Page last updated at 13:47 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

BA strike: The three men trying to find a solution

The three men at the centre of the British Airways' dispute with the Unite union have built reputations as tough negotiators.

Russell Hotten, BBC business reporter, looks at the men who must find a way through one of the most bitter industrial rows for years.

WILLIE WALSH: CHIEF EXECUTIVE, BRITISH AIRWAYS

Willie Walsh
Willie Walsh was nicknamed "slasher" by Irish unions when he ran Aer Lingus

When Willie Walsh, 48, took the BA helm in 2005 a confrontation with the unions was seen as inevitable.

Indeed, there have been several confrontations since, though nothing like the seriousness of the present dispute.

Although Mr Walsh's predecessors had inched towards modernising union practices, the airline's shareholders and aviation partners were frustrated at the slow progress.

What they got with Mr Walsh was someone who seemed determined, once and for all, to reform the company.

He moved to BA from the Irish state-owned airline Aer Lingus, another operator with a reputation for being stuck in the past.

The Irish airline's unions nicknamed him "slasher" for what they saw as the ruthlessness with which he set about cutting costs. But he restored Aer Lingus to profit and prepared it for a stock market flotation.

Born in Dublin, Mr Walsh has seen both sides of the fence. At 17 he trained as an Aer Lingus pilot and was union shop steward, before eventually moving into management.

Parts of the airline union movement never forgave him for "switching sides". He became chief executive of Aer Lingus in 2001.

Mr Walsh can appear austere and serious, and famously rarely takes holidays.

But Mr Walsh's interests reveal him to be a more relaxed character.

He enjoys a pint of Guinness, and his musical tastes include the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Pink Floyd.

His favourite film is The Life of Brian, whose celebrated final song - Always Look on The Bright Side of Life - Mr Walsh may have found himself humming frequently over the past weeks.

DEREK SIMPSON: JOINT GENERAL SECRETARY, UNITE

Derek Simpson
Derek Simpson, Unite's joint general secretary, is often painted as 1970s-style militant

Derek Simpson, 64, is a union leader who could have come straight out of central casting.

A fiery former communist and veteran of many industrial battles, Mr Simpson cut his trade union teeth on the shop floors of Sheffield.

He left school at 15 for an apprenticeship with a local engineering firm, and was soon attending his union's youth conferences.

He took the traditional path up the union ladder, becoming a shop steward, a convenor, and then being elected his union's Sheffield district secretary in 1981.

Critics of Mr Simpson like to paint him as a 1970s-style militant.

But his supporters credit him as one of the key figures behind attempts to modernise and internationalise Britain's trade union movement in the face of declining membership and weakening power.

The UK's engineering unions eventually transformed into Amicus, of which Mr Simpson became general secretary in 2004 - to the dismay of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who favoured rival candidate Sir Ken Jackson.

Mr Simpson then helped push through Amicus's merger with the Transport and General Workers Union to create Unite, now the UK's most powerful workplace movement.

He admits to being interested in nostalgia, and one of his passions is collecting old children's annuals and comics. He also likes Star Trek.

But anyone who believes that this reveals a man who prefers to dwell on simple pursuits will have sorely misjudged Mr Simpson.

His analytical mind is underlined by the fact that he received an Open University degree in mathematics and computing in 1987.

And a passion for chess suggests Mr Simpson is well able to think many steps ahead at the negotiating table.

TONY WOODLEY: JOINT GENERAL SECRETARY, UNITE

Tony Woodley
Tony Woodley came to national promience during attempts to save the Rover car company

Tony Woodley, 62, has been a familiar face within the motor industry for years.

But he achieved national prominence in 2000, when he led his union's attempts to save Rover Group, the Birmingham-based car company being sold by BMW.

While many of the participants in the Rover affair preferred to remain behind closed doors, Mr Woodley tried to bolster public support with regular television appearances.

He is both a savvy media operator, and a shrewd negotiator - two attributes his supporters say he is using to good effect in the BA dispute.

He was born into a working class family at Wallasey, on Merseyside, and still lives in the area, occasionally watching his favourite football team, Everton (Mr Walsh supports arch rivals Liverpool).

He failed his 11-plus, left school with no qualifications, and joined the Merchant Navy for four years "to see the world".

In 1967 he returned to the North West to become a production line worker at the Vauxhall car factory at Ellesmere Port. Like his father, Mr Woodley also became a shop steward at the factory.

He was identified long ago as one of the 'younger' breed of unionists who understood how globalisation and trade union legislation was likely to affect his members' power.

When the TGWU's leader Bill Morris retired in 2003, Mr Woodley's campaign to succeed rested on a platform for modernisation and integration with other unions.

Mr Woodley, though, soon became bracketed with what New Labour called "The Awkward Squad", a coalition of union leaders and rebel MPs who opposed some of Tony Blair's industrial policies.

Even today Mr Woodley likes to use the terminology of a union firebrand. He has accused Mr Walsh of wanting "a war" with the unions - a battle he gives every impression that he is willing to take on.



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