Gate Gourmet workers bravely fight on

Sacked workers at Heathrow airport fighting for reinstatement are facing opposition from employers and union leaders alike.

On 25 March, locked out Gate Gourmet (GG) workers and supporters demonstrated through the centre of Hounslow in West London and held a rally in Hounslow Civic Centre. This demonstration of determination and solidarity, more than six months after the workers had been locked out of GG’s food preparation plant at London’s Heathrow airport, was joined by about 25 strikers and supporters from Dusseldorf in Germany. They too are taking action against GG, and have been on strike over working conditions since October last year.

GG workers at Heathrow have been locked out since 10 August last year, as reported in the October/November 2005 Issue of Proletarian. Prior to that, GG and the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU), which claims to represent the workforce, had stitched up a deal that would have produced considerably worse working conditions. They called this deal a ‘survival plan’, ie, it would allow the company to enhance its profits by intensifying the exploitation of its labour force.

In what must have been considerable embarrassment to the T&GWU, when put to a ballot the agreement they had promised to deliver was rejected by a ratio of 9 to 1. Gate Gourmet went on to Plan B (or whatever letter they had got to) and recruited an alternative slave labour force to work under far worse conditions. Having brazenly brought in these new ‘staff’, management sought a meeting with the workforce, ostensibly to get clarification about what was happening, and then declared them all – over 750 people – sacked. This included those on holiday, off sick or on other shifts!

In what was one of the most significant union actions in recent memory, baggage handlers at Heathrow, who are organised in another branch of the T&GWU, immediately walked out in solidarity and were on unofficial strike for two days. The disruption of flights was immense, and Heathrow airport was almost brought to a standstill. Although this action was a magnificent example, its effect was limited by the action of the very union that was supposed to represent the interests of its members and protect them from action by their employer. The T&GWU scuppered the action, not only condemning the baggage handlers but forcing them back to work. They allowed victimisation of shop stewards, two of whom were sacked.

The T&GWU have now stitched up another deal with GG, which has given the company free rein to sack nearly 150 workers (‘compulsory redundancies’ of those they consider ‘trouble makers’!) and encourage many of the rest to take ‘voluntary’ redundancy. The agreement also prevents any future employment by GG or any Employment Tribunal (ET) action. GG tried to insist that all the strikers should sign individually before any could be taken back, but when this tactic of putting pressure on all to sign was not effective, GG switched to other, divide and rule, tactics and has now accepted back some of those who have signed up to the agreement.

Many workers have initiated action at the ET, including claims of unfair dismissal and racial discrimination. This did not happen, however, until they engaged a private solicitor. Meanwhile, the T&GWU are putting every pressure on their members to sign the agreement and discontinue ET action, giving no legal support and withdrawing hardship payments to those refusing to do so.

The Gate Gourmet strikers’ action demands the utmost solidarity from the British working class. It is reminiscent of the Hillingdon Hospital strike – another highly significant industrial action involving a group of low-paid workers (also of predominantly Asian extraction) who persisted, against all odds, in fighting the bully-boy tactics of their employers; indeed, some of the veterans of that action were on the demonstration on the 25th.

In fighting to protect living and working conditions, workers not only have to take on their employers; they also have to take on union ‘leaders’, like those of the T&GWU, who are labour aristocrats tied to the coat-tails of the Labour Party and social democracy. It is clear that there will be no real success until workers follow the example of the baggage handlers and defy the anti-trade union laws – and get a union leadership that will do so too.

Tony Woodley, the General Secretary of the T&GWU is now ‘leading’ a union attempt to revise the anti-union laws, and is using GG as an example! But let no-one be taken in. All Woodley and his ilk really want is to tinker so that the social-democratic union leadership can regain some of the credibility they have lost, and can continue to sell out the working class.