BA union tries to escalate with Teamsters tie-up

Why is Unite trying to enlist support from the powerful US union in its battle with BA's management?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

An interesting move by Unite: the union behind this weekend’s planned strike by BA cabin crew will meet today with the Teamsters, a powerful US transport workers’ union. It’s not clear what the latter have to offer, exactly, other than some vague platitudes about standing ‘in solidarity’ with their UK counterparts. But at a time when the political wind seems to be blowing firmly against Unite, this looks like an attempt to bolster its position. Pity they didn’t think of it a few years ago…

Unite itself insists it’s no big deal; that they’re just meeting the Teamsters (at the latter’s instigation) to brief them on the dispute. For their part, the Teamsters argue that they’re ‘an active member of the International Transport Workers Federation’ and that ‘ITF affiliates around the world are mobilising to support BA workers’. However, the suggestion is they might be able to do something more concrete – like manning picket lines in the US, or refusing to service BA planes. We’re not totally sure about the legality of this (surely the Teamsters aren’t allowed to get involved officially in an dispute with an unconnected UK employer?). But with 1.4m members, they could definitely make life awkward for BA (‘Oh dear, did we forget to unload those bags?’)

One thing’s for sure: Unite needs to find support from somewhere. It’s not likely to get it from the general public. And the strike is rapidly turning into a political football; as the Tories gleefully exploit the union’s close links (financial and otherwise) with Labour, even senior Government figures like Lord Mandelson have come out in opposition. So ‘internationalising the dispute’ (as the Tories put it) might be their last hope of strengthening their hand.

However, raising the stakes like this will only stoke up more opposition. And arguably, it’s too little, too late. If the UK unions really wanted to pool knowledge and resources with unions elsewhere, they should have done so a long time ago, rather than thinking so parochially. It’s hard to see how teaming up on an ad hoc basis like this is going to do them any good.

One bit of good news for BA today: the airline’s three main unions have agreed a plan to address its £3.7bn pension fund deficit: members of BA’s larger final-salary pension scheme will now see their entitlement accrue at a reduced rate (unless they pay in 13% of their salary). This is good for BA, because they’ll have to contribute less cash to cover the shortfall – an issue that threatened to scupper its proposed merger with Iberia. So that’s one headache out of the way. Now for the strike...


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