Union wins court fight with British Airways on strikes

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LONDON (AP) — Thousands of travelers face the renewed threat of disruption in coming weeks after the union representing British Airways cabin crews won a landmark ruling against a legal block on its planned strikes.

The Unite union said it wouldn’t immediately order workers off the job and instead intended to pursue talks with BA management to resolve a bitter dispute over changes to pay and working conditions — but indicated that staff will walk out from Monday if no deal is reached by then.

BA said it was disappointed that Unite intended to go ahead with “its unjustified and pointless strikes,” saying it planned to fly around 70 percent of passengers booked to travel over the targeted period.

Negotiations between the union and the airline in the monthslong dispute have become increasingly difficult since Unite forged ahead with a financially damaging walkout in March and BA took disciplinary action against several workers.

Unite was incensed when BA turned to the courts earlier this week, just hours before a planned series of strikes totaling 20 days was due to begin. The loss-making airline won a ruling from the High Court that the walkouts were unlawful because of a technical error in the union’s ballot of members.

It was the third time in less than six months that the courts had barred a major transport strike, including a planned walkout by BA cabin crews over the Christmas and New Year breaks — on technical grounds. Two other strikes are currently before the courts.

The decision on Thursday by the Court of Appeal overturning the High Court ruling — in a 2-1 ruling from the three judges — was hailed by the union movement as a restoration of the long-held democratic right of workers to walk off the job in industrial disputes.

“This is an important victory,” said Trades Union Congress General Secretary Brendan Barber. “I hope it marks a halt to the recent run of arbitrary legal judgments where employers have found it all too easy to get courts to find in their favor and prevent employees from exercising their democratic right to take strike action.”

Unite, which represents some 90 percent of BA’s 12,000 cabin crew, struck a conciliatory note outside the court, saying it was keen to use the enforced break to return to the negotiating table.

“We would hope that we don’t have to strike at all,” Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, told reporters outside the court in central London. “We would call upon British Airways to go that extra mile … and allow us to proceed to what is absolutely required in this, a negotiated conclusion.”

The union is particularly angry about the disciplinary action taken against around 50 workers and that BA removed travel perks from staff who took part in the March strike and this week took out full-page newspaper advertisements accusing “Brutish Airways” of bullying.

BA Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh has insisted that the travel concessions are not part of the negotiations and will not be reinstated. The airline said Thursday it had already put forward a “very fair” offer on changes, such as reduced staffing on longhaul flights, that it argues are necessary for its survival in a post-financial crisis world where demand for air travel has fallen.

BA, which is due to report a third record annual loss when it releases its earnings on Friday, has been hit hard by the global economic downturn because of its heavy running costs and reliance on premium fare traffic.

The union says it has already agreed to significant savings and that the airline is now going too far.

Simpson said cabin crews would not begin strike action until the planned start of the second of the original four blocks of five-day walkouts — May 18-22, May 24-28, May 30-June 3 and June 5-9.

BA has been running a reduced service this week, but had been unwinding some of its contingency plans for the walkout — which would still fall over a British school summer vacation period, a long weekend and the run-up to the football World Cup in South Africa — to allow more flights.

After the ruling, it said it expected a large number of cabin crew staff to ignore the strike call — as several did during the March walkout.

London’s Heathrow Airport will again bear the brunt of the cancelations with the airline planning to operate around 60 percent of its longhaul program and 50 percent of its shorthaul service from that hub. It plans to operate a full schedule at Gatwick and London City.