With the cabin crew ballot likely to return a large majority in favour of a strike, will BA’s woes actually influence the outcome of the general election ballot in May?
A protracted and nasty dispute between the UK’s largest union and the flag carrier airline puts Gordon Brown in an unenviable position. We’ve already seen from the ‘phony war’ in December that this dispute will be fought in the media and the PR strategies employed by each side will be critical. With a high profile and messy dispute the pressure on government to intervene grows each day.
Round one (before Christmas) probably went to the management, with cabin crews successfully (and correctly) portrayed as well paid and unwilling to be flexible in the face of not only a global downturn, but structural changes in the airline industry. The fact that BA cabin crew are paid significantly more, and have better perks and working conditions, than the rest of the industry was well communicated. The fact that many had actually been working with the new practices, with no disruption for the past 12 months was also mentioned, although perhaps less effectively via the media.
However, round two could be different. The news over the weekend that BA would remove or reduce many of the perks of striking cabin crews will cause some to pause to consider before voting for a strike. The perks, which are not part of employment contracts and so can legitimately be removed with no notice, allow many of them to live lifestyles that many on far greater base salaries can only dream of. However, as a PR move it may backfire on the management. It helps Unite to paint them as unfeeling capitalists. It will certainly be a dirty PR war. Which brings me to the Gordon Brown issue.
With increasingly vitriolic attacks in the media, plus a long drawn out dispute with both sides ready to fight to the death the pressure on Gordon Brown to intervene will become extreme. But can he be seen to favour either side? To side with the management (the rational economic choice) will exacerbate divisions in his party between those clinging to the New Labour mantra of the last 13 years and an increasingly confident Left seeking to shift the party back in that direction.
But to support the cabin crew and try to bend BA management towards a settlement will not only send a shiver through the whole of UK Plc, but will raise calls of ‘who really runs Britain?’ with Unite as the obvious answer.
Whichever he chooses Gordon Brown really can’t come out of this well.