The union representing British Airways' cabin crews is gathering international support for a walkout due to begin this weekend, threatening to severely disrupt what remains of the airline's already depleted flight schedule.
Ignoring a plea from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to return to the negotiating table with BA management, Unite on Wednesday moved instead to raise the stakes for the cash-strapped airline by holding talks with unions representing ground crews in the U.S., Germany and Spain.
Coordinated international action by ground staff and service workers would cripple BA's plans to operate enough flights for more than 60 percent of its booked passengers.
"If a solution to this strike isn't found — and we, Unite and all our colleagues worldwide are actively seeking a settlement — then our member unions will continue to mobilize to support the strikers," said Gabriel Mocho, a spokesman for the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation.
Germany's ver.di service workers union said it was ready to help Unite in the strike, while the U.S. International Brotherhood of Teamsters also expressed solidarity — although both declined to go into detail of how far they were prepared to go as talks were ongoing.
"We want Unite to succeed, if it emerges clearly from these talks that something is needed at this or that airport at this or that time, we will do it," Ingo Kronsfoth, a ver.di official, said in Berlin.
"It is right for one union to support another in such a conflict," he added.
The Teamsters said they "stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at Unite who are fighting for a fair contract," but declined to comment further ahead of a meeting in Washington D.C. later Wednesday.
The aviation section of Spain's General Workers Union said it was evaluating a request from the International Transport Workers Federation to show support, again without giving details of what form any action might take.
Theresa Villiers, transport spokeswoman for Britain's opposition Conservative Party, said that Unite was "hell bent" on causing maximum disruption for travelers in the run up to the Easter vacation — a second strike is scheduled for four days from March 27.
"Unite should not be striking at all and trying to spread the dispute to other countries is even more irresponsible," she said.
Brown said an offer to workers that was pulled by BA on Thursday after the union called the strikes could form the basis of renewed discussions. BA argues that the disputed changes — including a pay freeze in 2010, a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow airport — are critical for its survival. Unite argues it was not properly consulted on the changes.
BA suggested Wednesday it was winning some support of its own, announcing it was strengthening its back up flight plans after more cabin crew said they planned to work as normal, without providing detailed new figures.
Earlier this week it said it planned to operate more than 60 percent of its long-haul services into and out of London Heathrow and 30 percent of short-haul flights. From Gatwick, it plans to operate all long-haul flights and more than half its short-haul network. Flights from London City airport should operate as usual.
BA has drafted in volunteer workers from other departments at the airline to stand in for the 12,000 striking cabin crew, and has also agreed with 40 other carriers to rebook passengers on canceled flights free of charge for the first strike period.
The British Association of Airline Pilots, which has resolved its own pay dispute with BA, has said it will remain neutral in the dispute.
"The determination of our colleagues across the whole business to keep the flag flying this weekend is increasing," BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh said in a statement on Wednesday. "I am delighted by the numbers of cabin crew who have been getting in touch with us to express their disillusion with Unite's position."
Brown, who has found himself in the middle of the dispute over a pay freeze and changes to working conditions, has been scrambling to avert a publicly unpopular strike on the eve of an expected tough re-election campaign.
Unite is a major financial backer of the Labour Party, leaving Brown in a difficult position politically.
The union has asked the government to investigate BA's plan to deploy strike-breaking crew, claiming they are not fully trained. In Australia, the Transport Workers' Union has asked the domestic civil aviation authority to ensure that volunteer crew are properly qualified to work.
"I think the important thing is the advice I gave to both the management of BA and the unions — to take a deep breath and keep calm, and keep talking about this issue," Brown told lawmakers during his weekly question and answer session in Parliament.
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