Categories: Crisis management / Trust and reputations

19 December 2009

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BA and its union caught in their own traps

Unite trade union leaders representing BA cabin crew are yelling that being told by the High Court that they can’t strike is a “disgraceful day” for democracy. That’s humbug! By declaring their ballot illegal the court did them a favour.

The union didn’t really want the 12-day strike (no matter what some of their members desired). The union was stuck between a rock and a hard place. With more than 90% of the BA cabin crew voting for industrial action over Xmas, war had been declared. But for the union this was a sign that things had got out of control.

First there was the preening of two competing general secretaries – Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley – both trying to outdo the other by wooing members to support their faction’s sole leadership bid. Then there was the membership, genuinely angry and out for BA’s blood. That’s a dangerous combination that nearly blew up in the union’s face.

Here’s an insider’s insight. I used to work for a trade union as a PR back in the 1980s. We held numerous ballots for many different types of industrial action. But I was often asked to tone down the rhetoric. Once a union official accused me of stirring things up: “you’re trying too hard to get a yes vote,” he said. What he meant was that any vote over 55% for action was not helpful. The logic went like this.

The ballot was not for action, which would have exposed the union’s weakness, but to strengthen the union’s bargaining position. A small majority for action was enough to give the union moral authority in negotiations, but a good excuse to keep the militants under control too (45% of your mates voted no). If the ballot helped secure a better compromise than would otherwise been had, the union then sought to recruit new members on the back of that success – not least from less militant staff associations. It was deemed a win-win.

Today’s industrial relations landscape is much less favourable for taking successful strike action than it was in my day. The union leaders know this. They were not blind to the PR disaster and company-ruining nature of a costly Xmas strike by cabin crew. But the Unite leaders representing BA cabin crew had become snared in a vice of their own making. The courts – regardless of the motivation – provided the union with a credible way out without them losing face in front of their members.

Now the union leaders have a lifeline. The backlash from the public against the audacious 12-day Xmas strike proposal (way over the top and a tactical mistake) will most likely sink in on the BA cabin crew. It will most likely temper the militancy when the next ballot is taken. It will most likely lead to diminished expectations and less harmful industrial action, if any: we’ll see.

But if the anger stays the same – this is going to end in tears for the union’s members. BA is in no position to compromise overmuch (for reasons which should be clear to readers of this blog). If there’s a full-on power struggle between management and union, either both sides will lose, or the union will be smashed.

BA management hardly shines in all this. It deserves a bad reputation for its historic incompetence. Chief among these is that it has arguably done more to inflame BA cabin crew and to turn them into militant hotheads than the union has.

After all, it was BA management that promoted its cabin crew as the centre piece – heart and soul – of the world’s favourite airline. BA used a fashionable – I would argue misguided – PR technique designed to turn one’s staff into brand ambassadors.

The problem was that BA cabin crew believed their own PR and sought the rewards and bargaining position that went with it. The hot and cold attitude of BA toward their staff (BA thought they could run a premium brand, with so-called premium staff, in a commoditized market and discovered that they couldn’t) just confused and demoralized them. It eventually led to uncontrollable anger among cabin crew staff as they sensed they’d been “betrayed”.

The lesson? The next time a trendy internal communications or PR brand guru says let’s use our staff as brand ambassadors – tell them about what happened at BA.

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