British Airways dodged a potentially crippling strike over the holidays by 13,000 cabin crew when a judge in London ruled the union's ballot was invalid
By James Lumley, Steven Rothwell and Lindsay Fortado
(Bloomberg) — British Airways Plc (BAIRY) won a court order preventing a 12-day strike by cabin crew that would have disrupted travel for more than 1 million people over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Judge Laura Cox in London ruled that a strike vote held by the Unite union was invalid because it included people who had already agreed to leave the airline. While Unite plans to stage a fresh poll, it must give at least a week's notice, making a walkout before next year unlikely.
The strike by 13,000 flight attendants at Europe's third- largest airline was scheduled to begin on Dec. 22 after the failure of months of negotiations about staffing levels. BA and the union are holding separate talks to seek a lasting agreement.
"A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time in the year," Cox said.
British Airways said today it was "delighted" that the strike threat had been lifted and urged Unite to reflect before deciding on its next steps. The union said the High Court decision represented "a dreadful day for democracy."
Cox said in her ruling that Unite should have been aware that it was using inaccurate data for the vote. Unite called the strike on Dec. 14 after saying that 80 percent of crew members had turned out to vote, with 92 percent backing a walkout.
"It's very easy to be caught out and if you don't have a valid ballot the strike is illegal," said Ronnie Fox, an employment lawyer who wasn't involved in the case. "It's just necessary to read the fine print very carefully."
Cox said the rules are set out in an Act of Parliament and apply to all trade unions equally.
"We will of course be studying the judgment, but the fact remains that this dispute is not settled," Unite joint general secretaries Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley said in a statement. "BA must accept that there can be no resolution except through negotiation, failing which there will inevitably be a further ballot for industrial action."
Unite polled its members after British Airways last month introduced new working practices that cut at least one flight attendant on long-haul flights out of its London Heathrow hub.
Cox denied Unite permission to appeal her ruling. The union can still ask the Court of Appeal in London if they will consider hearing a challenge.
"For the moment Christmas is safe for all those travelling with BA," said Guy Lamb, an employment partner with DLA Piper UK LLP, who is not involved with the case. "Without an appeal, the union would be forced to re-ballot their members to hold a strike which is a lengthy process that would carry on well into 2010."
Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh is seeking to trim 140 million pounds ($226 million) from costs by eliminating the equivalent of 1,700 cabin-crew jobs through voluntary departures and part-time working after a slump in air travel pushed BA to a 217 million-pound loss in the six months ended Sept. 30.
British Airways fell 4.8 pence, or 2.4 percent, to 192.2 pence in London. The carrier's stock has gained 7 percent this year, boosting its value to 2.2 billion pounds.
British Airways said in a statement that today's ruling would be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families around the world and that "old-style trade union militancy" is not relevant to its efforts to return to profitability.
"In recent days, we believe Unite has formed a better understanding of our position and of the ways in which we could move forward," the airline said.
To contact the reporters on this story: James Lumley in London at firstname.lastname@example.org; Steven Rothwell in London at email@example.com; Lindsay Fortado in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.