Comment: BAA/Unite talks show the need for further dialogue

The successful conclusion of talks between BAA and Unite is to be welcomed, but there are much greater battles on the horizon.

By Philip Henson

Regardless of the outcome, many critics have opined that Unite may be taking a more militarist view on strike action. They have asked: if they are prepared to threaten strike action that could see six airports closed over a one per cent pay increase, what will they do when the cuts to the public sector as ushered in later this year?

Putting it another way, does the strike threat (and the reluctance to confirm whether any strike action would fall over the August bank holiday weekend) perhaps part of a sophisticated strategy show that they are a force to be reckoned with as the Sword of Damocles starts to hover over the public sector? I am curious whether the BAA strike threat was a sign that the biggest union in the UK and Ireland is dipping its toe into the sea of unrest to test the waters for further industrial action. Unite may have to decide if it is worth threatening war in order to try and bring peace.

We should also question in what circumstances the UK public will support future industrial action. I would suggest that the majority would support union members who propose to strike over fears about their working conditions and public safety, such as the action proposed by the RMT Transport Union over conditions on the London underground. In contrast the battle for hearts and minds may be difficult to win over a pay increase (no matter how small); especially if hardworking families who have waited to find last minute holiday deals discover that their travel plans may be hampered. It is imperative that we recognise the categories of staff who were balloted for the current industrial action. We are talking about security staff, engineers, fire-fighters and support staff at BAA’s six airports. These important workers are integral to the aviation industry, specifically in relation to security, and they should be listened to.

In my view we have to be careful not to venture into the realms of union-bashing, as the unions carry out an important role in publicising important issues which affect their members. For example Unite the Union are currently publishing a campaign to try and prevent baggage handlers in the aviation industry suffering from muscular skeletal injuries, and the RMT Union are raising awareness of safety concerns on the Tube tracks.

There was a more important subtext to the current BAA/Unite talks and that is one of a perceived lack of trust between the unions and the government. The main protagonists in the UK need to speak to one another about their concerns, and I would encourage an urgent and frank dialogue between the unions and the coalition government to clear the air, with a view to developing a new relationship.

Many will remember the pictures of industrial unrest and marches on the streets of Greece. I do not wish to be a soothsayer of doom, but unless we actively listen to the concerns of the unions (and their members) then to my mind there is the very real possibility that later in the year we could witness similar scenes upon London’s chartered streets.

Philip Henson is an employment partner and accredited mediator at City law firm Bargate Murray

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