A strike by British Airways cabin crew threw travel plans for thousands of passengers into disarray Sunday, as the political battle over the walkout heated up just weeks before an election.
The carrier and the Unite union, which represents 12,000 BA cabin crew, also traded fresh blows in the second day of the four-day strike and ratcheted up their war of words over the impact of the walkout.
Unite, whose striking cabin crew are staging their second walkout in a week, claimed more than 130 flights had been cancelled by mid-morning. BA has said it expects 75 percent of passengers booked during the strike period to fly.
Just weeks before an election expected on May 6, opposition Conservative leader David Cameron used the strike to attack Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labour party receives much of its funding from Unite.
Cameron told the BBC Sunday that Brown had displayed “weakness” in his response to the BA dispute and another planned strike by railway workers, saying this was “partly because he’s hocked to the unions”.
“The unions have scented weakness in the government and that’s one of the reasons why we?re seeing quite so many strikes,” he added.
Brown hit back in a separate BBC interview, saying there had been “far greater industrial peace” in the past 13 years of the Labour government than there had been in the previous 18 years of Conservative rule.
“We have been very tough about this British Airways strike, we’ve said its not in the public interest, it’s not in British Airways’ interest and we’ve said we don’t think it’s in the workers’ interest,” he said.
“But we also want to make it possible for arbitration and negotiation to take place,” the prime minister added.
Talks between BA and Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, broke down on the eve of the first strikes on March 20 and there is no date for them to resume.
“Until such time as a sensible proposal comes on the table, this dispute will continue,” Unite’s Steve Turner told the BBC on Saturday, adding: “There are no talks that are scheduled right now.”
The strikes centre on what the union says is BA chief executive Willie Walsh’s “slash and burn strategy” to cut costs, which Unite claims would lead to a two-tier workforce and damage standards of customer service.
But Walsh has warned the loss-making airline could fold in a decade unless the changes he wants are carried out.
“We are trying to transform the way we operate because the industry is changing and the economic conditions have changed so radically that we’ve got to change,” he told the Daily Telegraph Saturday.
He added: “If we don’t do this, BA won’t exist in 10 years.”
Striking cabin crew set up picket lines outside Heathrow airport on Sunday, waving flags and banners and singing derogatory songs about Walsh, who the union has accused of bully tactics.
“He wants to make it into a premium company with cheap staff but it just won’t work,” one cabin crew member said, asking not to be named.
On Saturday, the picketers were joined by staff from Iberia, the Spanish airline which is in talks to merge with BA, wishing to show their solidarity.
In an internal message to staff, Walsh said that on Saturday, the strike’s first day, 63 percent of crew scheduled to work had reported for duty, which was six percent more than last weekend’s walkout.
But Unite claimed 331 cabin crew had declared themselves on strike with a further 21 sick, which meant more than 50 percent of those rostered to work had joined the walkout.
“BA’s claim that most crew are working is another distortion,” said a union spokesman.