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BA accused of "union busting" by academics

07 April 2010 #Employment

The withdrawal of valuable travel perks by BA for striking cabin crew and the hard hitting comments of Chief Executive Willie Walsh that once lost, they will never be restored, serve to confirm that the current industrial dispute appears to be rather different from previous disputes involving BA staff, including cabin crew.

A group of 95 academics say in a letter to the Guardian that Willie Walsh`s actions and comments can only be explained as an attempt to "break" the union, something which BA strongly denies. UNITE say BA are victimising strikers for taking part in lawful industrial action and that they are taking legal advice, not for the first time in this dispute.

Clearly, BA`s actions are far from conciliatory. Being an ex union man himself, Willie Walsh will understand how withdrawing discretionary benefits to striking employees will be construed as being vindinctive. However, what the 95 academics appear to be overlooking is that when unions organise industrial action, it constitutes industrial warfare. As such, any union must be confident of victory before embarking on strike action and may, depending on the circumstances, expect a robust response from the employer.

In legal terms, in the UK there is no "right to strike" which could protect employees against the withdrawal of benefits. Neither is it protected as a "union activity". Striking BA cabin crew are protected against dismissal but taking part in strike action is a breach of contract and constitutes a withdrawal of goodwill. It therefore follows that benefits provided on a discretionary basis by an employer on a goodwill basis, not as part of terms and conditions of employment, may be withdrawn in response to strike action.

It appears that the reason why BA are being accused o bullying and "union busting" is because BA is seeking to win the dispute if a settlement cannot be reached on terms it can accept. However, if the dispute had been capable of an easy resolution, this would have happened many months ago. Clearly, BA is confident that its negotiating position as regards its cabin crew is a reasonable one and, importantly, that it can get through the industrial action. It has contengency measures in place and a large number of flights are still going ahead. Importantly, a significant number of cabin crew are turning up for work.

So, in employment relations terms, BA`s actions over travel benefits may appear unpalatable to academics who, quite properly, wish to promote workplace democracy. However, this is tough and difficult dispute in an industry going through continuing turmoil. Other European operators and unions are following it very carefully, as are UNITE`s US counterparts in the US, the Teamsters union.

As the stakes get higher and higher, this battle in the airline industry may get even more interesting.

Clarkslegal, specialist Employment lawyers in London, Reading and throughout the Thames Valley.
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