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The Two Hundred Million Pound Strike

The 2003 British Airways Walkout


Ed Blissett

This book describes and analyses the 2003 British Airways (BA) Customer Service Agents’ (CSA) 24-hour unofficial strike. It examines the lead up to the dispute, in which negotiations failed to reach an agreement over the launch of BA’s Automatic Time Recording and Integrated Airport Resource Management systems, before focusing on the dispute itself and its eventual resolution.

Central to the book is the question: why did a group of union members, the majority of whom were young women, become so incensed at an imposed change to their working practices that they took unofficial strike action? This they did in the knowledge that they could all have been legally dismissed.

In analysing the strike, the book explores why BA’s management imposed such a controversial change to working practices on the company’s busiest weekend of the year. A decision which, allegedly, cost the company two-hundred-million pounds, tarnished its reputation, and saw numerous senior managers lose their jobs.

How and why the CSAs’ three trade unions (the GMB Union, the Transport and General Workers Union and Amicus) reacted in such different ways to the unofficial strike, and then behaved so differently in the subsequent negotiations, is also central to this study.

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Chapter 1 Introduction and précis of the dispute


It was 14.55 on Friday 18 July 2003 and I was driving away from London Heathrow airport (LHR), having spent the previous three hours recruiting GMB members at the aviation ground handling agent, Aviance. As usual on a Friday afternoon my progress on the M25 was slow. The heavy traffic was worse than normal, as the schools were breaking up that afternoon for their summer holidays. My mobile phone rang, and I answered, hands-free.

Remembering that call, seventeen years on, I am struck by how it resembled a scene from the Boulting Brothers comedy, I’m all right Jack (1959). In the film, Peter Sellers, who plays Fred Kite, a British missile factory senior shop steward, addresses a meeting of union members, who have been incensed by a ‘time and motion’ report. Having finished his speech he is asked, ‘So are you going to take the drivers out then Kitey?’ ‘No Brother’, he replies, ‘everybody’s out.’

On that July afternoon in 2003, I was immediately aware of the repressed excitement in the voice of the British Airways (BA) GMB representative (rep). They related how senior managers had behaved that day, and that the Customer Service Agents (CSAs) were about to walk out in response. I was astounded and asked, somewhat incredulously, ‘Which members? Where? When?’ I can still hear their reply today:

All the members, Ed. Everybody’s out at 15.00. I’ve got to go now – but we wanted you to know before it...

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