Northern Ireland: Airport workers demand the truth

IN MAY 2002 24 security workers at Belfast international airport were sacked for going on strike. The events around the sackings have led some of those involved to suspect collaboration between the management and local transport union (TGWU) officials.

Since the sackings, the leading shop stewards have been evicted from the Belfast offices of the ATGWU (the TGWU section in Ireland) by police called in by the union officials. The sacked workers are demanding that TGWU general secretary Bill Morris conducts an enquiry into the whole affair.

Gordon McNeill, with Madan Gupta and Chris Boyer spoke to Bill Mullins when they lobbied the TGWU leadership in London.

"It started over low pay. Our employers, ICTS, who work in 50 other airports worldwide, were paying us £5 per hour, with no overtime or shift allowances and no sick pay.

They are an Israeli firm and had responsibility for Boston airport, where two of the 9/11 planes took off. As a result, the management were putting more and more pressure on us.

Pay claim

We decided to put in a claim for a wage increase to £6 per hour. But we waited over six and half months for the TGWU to organise a strike ballot after the management made us a derisory offer of a 30 pence per hour increase.

We raised numerous complaints with Bill Morris about Joe McCusker, the local official, who works for Jim Elsby the Dublin-based regional secretary. (Elsby had been imposed by Morris after he had suspended the existing regional official, Mick O’Reilly, on trumped-up charges. See previous articles in the socialist).

We never had acknowledgement from either Morris or Elsby throughout this period and all the staff were fed up with the way we were being treated. There was a spontaneous stoppage by the workers demanding to know where their ballot papers were. They finally arrived two weeks later.

The management, of course, raised hell with the union over our protest stoppage and we were told by another official that they demanded the union get rid of Gordon McNeill and Madan Gupta.

Fourteen days later we got the ballot papers but brother McCusker insisted that we have an indicative ballot first. We got 97% in favour (104 for, three against).

Six days later we had the postal ballot, which returned a 97% vote in favour of strike action. Even McCusker said he had never had such a high ballot for strike action before!

We gave the employers 14-days notice of discontinuous strike action (though we were only legally obliged to give them seven days notice). We intended to go on strike in blocks of four hours to cover the airport’s busiest times, starting on 8 May 2002.

At 4am on 8 May we got a phone call from McCusker asking us to suspend the action. He said that the conciliation service of Northern Ireland, the LRA, had agreed to act if the action was suspended. We were assured the employers would make a serious offer at the LRA offices.

When we got to the LRA at 2pm there was a message from the company saying they couldn’t make it till the following day. Bill Condit, the senior TGWU official present said that ICTS were abusing the union’s good faith.

We gave the company till 14 May, otherwise we would strike. The company said they would meet us the following day with "a serious offer" if we suspended the action again.

When we met them on 10 May they had nothing new to offer but again asked us to continue suspending the action till 17 May. But at the next meeting on 13 May, there was nothing on the table.

We contacted the union’s legal director in London, who agreed we would not need to give another seven days notice of strike action. We phoned McCusker and told him this. McCusker then told the company we would strike from 7am the following day, 14 May.

On 15 May, when we came back to work, McCusker contacted both Gordon and Madan to say he was "repudiating" the strike – disowning it and withdrawing official union support.

The management then suspended 24 of the 44 strikers, including the four shop stewards. We tried to contact McCusker but couldn’t find him.

Pickets were put on the airport but the majority of security workers had been intimidated by the company’s actions. Other unions on the site were told by the TGWU that the issue had nothing to do with them.

The employer has gradually filled our jobs with new labour. McCusker has not been anywhere near the airport or visited the picket lines. We are not allowed into the airport and anyone seen talking to us is pulled in by management.

We have applied for an employment tribunal and we’re calling for a union enquiry into McCusker and his handling of our action.

We intend to organise more demos in Belfast and will be calling on all Northern Ireland unions to join us on a mass picket of the airport on 24 May.

We would like to thank all unions for the support they have already given us, in particular the Socialist Party and Peter Hadden for their support and advice. If it wasn’t for Peter we would have given up by now."

Please send messages of support to: Belfast Airport Workers, c/o 36 Victoria Square, Belfast BT1 4DQ.

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