BA boss takes hard line on perks as academics stick their oar in

Willie Walsh won't restore the strikers' travel concessions. No matter what a bunch of academics think...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

BA boss Willie Walsh continues to pay hardball with the unions, even with the second planned strike only hours away. He told the BBC today that he had no intention of restoring the travel perks that have been taken away from striking workers, despite Unite making it a condition of any peace deal. In fact, he’s taking such a hard line that a group of 100 academics have been roused to write a joint letter to the Guardian, arguing that his actions ‘are explicable only by the desire to break the union which represents the cabin crew’, and criticising his ‘macho management’ style. They make some decent points – but what exactly do they expect him to do?

Walsh is refusing to back down over this withdrawal of travel perks (which allow staff to buy tickets for themselves and their nearest and dearest at 10% of the face value, albeit standby only). He told the Beeb that the strikers had been warned that this would be a consequence of the walk-out, and that he had no intention of compromising now – even though the second Unite-organised strike is due to start at midnight, and the union insists there will be no deal unless he back-tracks. Unite called the move ‘unacceptable anti-union bullying’.

The strategy and tactics of Unite in this dispute have come in for some heavy criticism (including from us). But they did get some public support today. A group of 100 ‘academics in the field of employment relations’ (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) have written a letter to the Guardian, with lots of long words, suggesting that Walsh is just on a union-busting drive. His proposed measures would ‘precipitate a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and job quality [that] would damage beyond repair the high standards of customer service for which BA cabin crew are renowned,’ they said.

And they weren’t finished there. Letting Walsh win would also have wider consequences, viz: ‘a widening of the representation gap in UK employment relations, and a further erosion of worker rights and of that most precious of commodities – democracy.’ So if we want to avoid the end of the world as we know it, Unite and the cabin crew ‘deserve our support rather than knee-jerk vilification’.

This is all well and good – and it’s probably true that Walsh wants to face down the union. But the question remains: what else is he supposed to do? He’s running a heavily loss-making airline with an uncompetitive cost base. Of all its unions, Unite is the only one that refuses to bow to the inevitable and accept change. As long as they do that, he doesn’t really have much choice but to take a hard line.


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