The union representing British Airways cabin crew was today preparing to appeal against an injunction which halted strike action planned by thousands of its members in a bitter row over jobs, pay and staffing levels.
Mr Justice McCombe granted an order against Unite yesterday, giving a reprieve for passengers who had faced weeks of travel chaos but drawing furious criticism from its leaders who described the decision as an “absolute disgrace”.
A spokesman for the airline said flights will still be affected for the rest of the week despite the injunction, with half of short-haul and 40% long-haul services from Heathrow set to be hit today because it is too late to reinstate a full service.
UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, who held separate talks with both sides, said the judgment was good news for passengers.
Unite members had been due to stage the first of four five-day walkouts from midnight last night, but the union was left urgently contacting its members to tell them to work normally.
BA chief executive Willie Walsh and Unite leaders Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson spent three hours at the conciliation service Acas and adjourned shortly after the court decision yesterday.
Mr Walsh said he hoped the injunction gave the union a chance to pause and consider again the “very fair” offer BA had made.
“There will be further talks but events have been overtaken by the court’s decision,” said Mr Walsh, adding that the industrial action was “unjustified”.
He said relations between the two sides were “strained”, but he added: “I genuinely believe it is time to move on. We have an opportunity to pause and reflect and hopefully we will be able to make progress.”
BA had argued Unite had not “properly complied” with the requirement to “send everyone eligible to vote details of the exact breakdown of the ballot result” and that, as a result, the strike action was “unlawful”.
While expressing sympathy for the union and its members, the judge said: “I am unable to say it is sufficiently clear that the union took the steps required by law at the time they were required.”
He said the “balance of convenience” in his view required the granting of an injunction.
During the proceedings, David Reade QC, for BA, told the judge his application was for interim relief – an injunction – “seeking to restrain the defendant trade union from inducing breaches of contract in respect of a strike”.
Unite sent text messages to its cabin crew members at BA urging them to work normally in view of the judgment, and saying the union planned to appeal against the decision.
Copies of the injunction were sent to all workplaces by the union.
BA said: “We are delighted for our customers that Unite’s plans for extreme and unjustified strike action cannot go ahead.
“We are sorry the court judgment cannot undo the disruption already suffered by some customers who were due to travel during the early days of the union’s industrial action.
“As Unite knew, we had to announce last Thursday the rearrangement of our Heathrow schedule to give customers as much notice as possible about changes to their travel plans necessitated by the strike call.
“Ash disruption permitting, we will aim to restore a full flying programme at Heathrow by the weekend. We will also offer a full programme at Gatwick and London City, as planned.
“We hope all sections of Unite, including the leaders of the cabin crew branch Bassa, will take this opportunity to pause and focus on achieving the early and peaceful end to this dispute which the travelling public and all our employees want.”
Mr Woodley and Mr Simpson said: “This judgment is an absolute disgrace and will rank as a landmark attack on free trade unionism and the right to take industrial action. Its implication is that it is now all-but impossible to take legally-protected strike action against any employer who wishes to seek an injunction on even the most trivial grounds.
“Because of the far-reaching consequences of this injunction for all trade unions and indeed for our democracy, we are seeking leave to appeal immediately. It need hardly be said that this brings the prospect of a settlement to the dispute with British Airways not one day closer.
“However, we will of course comply with the injunction, and will be immediately telling our cabin crew members, who have three times voted against the company’s conduct by overwhelming majorities, to work normally and not take or threaten any industrial action.”
Mr Woodley suggested Unite could now hold another ballot, adding that the result was a “bad day” for democracy in Britain.
He said: “This is a real breach of our fundamental rights. The injunction goes way beyond British Airways – it now brings into question whether it is possible for workers in struggle to take strike action to defend themselves.
“We have no alternative other than to instruct our members to work normally. If we have to have an additional ballot then we will do that.
“This doesn’t solve the dispute. Irrespective of the technicalities it will not stop this union balloting its members again.”
Unite said in its message to members: “BA have obtained an injunction from the court preventing us from taking the above industrial action. Members must neither threaten nor take any industrial action during this period, and must work normally.
“All officers and representatives of the union must do their best to ensure this message is passed on to all affected members without delay. We are appealing the decision.”