The high court has blocked the 12-day Christmas walkout by British Airways cabin crew after ruling that the strike ballot was illegal.
The decision means nearly a million BA passengers can complete their journeys as planned over Christmas unless there are wildcat walkouts by the 12,700 cabin crew who supported industrial action.
The dramatic intervention is a humiliation for the Unite union, which had considered delaying the announcement of a massive walkout earlier this week after receiving repeated warnings from BA executives that the vote was invalid.
The high court confirmed those fears by granting BA’s request for an injunction against the strike after around 900 cabin crew were balloted despite taking voluntary redundancy. Mrs Justice Cox ruled that the balloting error breached the 1992 Trade Union Act.
Unite slammed the verdict as a “bad day for democracy” and said it would hold a fresh ballot on a dispute over cuts in staffing levels. That is expected to take at least a month, meaning the 910,000 BA passengers expecting to travel between 22 December and 2 January can now carry on with holidays and visits to friends and relatives.
Speaking on the steps of the high court, Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, acknowledged that there would be “great euphoria” among hundreds of thousands of passengers. BA said it was “delighted” that the threat of a Christmas strike has been lifted by the court.
“It is a decision that will be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families in the UK and around the world,” said the airline, which faced losing up to £30m a day if the strike had gone ahead.
“There was never any need for a strike and we hope that Unite will take this opportunity to reflect before deciding its next steps. We believe the public would want that too. In recent days, we believe Unite has formed a better understanding of our position and of the ways in which we could move forward,” BA added.
Talks between the BA chief executive, Willie Walsh, and the joint leaders of the Unite union were expected to resume this afternoon but union sources said the airline had not been in touch since an adjournment yesterday. Both sides are struggling to find a way forward but today’s verdict could swing the situation decisively in BA’s favour. The Unite leadership was dissuaded from postponing the strike date announcement by representatives from BASSA, the Unite cabin crew branch, who were keen to put momentum behind a 92% vote in favour of strike action.
Public anger over the walkouts has been building this week and Unite’s determination to stage another vote could be met with increased political pressure. A BASSA source said crew would be angry but would not stage a unilateral walkout next week. “That will not happen. The crews are very disciplined. There might be one or two wild ones but they have been suspended already.” The mood on discussion forums on the BASSA website was one of anger at the Unite leadership for mishandling the ballot, and embarrassment over how cabin crew will face passengers on flights next week. Asked if the workforce had the stomach for another ballot, the BASSA source said: “The decision questions your faith in the whole system. It makes you wonder if you have the right to strike any more. It’s like losing in the last minute of the cup final.”
Unite’s joint general secretaries, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, said the dispute continued and warned that if negotiations failed there would “inevitably” be a further ballot. “While we have never wanted this dispute it is a disgraceful day for democracy when a court can overrule such an overwhelming decision by employees taken in a secret ballot,” they said. “We will of course be studying the judgment, but the fact remains that this dispute is not settled. Passing the buck to the courts to do management’s job for them was never going to be the answer.”