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Regardless of the detailed rights and wrongs on either side of the dispute, the fundamental issue that BA needs to deal with is that 93% of eligible BALPA (the pilot’s union) members voted for industrial action on a turnout of 90%.
However you cut it, there is clearly a real strength of feeling among pilots that what has been offered so far is not adequate. Whether BA management believes that feeling is fair or not is irrelevant. The situation simply is what it is – and has to be dealt with.
One possible way forward would be to maintain a firm line that the proposed deal won’t be significantly changed, regardless of how many strikes there are, or how much those strikes cost the airline. Given the level of devastation that the pilots could inflict though, that line simply wouldn’t be credible.
The only other path forward is some sort of negotiation.
If you must negotiate with people who are vital stakeholders and who cannot realistically be got rid of, there’s very little point in taking a negative approach. Regardless of how things are eventually settled (and they will be settled in the end), you are still going to have to work with, and rely on, the people you were negotiating with. In the years ahead, you want those people to be positive and aligned with the company strategy. You want them to feel valued and engaged.
The alternative is moody employees with bad morale, who mistrust management and lack any sense of loyalty or common purpose – not the sort of pilots most passengers want flying them.
Therefore, even if BA doesn’t want to give an inch as regards pay, it’s still hugely important to conduct internal negotiations in as friendly and collegiate a way as possible. Ensure the other ‘side’ feels listened to, suggest alternative improvements to conditions that aren’t directly pay-related, etc.
Fundamentally, the aim should be to de-escalate – it’s a difference of opinion between colleagues, not a civil war.
In this particular situation, I can’t see any benefit whatsoever in making the pilots angrier than they were already. All it can achieve is to make the eventual cost of settling higher than it otherwise might be – at the same time as making the benefits of settling lower, because morale is influenced by more than just money.
This seems pretty obvious stuff. But, BA management appears to have adopted the exact opposite strategy. Let’s take a quick look at a few of the steps they’ve taken so far:
- Seeking an injunction at the High Court against the strike based on a potential technicality. BA lost. When you’re dealing with 93% of a 90% turnout, attempting to hide behind technicalities is just presenting a red rag to a bull.
- Appealing against the decision of the High Court. BA lost again. Why fan the flames once when you can do it twice, I suppose…
- Putting out misleading official statements to customers like the following, “We understand how precious your summer holidays are and we are very sorry BALPA has threatened to call this strike action. We will continue to exhaust every possible means to avoid it and we urge BALPA to return to talks as soon as possible”. This was released at a time when BALPA had (temporarily) agreed to hold back from announcing strike dates, and after both sides had agreed to continue negotiations.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of BA’s strategy though, has been its media/public relations. There have been numerous stories in national newspapers over the last month based on information provided by unnamed ‘British Airways sources’ that have attempted to paint the pilots as greedy and unreasonable, and the strike action as somehow illegitimate.
For example, The Sun went with the following (characteristically) balanced and nuanced headline:
The Telegraph was a little more restrained:
Public statements from BA have taken a similar line:
“It is completely unacceptable that BALPA is destroying the travel plans of tens of thousands of our customers with this unjustifiable strike action. BALPA has given us notice that they will strike on September 9th, 10th and 27th. We are extremely sorry that after many months of negotiations, based on a very fair offer, BALPA has decided on this reckless course of action.”
The thing is, it doesn’t matter at all whether the strikes are ‘objectively’ reasonable or not. Even if BA pilots really were the greediest and most unreasonable people on the planet (which I very, very much doubt), it would still be stupid for the airline to claim it publicly, or to transparently spin that line to the press.
There are (at least!) three reasons why it would be counterproductive to do so:
- In the short term, angering the pilots makes a deal take longer and cost more.
- In the longer term, once a settlement has been agreed, pilots will still lack trust in management and be less wiling to go the extra mile. That also costs money.
- BA management seems to think that attempting to create a public dividing line between the pilots and the airline, and placing the blame for disruption entirely on the pilots side of that line, might help insulate the company from public anger over cancellations. The fact is though, most people don’t see a difference between a company and vital employees – British Airways and British Airways pilots are more or less the same thing as far as the public is concerned. The ‘British Airways sources’ spitting bile to the papers about their own pilots, are actively damaging BA’s reputation. It’s bizarre.
When it is inevitable that a settlement will eventually be reached, creating further bad blood with indispensable employees is a huge own goal. It costs more in legal fees, risks expensive strikes, makes settling more difficult (and expensive), and poisons morale in the longer term too.
In addition, by attempting to paint its pilots as greedy and unreasonable, the airline is damaging its own brand. Customers need to trust that the people flying them, and in whose hands they place their lives when they board an aircraft, are deeply professional. Any suggestion of conflict, distraction and chaos is corrosive to that vital trust.
Who do you think is most to blame for the planned strike action – BA’s management or the pilots?