easily replace. You can't just train up agency staff to firefight in a short amount of time. So BAA's options look very limited.

"These roles, firefighters, security staff are absolutely safety and security critical people. No airport in the world can run without these highly trained staff.
These are roles that involve highly trained people in place, they have experience and that's what we want from them.

"None of us wants to take security lightly. The standards need to be to the highest degree. Again security officers in airports is not a job you can ship people in for who have only had a crash course in carrying out. If you did that the consequences would be dire, too horrible to imagine.

Asked about the potential disruption the BAA strikes may cause, Mr Pilling said: "First you have to look at the impact on passengers and travellers. Thousands of people a day travel from these airports, so there will be chronic disruption at the busiest time of year. The impacts on ordinary people will be absolutely disastrous.

"All disruption in the air transport is an almighty pain because it is so critical for the global economy, for people literally moving around. Unfortunately strike action is avoidable and passengers will be encouraging the two sides to sort this out quickly because it will cause huge disruption."

Unite said that BAA staff had already accepted a pay freeze in 2009 and that this year, the company had offered staff a one per cent pay increase. On top of that staff would also get an extra 0.5 per cent which was conditional on changes to a sickness agreement.

The union has also called for workers to receive a performance-related bonus that was promised to them if the company hit a financial target. 

However, the that financial target was not met and was three per cent under.

BAA said it made a "reasonable" offer at a time when "BAA and its airline customers are seeing a decline in passengers due to the impacts of recession and volcanic ash".

Political reaction
Earlier the Prime Minister David Cameron said that he hoped there would not be a strike by Unite members, claiming that it would "achieve nothing apart from damage".

"These sorts of strikes never achieve anything apart from damage - damage to business, damage to jobs, damage to the interests of tourists who want to come to visit Britain, or people who want to leave Britain and have a holiday overseas," he told reporters at Number 10.

"I very much hope that they don't go ahead. They will do nothing but harm. We want to demonstrate that Britain is open for business."

As the coalition draws up its austerity measures to deal with the £167 billion budget deficit, the trade unions appear to be flexing their muscles to support member workers in various industrial disputes.

Labour leadership hopeful Ed Miliband, who is backed by the Unite union who are carrying out the BAA ballot, did not comment directly on the BAA strike ballot.

However he told Channel 4 News that it is important working people are appropriately represented.

He said: "Trade unions are the cornerstone of our society," and it "is bad for many of the workers who are unrepresented."

Advice for travellers
James Fremantle, the Industry Affairs manager for the Air Transport Users Council told Channel 4 news that passengers shouldn't panic, as the strikes could still be called off.

He said: "If you were thinking about travelling, you might want to think again, if you have not booked your flights yet. We would advise people not to book an alternative flight until they know further details. People may be better off contacting the airline to ask if flights can be rescheduled.

"We are disappointed these strikes have been called. This is more disruption for passengers. This year we have already had the British Airways strikes and the volcanic ash cloud.

"Yet again, passengers are caught up in an industrial dispute. I do wonder whether consumers will lose good will with the industry."

BAA may seek injunction
Daniel Barnett, and employment law barrister from Temple Garden Chambers said the BAA bosses will use the next few days to find any infringements whereby they can secure an injunction to prevent the strike.

He said: "BAA will spend the next few days scouring the ballot papers and correspondence for any technical infringements, to see if they can get an injunction preventing the strike.

"The most common mistake by unions is not conducting the ballot properly, for example by not making ballot papers available to everyone it intends to call out on strike, or offering ballot papers to people who aren’t going to be striking.

"This is how British Airways stopped the cabin crew strikes last Christmas, when it turned out that the union had sent ballot papers to cabin crew who had been made redundant.”

"Or they might find technical faults in the notification letters sent by Unite. In April 2010, Network Rail successfully stopped the Easter strikes because the rail union’s letter did not detail the exact locations of the individuals intending to strike.

"Unite has to give seven days’ notice of strike dates to BAA, meaning no strike can take place until 19th August. The ballot is effective for four weeks, which means that Unite can wait until 8th September before announcing the strike dates.

"Employees who go out on strike lose the right to be paid for any days they don’t work. However, they cannot be dismissed for at least the first 12 weeks of strike action.

"Many employers buckle at the point of a successful strike ballot, and come back with an increased offer. Injunctions can delay a strike, but as seen with British Airways, they can never prevent them."

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