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Why are the British Airways unions snubbing redundancy consultations?

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In recent weeks we have extensively covered British Airways’ proposal to make 12,000 staff redundant as well as move all remaining cabin crew to a single, lower paying contract.  We have also written about BA’s plans to make 239 engineers at its Cardiff maintenance base redundant.

Similar proposals for mass redundancies, changes to working practices and pay cuts for those who remain have been submitted for all other areas of the company including head office staff.

None of these proposals are yet final.  In line with legal requirements, each is subject to a 45 day consultation period with the relevant unions.

There had been rumours that almost all of the unions have refused to engage with these consultations.  A letter from British Airways CEO Alex Cruz leaked to the Financial Times on Monday confirms this.

In the letter, Cruz acknowledges that productive conversations have occurred with BALPA, the British Airline Pilots Association, but that GMB and Unite have so far failed to attend any meetings:

“Consultation is so important, and productive conversations are already being held with BALPA.  I am sorry that neither Unite nor GMB have attended any of the daily meetings they are invited to so that they can provide ideas and input into any of the other proposed changes, and maximise the number of jobs saved.”

In the same letter Cruz acknowledges that the UK’s 14 day quarantine will delay any pick-up in activity, stating that it “deals another blow to our chances of starting the recovery phase”.

Unite has said it will launch a public campaign against British Airways management.  Instead of joining the consultation, it is relying on the argument that ‘meaningful consultations’ cannot occur when a large portion of the workforce is furloughed and legally unable to work.  A furloughed employee loses their right to furlough pay if they do so much as send or reply to email via their work address.

In a letter to the British Airways board, Unite has called for British Airways to remove the redundancy threat to give “time and space” to “real discussions”.

The letter adds:

“If this is really all about the Covid-19 crisis, why have you refused to suggest or accept any temporary measures with joint reviews, so that terms and conditions would be returned as revenue climbs?  In truth, you have imposed this without any intention of negotiating.”

Unite and GMB are taking a gamble, especially as they do not appear to be seeking a legal ruling on whether consultation can take place whilst employees are furloughed.  We are now halfway through the 45 day consultation period and yet no discussions have taken place.

It appears that British Airways, by attempting to open a consultation period, has met its legal obligations.  It will be able to dismiss its entire workforce on 15th June if it wishes, offering new contracts to those it wishes to invite back.  There is a risk that Unite and GMB will fail to achieve the best possible result for their members (which, of course, will not be great but potentially better than the current offer) by focusing instead on a public campaign against the airline.

British Airways is, of course, far from the only airline to announce permanent lay-offs, although it is the only one looking to cut the pay and conditions of all staff.  Virgin Atlantic is seeking over 3,000 redundancies, or a third of its workforce, whilst Lufthansa sees at least 10,000 excess jobs over the next few years. Finnair has announced it may cut up to 1,200 jobs whilst SAS has announced it will be cutting 40% of its workforce.


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Comments (152)

  • George says:

    It seems bizarre – gov website suggests employees can check their work email while on furlough, they just can’t do any work that could lead to revenue generation. It also suggests union reps can also carry out union duties while on furlough.

    The argument that the union can’t discuss proposals with its members doesn’t wash when you consider one of the issues facing BA going forward is the rise of video conferencing software like Zoom which allow for large meetings/discussions to take place virtually – and surely memebers being furloughed means they are more contactable rather than working shifts at all hours. If the union can constantly send updates to both it’s members and the public on what it’s doing, it can consult with it’s members on BAs proposals.

    Rather than work with BA to improve the deal that those who stay with BA are left with, the unions seem to be content shouting about the most extreme pay cut proposals (unless everybody is being asked to take a 70% pay cut and all cabin crew are on roughly £80K) in a public ‘leverage’ campaign (which if it manages to damage BAs reputation & impact future bookings could lead to a requirement for less staff) and focusing on a potential unfair dismissal claim after the fact which is a gamble at best.

  • Chrisasaurus says:

    “ A furloughed employee loses their right to furlough pay if they do so much as open an email sent to their work address.”

    Not in HR but I do have staff on furlough – and from my understanding this is categorically untrue is it not?

    • DJ says:

      Yes, it is categorically untrue. A business may consult with staff on furlough. The unions should be aiming their beef at Rishi Sunak and the Government teams who wrote the rules, not BA who are simply following them – one assumes because in these dire circumstances time is of the essence.

    • Blenz101 says:

      They aren’t allowed to do anything which provides a service to or generates revenue for their employer.

      I don’t think reading and email would count but I am sure a trade union would argue differently. Details of the continuation of the furlough scheme at my place of work are communicated to those staff via email and updated / checkins held via MS Teams meetings on company laptops and phones. I doubt my company and others like it is at risk of risking furlough payments for affected staff.

      I can see the unions negotiating tactic but they are doing their members a disservice. There is no way BA will remove the redundancy threat. And any sensible person can see that there has never been a better time to engage staff given the vast vast majority are sat on their hands at home not flying.

      Usual sympathies for those affected etc. but the good times are over (certainly for WW). Given every airline is doing the same the aviation job market is about to be flooded. It seems at least the pilots can see this.

      The union have no cards to play, not having to pay striking cabin crew who you want rid of anyway would be a welcome bonus.

    • Lady London says:

      MSE said cant open emails from work on furlough and they generally give solid and well-supported advice. Furlough is furlough. Unions fought for the right to have union meetings during working hours in the UK so union stuff relating to a particular employer is work.

  • Mo says:

    The unions are loosing members over this (I don’t know how many)
    GMB sends a letter to members that essentially says ‘stop asking us to join consultations’
    Many departments outside of WW & EF reminding their unions that BA is not just cabin crew.

    “Unite has said it will launch a public campaign against British Airways management”
    Unite’s campaign is designed to harm the BA brand and reduce revenue – there is no logic there at all for arguing more staff should remain and on higher pay than proposed.

    “A furloughed employee loses their right to furlough pay if they do so much as open an email sent to their work address” – This is not true.

    • Andrew says:

      Unite’s spread is so big and wide that they seem to forget who they represent.

      When I started work, I was in BIFU which eventually joined up with a few other organisations to became Unite. Towards the end, it was just getting incredibly annoying for them to keep taking the fees every month, but their rags were full of nothing but red faced angry people expressing how much they hated bank staff.

  • Ralph says:

    Per HMRC website:-
    Furloughed employees working as union or non-union representatives
    Whilst on furlough, employees who are union or non-union representatives may undertake duties and activities for the purpose of individual or collective representation of employees or other workers. However in doing this, they must not provide services to or generate revenue for, or on behalf of your organisation or a linked or associated organisation.

    • memesweeper says:

      … most staff aren’t union reps, and they need to be consulted too. If a member of staff (not a union rep) refuses to open their company post or email because they are concerned they are providing a ‘a service to or generat[ing] revenue for’ BA then that’s (weakly) arguable. Good luck to them. BA are abusing the furlough process in the same way D Cummings abused the lockdown rules. I hope neither get away with it.

  • ChrisBCN says:

    I guess the union understand that the only thing they can achieve for their members is a massive cut to everything. Even if they manage to negotiate really well, the outcome still remains a massive cut to everything. So, change the game instead via a public campaign. Unfortunately for them, this won’t work either.

    The worst case calculation on the BA side is they fire and don’t rehire all on the non-mixed fleet side. That means they have a race to hire new crew, but considering how many are/will be unemployed around Europe that wouldn’t be that big an issue at all, helped of course by knowing they have many many months before they need as many crew as they have now. Very little downside for BA here at all (even the argument about experience, should they care about that, is removed as there are enough experienced crew out there who are/will be looking for work).

    I’m passing no judgement on what is morally right or wrong, but the game really is over for the crew.

    • The Savage Squirrel says:

      Yes it’s likely to be a judgement by the union that they have zero negotiating strength so any attempt to negotiate will make it appear to members that they have both colluded in some way with the cuts and failed.

      The crew will make a lot of noise, but in a climate where their redundancy plight is nothing special, the public will accept that the company is in genuine difficulty (true or not) and they will be replaced by a different company on tomorrow’s paper, where they cannot have any operational effect with a strike, and when they’re getting paid significantly more than nearly all other people doing an identical job (whether or not you think that rate is right) and the company has plentiful hiring options at that rate … yes, GAME OVER.

    • Ian says:

      Chris, this is a very good (and true) summary of the current situation. Higher paid cabin crew have enjoyed their benefits for a long time but those times are now gone for ever.

      • Ken says:

        As much as I loathe the BA management, yes the gig is up for WW and EF. They’ve had a good innings, remarkably so really as many of the T&C’s for some appear to be pre-historic.
        Should be just looking to maximise what they can get & and hopefully improve mixed fleet pay.

        Don’t think unions will win a publicity war either in current environment. Enough people fly cheaply these days to know that cabin staff aren’t paid £30k a year (never mind more).
        And sadly there seems an inexhaustible queue of people desperate to work for BA , Ryanair and EasyJet for roughly the same hourly as working in McDonalds.

  • jil says:

    The only weapon of those powerful unions is organising strike, at this time, they can’t do it so no leverage against BA

  • BJ says:

    Isn’t there a requirement that consultations/negotiations between employers, staff and unions have to be conducted ‘in good faith’ or something like that? No idea to be honest but it is something that seems to be stuck in the back of my mind from somewhere but is likely little more than my recollection of spin in the media. If there is more to it though, could it not be the subject of legal challenge that BA is not acting in good faith given the difficulties presented by these extraordinary circumstances?

    • Rhys says:

      In what way is BA not acting in good faith when it is the unions who won’t turn up to meetings!

      • Paul jones says:

        Because Rhys the options here are basically like walking in and being asked if you want them to cut off your arm or your leg! In situations like this there should always be an informal process first- even Ryanair has followed that process so by not doing that as a has already shown they are not acting in good faith. Also it’s not about them being able to consult with BA it’s about them being able to consult with members be it briefing sessions, 1-2-1 meetings and larger union meetings to explain the changes. On a final note this isn’t a negotiation it’s a consultation- the two are very different and if BA has wanted to negotiate one would have thought they’d have had an informal process before steam rolling through the 188 notices! 🤷🏾‍♂️

        • AJA says:

          It still takes two to consult or negotiate. By failing to engage the unions are not able to consult or negotiate. BA doesn’t really want to negotiate, but it has clearly said it is available and open to engage with the unions. BA has also clearly said what it plans to do and it is up to the unions to engage and negotiate a better outcome for their members.

          The trouble for the unions is that they have very little leverage to offer against BA’s proposals.

          By just refusing to engage the unions are trying to make BA out as being an awful employer ramming through awful conditions and pay cuts on its loyal staff. But the reality is that BA tried to introduce these worse terms and conditions on staff 10 years ago. It lost at that time hence the introduction of MF as a new contract. Its difficult to argue today it’s a new contract since its been around for 10 years.

          It’s also extremely difficult to argue the cuts aren’t necessary. Unfortunately it’s also a legitimate tactic to fire everyone and ask them to reapply for the reduced number of roles available.

          If it’s uneconomic for WW and EF crew to reapply for the roles then that’s awful but it’s not a legitimate claim for age discrimination. Also it remains to be seen if every WW and EF crew members will actually not reapply. It will also be interesting to see if all MF crew reapply, some may not. If any crew from any old contracts do apply then their ages are irrelevant. And any argument that it’s only WW or EF fleet that are being targeted fails.

          What BA is doing is morally dubious but it’s not illegal. I also think it’s likely to get its way.

      • BJ says:

        No idea, I am just asking the question. If there is such a requirement then simply trying to address the issue in current circumstances could be perceived as bad faith given severe restrictions on work, meetings, travel etc. Obviously we run into problems here because it is is clear BA need to do something because of the current situation, I’m not arguing with that. However, I feel bad faith may come into it given that they started this (and aim to complete it?) under furlough. In doing so they are using tax payers money to pursue longstanding goals that predate the current crisis. The needs of the current crisis could be address by some redundancies and temporary pay cuts for those remaining. It does not, by any stretch of the imagination, require dismissal of their entire staff and rehiring some on less favourable contracts. This is not responding to the crisis, this is exploiting it at tax payers expense.

      • Ken says:

        I suspect the argument will be that any consultation is a sham. High risk not to engage though.

    • blenz101 says:

      What difficulties? BA is no different to any other company which had announced redundancies and has staff on furlough. Easier to consult them given they are all sat at home rather than scattered across the globe?

      As Rob says in the article, it’s high risk by the unions. If they believed BA had a case to answer about runnning the consultation at this point in time they could challenge it now. By not engaing they are running down the clock and will achive zero consessions for their staff (lets face it cabin crew).

      Best case outcome could have seen improved mixed fleet type contracts that provide a more reasonable living wage for anyone who chooses to remain. By letting the airline impose the contract on a take it or leave it basis in the current climate that opportunity is lost.

    • AJA says:

      I’d say that accusation can be levelled instead at the unions for failing to engage. They are supposed to represent their members and, if it’s true that their members are pleading with the unions to start engaging with BA and they’re not, then that sounds like the unions aren’t acting in good faith.

      It is very clear that the unions can engage with both BA and their members and not fall foul of the furlough rules. Especially when some members are actually asking them to do so. Doubly stupid when BALPA is negotiating.

      I feel very sorry for everyone affected at BA but the reality is BA is pushing ahead with cuts and implementing changes to their employment contracts. If the unions fail to engage then it’s their fault if BA gets away with anything draconian.

      A very stupid tactic by the unions to my mind.

  • Patrick C says:

    Same as with Ryanair, don’t let a good crisis go to waste to perfect your social dumping and customer rip offs.
    Cabin crew pay is a form of modern slavery in the meantime…

    • ChrisBCN says:

      Please don’t compare people being paid for a job that they have applied to do and have the freedom to leave in any way to slavery – this is ignorant, racist, insensitive and frankly utterly dumb. Calling it ‘modern’ slavery does not excuse you.

      • mradey says:

        Patrick is performing satire, surely.

      • Briandt says:

        Quite right too..+1

      • Paul Pogba says:

        Chris, how is the loose use of the term slavery “racist”? Slavery has impacted all races including whites, 1.2m of which were taken from Europe by Barbary pirates to Africa. It was also common under the Mughal empire and was decided on a religious rather than racial basis.

        • mark2 says:

          The White Slave trade could be regarded as racist, although the term/idea had not been invented then.
          A quick glance at the Domesday Book shows that there were many slaves in English villages in 1086, apparently fewer than when the Saxons were in charge.

          • Paul Pogba says:

            Slavery is always discriminatory and dehumanising but to suggest Patrick was racist for comparing terrible labour practices to slavery is ridiculous, it was hyperbole at worst. I imagine if he’d used the politically correct guardian approved term “wage slave” rather than “modern slave” he would accepted into the cult of the virtuous (https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2013/oct/16/employment-growing-wage-slaves-ons-prices-pay) for attacking a large business.

            I used to consider myself part of the left but the movement has been hijacked by out of touch perpetually offended morons.

        • ChrisBCN says:

          Paul, you should be aware that slavery is mostly one race against another, hence racist.

          • Paul Pogba says:

            Not necessarily, there are around 600k slaves in Africa today exploited by members of their own race but different ethnic group. A flippant comment regarding border line labour exploitation isn’t racism and you seem to be falling into the trap of blurting out “racist” like a Pavlovian response to anything you don’t like or understand. Its a practice that can only devalue the term which might prove problematic if it’s ever really needed to call out real discrimination.

          • ChrisBCN says:

            Like I said, ‘mostly’.

        • Charlieface says:

          Yes, just because it mostly stopped long before other races doesn’t mean it never existed

        • Lady London says:

          Why was my perfectly civilised comment about the current usage of the phrase ‘Modern Slavery’ deleted?

      • Lady London says:

        ‘Modern slavery’ is one of those new buzzwords that every company ‘has’ to have an official statement on showing how politically correct they are. It’s a slight exaggeration as a phrase but there is a relationship to slavery.

        • Rhys says:

          I have family friends who volunteer for modern slavery organisations. It is not a ‘politically correct’ buzzword but a very real phenomena. I wouldn’t down play it.

          Edit: I just deleted an unconstructive comment up thread which is why many of the responses disappeared, apologies. Let’s keep this civil, please

    • Mikeact says:

      It’s too easy for people like @Patrick C to make one off comments and to be never heard from again.

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