Willie Walsh insists BA will stay airborne through cabin crew strike

Walsh is refusing to give in to his cabin crew; in fact, he's re-training 1,000 staff to do their job.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

BA bruiser Willie Walsh is playing hardball over the proposed strike by cabin crew, which is due to start at some point in the next few weeks; far from giving in to the various demands of union Unite, he’s busy re-training staff from other areas of the business so they can act as cabin crew in the event of a strike, in order to keep as many flights in the air as possible. Naturally, the unions are apoplectic. But Walsh can only get away with this because the cabin crew are in such a weak bargaining position. If he can cover their responsibilities using existing staff, it doesn’t exactly suggest they’re either indispensable or irreplaceable…

In an address to staff at HQ yesterday, the hard-nosed Walsh said that 6,000 people had volunteered to re-train as cabin crew, and 1,000 of them would be ready to point to the emergency exits and roll trolleys by next week (just as long as we don't end up with some baggage handler at the controls of a 747). Since Unite needs to start any strike action by March 22, that’s not a moment too soon. Walsh also said that he’s lined up 23 fully-crewed charter planes to supplement the short-haul fleet, as well as reserving seats on other carriers. This, he said, would allow him to operate all of BA’s flights from London City, all long-haul services from Gatwick, and a ‘substantial number’ of Heathrow flights too. In other words: strike if you like, but the show will go on.

He’s also not budging an inch on his proposed reforms to cabin crew pay and conditions, insisting (according to the Telegraph) that the changes made – which have already saved £60m a year – ‘will not be reversed by the threat of a strike… And they will not be reversed if a strike takes place.’ In fact, he said, strikes would only ‘harden our position’, because further cuts would be needed to offset the extra losses. He also suggested that Unite was so divided internally that the two sides had only managed 2.5hrs of talks in the last 2.5 weeks. The union dismissed this as ‘utter nonsense’, and bemoaned his ‘inflammatory and confrontational stance’.

But although the union’s waxing lyrical about the merits of negotiation rather than confrontation, this latest episode shows who has the whip-hand here. By re-training other staff  (an imaginative solution, though it won’t do much for internal concord) Walsh is making the point to cabin crew that there are plenty of people out there willing to do their job - probably at a lower wage. And if the strikes lead to extra cuts, as well as damaging BA’s business, that’s one more way in which they’re shooting themselves in the collective foot. They won’t like it, but it’s time they faced up to the harsh reality of their situation.


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