In November when it became clear we – and our membership - were being excluded from negotiations over the Benefits Review, we held a ballot for strike action. This course of action was the last resort for the PPU, as it is for all unions. But when an employer refuses to afford about a third of the workforce an equal voice at the negotiating table, a stand had to be taken.
Pilots are not given to militancy; they are professional group, highly trained, disciplined and conditioned to do the right thing. That means they have an innate sense of right and wrong and are prepared to act on that. Which is why the level of support for industrial action was significant.
The PPU held a ballot for selective strike action which was overwhelming supported by the membership, commencing on December 22 and with the potential to continue until early March if VA failed to come to the table.
Our door has always been open throughout for VA to walk through.
Pursuant to the ballot and announcement of strike dates, VA sought an injunction in the High Court to prevent the industrial action, and the court found in their favour on one technical point concerning the ballot. This was enough for the injunction to be awarded and the strike action was suspended.
Backed by solid legal advice that the ruling creates a precedent that will impact on all future industrial action across the industry, the PPU are appealing the court’s decision. The appeal was lodged on January 7, and a date has to be set for it to be heard. Our lawyers are taking this action on a no-win, no-fee basis, which the PPU Board feels underlines their confidence in their chances of success.
However, while the legal activity was going on, the Board’s representatives met with Virgin Atlantic management at ACAS HQ in London. Two meetings were held following the High Court judgement, and more are planned. We will continue talking, trusting that the outcome of the appeal is academic and we can reach agreement through honest and productive dialogue. But we have been here before.
It must be emphasised that our position has not changed since we balloted our members; the PPU must have a Voluntary Recognition Agreement with VA, one that affords us equal status at the negotiating table. In addition, negotiations over changes to pilot’s terms and conditions as part of the Benefits Review must start again with the PPU at the table. This is not unreasonable. We represent about a third of the pilots in VA and those pilots are entitled to a voice through their chosen union.
Pilot’s benefits, terms and condition and what the proposed changes will mean
The PPU has described the review to VA pilot’s benefits as simply a cost-cutting exercise, and we remain of that view. It’s clear that the cost to the company of insurance premiums that provide the protections pilots need is becoming too expensive to VA. In the competitive environment of air fares, every cost is cut to the bone to provide the cheapest air fare and gain more travellers. We understand that.
Coincidentally – and for the same cost-cutting reasons - the changes to pilot rostering in recent times has seen a steady pattern emerged. More pilots being on long-term sick from industry related illnesses, relying more heavily on the income protections embedded in the existing benefits. “Efficient” rostering of pilots has resulted in scheduling agreement erosions and less recovering time between trips. It is not just how many hours are rostered that has the major effect on fatigue inducement. Insurance companies faced with heavy claims under the existing benefits are increasing their premiums, causing the company to ‘review’ these essential protections and –inevitably – diminish them. A perfect storm that pilots appear to be bearing the brunt of.
This is why the PPU needs to be at the table. It is why recognition will give us that seat and have a voice to combat what is singly the most dramatic threat to all VA pilot’s terms and conditions since the company was founded. Our members understand this, which is why they voted overwhelmingly in support of industrial action.