Unite plans spring offensive in Heathrow fire and rehire battle

Unite, the UK’s principal aviation union, has announced 41 strikes at Heathrow Airport this spring, in a bitter dispute following the company’s decision to fire and rehire its entire workforce, slashing their pay and reducing their conditions.

Targeted action

Targeted strike action will begin on Friday 2 April and there will be 41 strikes over a 23 day period, with the final strike scheduled for Sunday 25 April. The targeted strike action will involve engineering, airside operations, landside operations, fire service, campus security and central terminal operations.

Each sector will be taking seven days of strike action. During the strike period at least one of the sectors will be on strike on most days.

Fire and rehire

The dispute is a result of Heathrow Airport Limited’s (HAL) decision to fire and rehire its 4,000 strong workforce. Workers have experienced pay cuts of up to £8,000 (25 per cent of earnings) and report being forced to downsize, move to cheaper areas or give up their car, as a result.

Unite has described the decision to fire and rehire the workers as being all about greed and not about need. If this was about making savings due to the Covid-19 pandemic than pay cuts would have been temporary rather than permanent.

Greed not need

This was exposed last month when the company’s chief executive John Holland Kaye disclosed that despite losing £2 billion last year the company still had “£3.9 billion of liquidity, enough to see us through until 2023.”

The length of the forthcoming strike is now longer than had been initially intended, following a recent decision by HAL to not pay a worker for a complete shift if the worker is on strike for any of that time – a move which has further harmed industrial relations.

Safety concerns

Throughout the dispute HAL has replied on its “contingency” plans to keep the airport operating. Unite has repeatedly raised concerns that these measures are not safe and are potentially placing passengers and other workers at Heathrow in danger, all of which have been ignored.

The workers took their ninth day of strike action last week, on Friday 12 March. Last month, Unite tabled proposals which it believes would have resulted in the dispute being resolved but the company has failed to fully respond.

HAL not listening

Unite regional co-ordinating officer Wayne King said: “These strike days are avoidable, yet Heathrow is not listening. HAL railroaded these pay cuts through at a staggering speed, leaving thousands of workers on less pay just before Christmas. But while Unite put forward clear proposals in February to resolve the dispute, the company has yet to give any kind of formal response.  

"This speaks volumes about the kind of industrial relations HAL wants and how its management views our members.

“As a consequence Unite has launched a fresh wave of strikes which will cause considerable disruption and demonstrate that HAL's contingency plans are not fit for purpose.

“HAL’s management is guilty of further inflaming the strike, by deciding that they will not pay for a partial shift worked if a strike is taken. This has simply angered members and will result in increasing the level and intensity of industrial action.

“There is a fortnight before Unite’s spring strike offensive begins and HAL management could still resolve this dispute if it has the will to do so.”

Fire and rehire like a disease

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Fire and rehire is ripping through our workplaces like a disease. 

"Weak law lets bad bosses force through brutal changes to contracts, sometimes taking thousands of pounds off wages that families need to get by.

"It's a disgraceful practice that's outlawed in much of Europe and should be here.

"Unite is fighting for UK workers to be treated with the same decency. We won't stop until the law is changed to protect working people from attack."