Solidarity with sacked Gate Gourmet workers

Gate Gourmet workers are putting up a magnificent fight. The vile, cost-cutting management schemed to sack them en masse and is now engaged in a long planned scab-herding operation. The solidarity strike action by Heathrow baggage-handlers on August 11 could have brought swift victory. GG management had staged their provocation the previous day, sacking most of the workforce - the pretext being that requesting information and gathering for a meeting constituted "unofficial industrial action". The company's actions were in line with advice contained in a leaked 2004 internal memo: "Provoke unofficial industrial action. Dismiss current workforce. Replace with new staff." Gate Gourmet had previously demanded redundancies and cuts of around £2 per hour in the already low wages they paid (drivers were on £16,000 a year and most other staff on £12,000) and eventually agreed a less draconian package with the Transport and General Workers Union. But this was overwhelmingly rejected by the workforce - mostly TGWU members. As we know, 80% of Gate Gourmet's income in Britain is derived from its contract with British Airways and GG is BA's sole catering supplier. However, there has been a tendency amongst some to paint the caterers as a US-owned 'rogue' company and therefore the main villain, compared to a more respectable and sympathetic BA. For example, a TGWU spokesperson was quoted as saying that BA's role in pressurising GG to reach agreement with the union after the baggage-handlers' walkout had been "helpful". In fact it has been BA that all along has been criticising its supplier for tolerating "1970s-style working practices". It is apparently "outdated" in 2005 for workers to be allowed toilet breaks or time to change in and out of overalls. And it has been BA that wanted to make a new contract with GG conditional on a clampdown on workers' conditions. The reality is that companies large and small, together with Tory and Labour governments, have been allies in pursuing the anti-working class agenda of privatisation and subcontracting. Was the hiving off of BA's in-house catering to a private company 'market-driven'? How could that be, when GG is a monopoly supplier and BA has, at present, nowhere else to go for its in-flight meals? No, the whole Thatcherite agenda was shaped in order to weaken the unions - in combination with the 1980s 'industrial relations' legislation. The way this works has been demonstrated during the course of this dispute. 'Unofficial industrial action' is illegal, in the sense that it leaves workers (and their unions) open to civil action and deprives them of employment protection. So what the GG workers did on August 10 - collectively leaving their work in order to seek information at a canteen meeting - was clearly illegal under the anti-union laws. Many of these workers will not accept this. One shop steward told me: "We didn't do anything illegal. We just went up there for a meeting - that's all. It wasn't industrial action." Unfortunately, the anti-union legislation says that it was. Workers cannot leave their jobs to attend an unsanctioned meeting without first going through an exhaustive procedure culminating in the holding of a ballot to see if they really want to attend the meeting! The baggage handlers' solidarity action over August 11-12 was similarly illegal in that it was unofficial. But even if there had been a ballot, a strike would still have been unlawful, since it would have been deemed 'secondary industrial action' - ie, not in pursuit of the particular workers' own, narrowly defined, 'legitimate industrial grievance'. In other words, solidarity action itself is unlawful. The fact that in-flight catering is now provided by a separate company removes any claim the Heathrow workers might have had that they were striking against their own employer to protect or improve their own wages or conditions. If the TGWU had not repudiated their action and instructed them to return to work immediately, the union itself would have been open to legal action, which can, of course, eventually result in sequestration of its funds. In fact, as well as acting in solidarity, the baggage-handlers were pursuing their own grievances in an indirect way. Stewards at terminals one and four had been looking to stage a protest against BA's own agenda of attacks on its workforce, and the Gate Gourmet sackings were seen as an opportunity to firmly stand up both for GG workers and for themselves. The younger, more militant stewards in terminal one wanted to stay out longer, but the older 'moderates' in terminal four made it clear they would obey TGWU instructions, so both sets of workers returned to work after 36 hours. Senior union officials have stated they now want to see a change in the law. TGWU national secretary Brendan Gold might have told his Heathrow members to end their strike, but he also praised them: "Working people supporting other working people - we haven't seen it in the UK for years and years and years." Within a few days general secretary Tony Woodley was calling on Labour to amend the legislation against 'secondary action'. The "playing field" was too "heavily tilted "¦ in favour of employers against workers" and legal solidarity action - "exercised responsibly", of course, as "elsewhere in Europe" - could help redress the balance (The Guardian August 16). However, Woodley went on immediately to repudiate the action of his own members: "This is not to argue in favour of the sort of 'wildcat' action taken last Thursday. But I believe that it is time to bring solidarity action within the framework of the law - define its legitimate scope and make it subject to the same regulations on balloting and notice which regulate other industrial disputes at present." So the baggage-handlers' spontaneous, unballoted action would still have been illegal! The union bureaucracy, including its left wing, is just as much concerned at maintaining its own control as it is at 'levelling the playing field'. The TGWU is to put forward a motion at the September 12-15 TUC calling for change - which clearly will not be to the liking of New Labour. A senior Labour figure "close to the prime minister" was reported as saying: "We are braced for confrontation "¦ secondary strike action is going to remain unlawful. Tony will defend the Thatcher reforms" (Sunday Telegraph August 28). With or without the union bureaucracy, solidarity action can force both Blair and the employers to retreat. We saw an example of the bosses on the ropes during the Heathrow walkout, when BA spokespersons batted aside questions about seeking legal redress against their striking employees - it was much more urgent to look after the stranded passengers by negotiating a deal than flexing their muscles against the workforce at that time. However, since the union-forced return to work it has been a different story. BA chief executive Rod Eddington slammed the unofficial action as "outrageous" and promised an "investigation" to determine culprits. He even set up a scab phone line for staff who had "anything to report" about the strike. We need a strategy that aims not just to tinker with the anti-union legislation, but to sweep it away, lock, stock and barrel. We are not interested in a 'level playing field': we want to see workers victorious in the class struggle. We want to see them become the ruling class. It is not our concern that BA pleads poverty or unfair competition from other airlines and, as a result, companies like Gate Gourmet find themselves in trouble. Our concern is the needs of workers. We demand the reinstatement of all sacked GG employees, together with their previous pay and conditions. If that means bankruptcy for Gate Gourmet, then BA must be made to take responsibility. Eddington can whine all he likes that BA is "an airline, not a catering company", but that is just so much hot air. If Gate Gourmet goes bust, then BA must take back catering in-house - together with all the workers. And if BA says it cannot pay, then the government must foot the bill. These demands must be raised as part of the campaign of solidarity with the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. But, most of all, we need to raise the question of working class political representation - the need for a working class party to fight for our interests. Peter Manson * Related article Are you on the workers' side? A sacked worker describes August 10 management ambush