A three-day strike by many of British Airways' cabin crew will go ahead after union talks with management collapsed, leaving the ruling Labour government with a major headache weeks before a general election.
The strike begins on Saturday and is likely to disrupt travel plans for thousands. It risks embarrassing Prime Minister Gordon Brown because the Unite union organising the action is Labour's biggest single financial backer.
Brown, who had earlier called the strike "unjustified and deplorable", demanded that it be called off at once.
Meanwhile railway signal workers added to the government's problems by voting to strike over job cuts and changes to working practices, raising the threat of a first national rail strike in 16 years. They did not name a date.
Labour, which is trailing in opinion surveys ahead of an election widely expected to be called for May 6, has strong union ties that go back to its foundation in 1900. Unite's political director is Charlie Whelan, Brown's former spokesman.
Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron has accused Brown of failing to stand up to Unite and compared the situation to the 1970s, which saw periods of severe industrial unrest under Labour.
His party have launched a billboard campaign entitled "Cash Gordon", featuring a picture of Brown clutching a fistful of union-supplied bank notes behind his back.
"When the crunch comes, he can only act in the union interest, not in the national interest," Cameron said this week.
"HAWKS" GROUND PLANES
Tony Woodley, Unite's joint general secretary, told reporters that BA cabin crew who are in dispute would go on strike at midnight for three days, and then again from March 27 to March 30, just as the Easter holiday season begins.
Woodley said "hawks" within BA who wanted confrontation had won the day, including chief executive Willie Walsh.
"I think it is a classic case of Mr Walsh unfortunately being one of the hawks who is looking for a war with our members as opposed to a negotiated settlement," he said.
The airline wants to save an annual GBP£62.5 million pounds (USD$95 million) to help cope with a fall in demand, volatile fuel prices and increased competition from low-cost carriers.
In full-page newspaper advertisements on Friday, Walsh said a "significant number" of cabin crew would work during the strike and the majority of BA staff did not support the action.
Brown's spokesman said the prime minister believed the 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."
Many crews, including those working on long haul flights from London Gatwick airport and all flights from the smaller London City airport, will be unaffected by the action as they have already agreed to the airline's proposed changes.
BA hopes to fly at least 60 percent of customers booked for the March 20-22 period, having retrained staff to provide cover.
The union had said cabin crew would call off the strike if the airline reinstated an offer that was withdrawn last week.
Walsh said he had put forward a new offer on Friday, which would remain open until the strikes begin, but admitted it was lower as a result of the costs the airline has incurred due to the planned industrial action.
"I have made it clear to the trade union that that is an expense that must be recovered, so the financial value of the proposal that we have tabled is definitely not as attractive as the previous one," he told reporters.
"Our business must make changes, and I am disappointed that the union has not been able to see the sense of the proposal that we tabled today."