BA strike helped by government weakness

Conservative leader David Cameron
has told the BBC trade unions “scented weakness” in the government’s
response to Unite’s row with British Airways.

He said Gordon Brown failed to back
non-strikers, although Mr. Brown said he wanted “negotiation” to take
place.

The comments came as the latest
strike by cabin crew entered a second day, with both sides claiming an
advantage.

The airline has cancelled 30 per
cent of flights from the UK on Sunday, including 42 per cent of Heathrow
departures.

So far 131 flights from Heathrow
and a small number of flights from Manchester, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Edinburgh
and Glasgow have been cancelled.

But the airline said services from
Gatwick Airport and London City Airport would be operating “normally”.

‘Arbitration and negotiation’

Unite has said BA was wasting
millions of pounds by paying other airlines to carry its passengers.

Speaking to the BBC’s Politics
Show, the Conservative leader criticised Prime Minister Gordon Brown for
failing to back those cabin crew staff who chose not to strike.

He said: “I think a leader
should say ‘of course, if people want to go to work, they should go to work and
I back them going to work’.

“I think the unions have
scented weakness in the government and that’s one of the reasons why we’re
seeing quite so many strikes.”

He also referred to the first
national rail strike for 16 years – at Network Rail – which is due to start
next month.

But Mr. Brown told the programme:
“We want BA workers to be back at work, so we’ve said we don’t want this
strike. But we also want to make it possible for arbitration and negotiation to
take place.”

Gordon Brown claims the government
has been ‘very tough’ on the BA strike

He said the number of days lost in
industrial disputes under Labour is a 10th of what it was under the last
Conservative government.

His comments were echoed by Ed
Balls MP, who told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show “it was complete and utter
nonsense” to say that government was unable to take tough action over the
strike because of the Labour party’s relationship with the union.

One striker, who wanted to remain
anonymous, told the BBC a lot of those on the picket line were single mothers
who did not want to be on strike but felt they had no other option.

She said staff felt bullied and
harassed and felt the company was trying to break the union. She said: “We
give our heart and soul to this airline and that’s what we’re fighting
for.”

The company has denied the allegations.

Heathrow passenger Josh Philpotts
said: “I think the strikers are the ones in the wrong. I just think that
in a recession they should be grateful for a job.”

But Elizabeth Larnach, whose BA
flight to Glasgow was among those cancelled, supported the action and said
staff were not paid enough.

BA has said it hopes to fly more
than three-quarters of passengers departing from UK airports during the
four-day strike, which began on Saturday.

A spokesman said: “The numbers
of cabin crew reporting at Heathrow are currently at the levels we need to
operate our published schedule.”

Boss Willie Walsh said the airline
was doing “everything possible” to achieve that and was committed to
resolving the dispute.

Unite said with no sign of an
agreement over changes to pay and conditions, strike action could continue
after Easter, although no further action would be taken before 14 April.

The union’s national aviation
officer, Brian Boyd, said it was hopeful negotiations could resume before then.

“We have a two-week period now
over Easter where we have said to the British public that we would not be
disrupting Easter holidays for families.

“But we’re hopefully going to
be speaking with the company but that’ll be down to the company because, at the
end of the day, if we have a resolution to this, it has to be negotiated.”

On Saturday, the airline cancelled
a third of departures – about 90 flights, mainly out of Heathrow.

Passengers in the US have also been
experiencing problems, with several flights into and out of New York’s JFK
airport from Heathrow cancelled.

The dispute centres on BA’s
cost-cutting plans, including reducing the numbers of cabin crew on long-haul
flights.

BA estimates that
last week’s three-day stoppage cost the company £21m.

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