Air And Rail Strikes Threaten Travel Plans And Labour Hopes

(Telegraph) – BRITAIN IS FACING the most disruptive wave of industrial action since Labour came to power, as strikes by British Airways staff and rail workers threaten to throw the travel plans of millions of people into chaos.

In a move that represents a “nightmare scenario” for the Gordon Brown’s general election campaign, transport workers and public sector staff are set to stage a wave of strikes around the Easter period.

As many as 13,500 British Airways cabin crew – some of whom earn more than £50,000 – were beginning a three-day walk-out after negotiations with the company broke down.

BA said the strike – called by union Unite – would force it cancel a third of its scheduled flights, affecting 25,000 passengers a day.

A four-day strike is planned for March 27, and disruption to before and after each strike threatens two weeks of disruption for the airline’s customers.

Even before the cabin crew walk-out formally began, some BA passengers with tickets from London Heathrow were dropped from flights because of last-minute overbooking intended to beat the strike deadline.

Hours before the BA talks broke up, the RMT union announced that Network Rail signalling workers have voted for industrial action that could bring about the first national rail strike since 1996.

Rail maintenance workers have also voted to strike. A rail strike could come over the Easter weekend, when an estimated 10 million people are planning to travel by train.

The Public and Commercial Services union has also announced that more than 200,000 civil servants, benefits staff, immigration staff and court officials will strike on March 24, when Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, delivers his pre-election Budget.

The prospect of union action causing inconvenience and uncertainty for voters is causing alarm at the top of the Government. Senior ministers are afraid that voters will punish Labour for the strikes at the general election, planned for May 6.

Some minister fear a “nightmare scenario” where Mr Brown has to seek a dissolution of Parliament and begin the election campaign against a background of continuing industrial action.

Unite has given more than £11 million to Labour since 2007 and has links to more than 160 Labour ministers, MPs and candidates.

The Conservatives have highlighted those links, accusing Mr Brown of failing to stop the BA strike because Labour is “in hock” to Unite.

And while the RMT has cut its ties to Labour, Government insiders accept that many voters will still associate the union’s actions with the Labour Party.

The BA strikes have allowed the Conservatives to regain momentum lost during a period when Labour began to eat into their opinion poll lead.

A senior Cabinet minister told The Daily Telegraph last night that the issue would hurt Labour much more than a recent row over Lord Ashcroft’s tax status damages the Conservatives.

The minister said: “This is far worse for us than the Ashcroft affair is for the Tories. That is a story about politicians and the public view is they are all as bad as each other.

“But these strikes are going to hit consumers hard. Rail and air travel being disrupted will cause a real feeling of anger and it is bound to be taken out on us.”

David Cameron will today step up the pressure on Mr Brown, accusing the Prime Minister of being “feeble” and willing to give in to the unions.

Evoking the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative leader will promise to face down “vested interests” if he becomes Prime Minister.

Labour ministers had been hoping that last-minute talks between Tony Woodley, the Unite leader and Willie Walsh, the BA chief executive, would resolve the dispute, but the meeting ended without agreement.

Afterwards, Mr Woodley accused BA of wanting to “go to war” with the union by insisting on changes to pay and staffing levels the company says are needed to save money and stay in business.

Mr Woodley said: “The hawks have won the day. People who wanted to negotiate sensibly are being outmanoeuvred and outfought.”

Mr Walsh said the strike threatens BA’s business.

In a letter to Mr Woodley, he urged the union to back down, saying: “For the sake of our customers, our people and our business, it is time to move on and end this damaging dispute.

Meanwhile, the rail signallers, who earn an average of £50,000 a year, have voted for industrial action in a dispute over work rotas.

Only 54 per cent of RMT signallers voted for industrial action, but Bob Crow, the union’s leader, said industrial action “looms large”.

Robin Gisby of Network Rail accused Mr Crow of “classic militant tactics” and said the RMT should drop its planned action.

He said: “We urge the union to get back round the negotiating table and talk to us about the real issues, and stop trying to hold the country to ransom.”

Raising hopes of a resolution, Network Rail and the RMT last night agreed to talks at ACAS, the conciliation service, next week.

But the union did not withdraw the threat of industrial action, saying it will name the dates for any strikes next week.

Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, this week accused trade union leaders of trying to “hold passengers to ransom”, criticism that Gordon Brown has pointedly failed to repeat.

Lord Adonis said the failure of the BA strike was “disappointing.” He said: “This strike is in no-one’s interests and will cause major inconvenience to passengers.”

Theresa Villiers, the Conservative shadow transport secretary said Mr Brown should either force Unite to call off the BA strike or stop accepting the union’s donations to Labour.

She said: “Labour’s union paymasters at Unite are determined to inflict travel misery on thousands of families. It is disgraceful that they are going ahead with this unnecessary strike.

“Britain now faces Labour’s spring of discontent with militant unions threatening to bring our railways to a standstill as well. Strike action could leave the country facing a serious transport meltdown.”

Mr Brown himself made no comment on the BA strike, but issued a statement though a No 10 spokesman.

No 10 said: “The Prime Minister believes that this strike is in no-one’s interest and will cause unacceptable inconvenience to passengers. He urges the strike be called off immediately. He also urges BA’s management and workforce to get together without delay to resolve what is a dispute about jobs and wages.”