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After strike action, snow and volcanic ash, nothing surprises BA head of employment law Julia Harrison. She talks to Tom Phillips about battles with the elements, staff and angry customers
It appears the old holiday adage is true: the rain in Spain does fall mainly on the plane. Except, for planes with British Airways (BA) on the tail fin, rain has been followed by snow, volcanic ash, recession, industrial action, religious discrimination… the list goes on. Welcome to the world of BA’s head of employment law Julia Harrison.
As far as flying puns go, Harrison could claim life at BA is ’turbulent’ without batting an eyelid.
Over the past 12 months the UK’s largest airline has found simply getting its planes in the air difficult enough. Some battles, with the snow and ash cloud, it would never win. But others, including the range of disputes with its staff, it could and more often than not would, largely thanks to Harrison and her team.
“This is a place where being optimistic is important,” says Harrison, whose knack of understatement has helped her survive one of the busiest 12 months ever for the employment team.
Of the numerous disputes, most well-known will be the proposed strike action at Christmas last year.
The employment team got involved in February 2009 as the economic crash took hold. After a summer of discussions over savings with the cabin crew union Unite, BA dropped all but one of the options on the table involving a change to crewing levels on its flights - not a contractual issue.
A proportion of the cabin crew staff disagreed and through Unite sought an injunction. This was successfully overturned at a hearing on 5 November by Harrison’s team, working with Baker & McKenzie. In February this year the case went to trial and BA won.
Thanks to Harrison and her team, the airline was spared disruption during one of the busiest periods of the year saving the company an estimated £300m.
“We were looking at an extraordinary period for strike action. It’s a different kind of busy, affecting a lot of families,” says Harrison.
Securing an injunction was a massive result for Harrison, one she describes as “very satisfactory” from a legal perspective but ”disappointing” that it ended up in court: “It’s not the place to resolve an industrial dispute,” laments Harrison, who faced subsequent 3-5 day strikes from 24 May and remains in discussions with Unite.
“While we don’t want to spend our time litigating we won’t hold back from doing all we can to prevent disruption to our customers,” she says. “In principle, union recognition is the best way to communicate with an employer, so long as it’s cooperative on both sides.”
After 12 years at the airline it appears nothing can surprise Harrison. She describes her BA career as a rollercoaster but to the outsider it appears like one battle after an another, whether it be with the elements, irate employees or even more irate passengers.
It is not unusual for Harrison to be drafted in at 6am on a bank holiday. During the heavy snow in January, Harrison was working at BA’s information desk dealing with stranded customers. Then there was the ash cloud and more recently the small matter of a merger with Iberia
Industrial action has remained a constant background to her job servicing the company’s 38,000 employees. But her working day has been punctuated by other lightning bolts, such as an office raid by the European Competition Commission and a major religious discrimination case surrounding an employee’s ’right’ to wear a crucifix.
Frustratingly for Harrison, much of the employment issues the company faces are played out in front of the country’s press, which remains fascinated by the corporation. It is “exhausting” at times, she admits, adding that she feels protective over the embattled company.
“An employer can often be presented in a certain light but quite often the press isn’t interested in the employer’s point of view,” she says. “But that’s life. After a couple of years you get on with it and look forward to the next interesting piece of work.”
However, BA should not worry about her leaving just yet. One gets the feeling the dogfights are actually part of the attraction.
“I might get paid more at a bank but I wouldn’t get the same experience,” she says. “That said, I wouldn’t mind the next six months to be a little quieter.”
Name: Julia Harrison
Organisation:British Airways (BA)
Position: Head of employment law
Industry: Commercial aviation
Reporting to:General counsel, Maria da Cunha
Main law firms:Addleshaw Goddard, Baker & McKenzie
Julia Harrison’s CV
1984-88: Geography degree, Leeds University
1990-92: CPE and LSF, Leeds Polytechnic
1988-90: Graduate trainee, NHS management scheme
1992-96: Trainee then solicitor, Denton Wilde Sapte
1996-98: Solicitor, Denton Hall
1998-present: Head of employment law, BA