Labour frontbencher David Lammy has apologised to British Airways workers as he admitted making a “mistake” in condemning their plans to strike over pay.
The shadow foreign secretary had provoked anger from unions including the party’s single biggest donor, Unite, which accused Labour of hitting a “new low” by “supporting bad bosses”.
Mr Lammy has written to constituents to say he had “mistakenly understood” the situation to mean BA check-in staff were seeking an above-inflation pay rise, as he admitted: “I was not across the details of the case.”
On Wednesday he urged BA to “restore the pay of their loyal workforce”.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer backed down from disciplining his frontbenchers who defied orders not to join striking rail workers on picket lines last week.
Holidaymakers face chaos at airports this summer as BA staff demand the 10% of pay they had “stolen” from them last year as they faced “fire and rehire” tactics.
Mr Lammy was “categorical” in saying he did not support the check-in workers’ action during an interview with the BBC’s Sophie Raworth on Sunday.
“Many of us might want a rise of 10%, in truth, most people understand it’s unlikely that you’re going to get that,” he said.
Pressed on whether he supported the planned action, he added: “No, I don’t. No I don’t – it is a no, it’s a categorical no.”
But in the letter, first reported by the Daily Mirror, Mr Lammy said he had “misheard” the journalist’s question.
“When she said that workers wanted to reverse a previous pay cut of 10%, I mistakenly understood it to mean that they were seeking an above-inflation pay rise,” he wrote.
“I was not across the details of the case. It is right that those of us in public life admit when they have made a mistake. With this in mind, I apologise to all BA workers.
“During the pandemic, BA workers were threatened with shameful ‘fire and rehire’ tactics and had their pay slashed. That’s why I supported Labour’s call for ‘fire and rehire’ to be banned in 2020, as well as aviation sector support with a clear commitment to protect skilled workers and working conditions in the industry.”
Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, had been outraged by the remarks, deepening tensions between the union and Labour.
“Supporting bad bosses is a new low for Labour,” she said.
“David Lammy has chosen to launch a direct attack on British Airways workers. This is a group of workers who were savagely attacked by their employer during Covid. ‘Fire and rehire’ led to thousands of unnecessary job cuts and pay being slashed.
“This dispute is not about a pay rise – it’s about restoring money taken out of workers’ pockets by an opportunistic employer.”
Meanwhile, Sir Keir said it was “satisfactory” for frontbenchers who attended the RMT strikes against his orders to continue in their jobs.
It was understood party chief whip Alan Campbell spoke to the five frontbenchers, including shadow minister Alex Sobel and whip Nav Mirsha.
They were to be sent letters about their conduct in the future but were being permitted to stay in their roles for the time being.
Speaking during a visit to the Sanatan Mandir temple in Crawley, West Sussex, Sir Keir said: “I was very clear that a responsible government gets the negotiating parties around the table, that’s why I took the approach I did.
“The chief whip has now dealt with those that didn’t follow the advice and that’s a perfectly satisfactory outcome.”