Tens of thousands of air passengers were hit by travel chaos today when a lightning strike by baggage handlers grounded British Airways flights at Heathrow Airport.
The workers walked out in support of fellow union members who were sacked yesterday by catering firm Gate Gourmet.
BA suspended flights at terminals 1, 3 and 4 because of the unofficial stoppage by hundreds of baggage handlers, loaders and cargo staff.
The airline would normally operate 550 flights today, with August being one of the busiest months of the year for the airline industry.
Earlier, flights had left Heathrow but without any food on board, with passengers given vouchers to buy their own beforehand.
Around 800 Gate Gourmet employees were sacked yesterday in a row over working practices.
Many of those mounted picket lines at Heathrow Airport today.
Meanwhile the GMB Union told its workers at Heathrow not to cover for any of the striking workers and expressed strong support for the Gate Gourmet staff.
The dispute escalated at 2pm when BA began receiving reports that staff in the cargo area of Heathrow’s Terminal 1 had stopped work.
The action quickly spread to Terminals 3 and 4 and involved baggage handlers and other workers. BA does not operate out of Terminal 2.
At 3.15pm BA suspended all aircraft movements, leaving thousands of holidaymakers and other travellers stranded at Heathrow.
Frantic behind the scenes moves are underway tonight in a desperate bid to resolve the worsening dispute.
Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union urged BA to put pressure on Gate Gourmet to reinstate the sacked workers.
He accused the US owned firm of behaving in a “disgraceful” fashion in the way it sacked so many workers yesterday.
He said the company had unilaterally decided to cut wages and conditions and had refused to negotiate with the union.
“It is classic American union busting,” he said.
Mr Woodley warned that the dispute could escalate.
BA’s outgoing chief executive Rod Eddington said the company was doing all it could to resolve the dispute.
BA was taking an active role in trying to encourage Gate Gourmet and the union to reach a speedy resolution.
“I am encouraging both sides to continue talking in a bid to settle their differences as soon as possible.
“In the meantime we can expect to face continued disruption to our catering supplies for several days as it may take some time for the service to return to normal once agreement has been reached between the parties.”
Meanwhile Gate Gourmet workers who were sacked today accused the company of locking them in a canteen for seven hours yesterday without any food or water.
They claimed that a pregnant woman and another female worker who became ill were among those involved.
“They were behaving like a dictatorship. We were locked in the canteen so we were very upset and scared,” said one woman worker.
The union said that workers were faced with an ultimatum of signing a new contract with worse pay and conditions or be sacked.
Officials said the workers earned between £12,000 and £16,000.
The T&G claimed that the company’s actions were “provocative and premeditated”.
One official said: “Gate Gourmet is using heavy handed US-style union busting tactics to make workers redundant, and those tactics are unacceptable to the union.
“We are seeking the immediate reinstatement of the sacked orkers and it is clear that this situation, brought about by the management, will only be resolved by immediate constructive dialogue.”
Gate Gourmet said it needed agreement on a restructuring deal in order to stem heavy losses.