Gate Gourmet, a catering company supplying British Airways, sacked up to 800 predominantly Asian workers at a few minutes notice at one of their sites at Heathrow on Wednesday 10 August.
The sacked workers included some who were on sick leave or on holiday. All are members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU).
Their sacking prompted a spontaneous walkout in solidarity by 1,000 baggage handlers and other staff who were TGWU members at British Airways, Heathrow.
This solidarity action represents a significant change in the outlook and combativity of a significant section of workers in private industry. There have been unofficial walkouts at Heathrow by baggage handlers and check-in staff for the last two summers but these have been in response to the bosses changing their conditions. This is the first time that workers have walked out in ‘illegal’ secondary action on behalf of other workers. The workers at Gate Gourmet used to work for British Airways but it was sold eight years ago and has been resold again. Nevertheless, there are still many community and family links between workers in the two companies and they will work alongside each other on a daily basis – Gate Gourmet is British Airway’s sole catering supplier.
The media coverage of the dispute has disproportionately focussed on the inconvenience suffered by passengers in the chaos at Heathrow, and effectively ignored the root cause of the dispute – the severe long-term ‘inconvenience’ of job losses and suffering that will be the fate of hundreds of sacked Gate Gourmet workers.
An article in the Socialist on 7 July (see below) showed that Gate Gourmet bosses were clearly preparing to get rid of the workers for several months now. A Daily Mirror report on 15 August confirmed all this in detail with a copy of a confidential report they obtained from the company.
The company is also attempting to impose a similar cost-cutting package in the USA but were initially knocked back by the threat of industrial action by the US unions.
Despite claiming that the company is making a £25 million loss and facing liquidations it did not stop the American boss of Gate Gourmet spending $10 million on his 60th birthday party. Bonderman, who has a personal fortune of $6 billion, is also the chairman of another anti-union airline which treats its workers like slaves – Ryanair.
The company has assets of $15 billion, which has been made by buying up companies and downsizing them by vicious union busting. The companies’ behaviour at Gate Gourmet, Heathrow has been true to form.
When the Gate Gourmet workers were sacked it was done in the most brutal fashion. From the beginning of June the company had said it was going ahead with a plan to restructure, including carrying out nearly 700 redundancies. Since then 147 shopfloor workers have been ‘regraded’ as managers and made redundant.
It has been fairly evident that the company has been trying to provoke a fight with the union to dismiss the 600 or so workers it wanted to get rid of.
On 10 August the company announced it was taking on 130 additional ‘seasonal’ workers without consultation with the union. Staff immediately suspected management was bringing in agency staff in order to carry through further redundancies.
In response, workers stopped work and went to the canteen while union reps urgently sought a meeting with management over the issues.
Once inside the canteen the workers were effectively held hostage for nearly eight hours and denied access to food or water. Pregnant women, diabetics and people with medical conditions were refused these as well and some women had to urinate in buckets while their workmates shielded them. The workforce is predominantly Asian with about 50% of them being women.
After their eight hours being held hostage the management gave them an ultimatum to either return to work on the bosses’ terms within three minutes or be sacked. At the same time, other shifts and other workers who had come back to the plant from other sites were also summarily dismissed.
It has been revealed subsequently that Gate Gourmet management had been planning this action for some time and had already put the agency staff in nearby hotels ready to start work, as well as bringing in a private security firm to police the factory.
Gate Gourmet had drivers in place to take over duties and had also informed companies they trade with the day before that there would be a dispute.
The next day a sacking letter was sent to all staff, including workers who were on maternity leave, attending family weddings, taking rest days, sick leave or annual leave. They were not even given the option of three minutes to decide their future before they were sacked by post. Management later claimed that these letters had “been sent out in error”.
Gate Gourmet workers have also since received a letter dated 11 August saying: “Please be aware that the company is reviewing whether to make deductions from final wages to pay for the penalties the company has incurred as a result of your disruption.”
Workers who have given years and years of service to British Airways and Gate Gourmet have been treated as no better than slaves to be cast aside when the bosses think they are no longer useful.
No worker would have accepted the treatment the Gate Gourmet workers have endured in recent months and years. The catering company was sold by British Airways to Gate Gourmet in 1997/98.
Gate Gourmet workers have not had a pay rise in three years. Earlier this year the company claimed it was losing nearly £30 million a year. Union reps at the factory have asked to see certified accounts to back up these claimed figures, but management has not provided any.
The company put forward a restructuring plan, which was rejected by over 90% of the workforce in a secret ballot with over 50% turnout. Some aspects of the ‘plan’ included: 675 redundancies; wage cuts by moving from 26 grades of pay to five new grades; drastic changes to sick leave entitlement and changes to working hours, pension entitlement and other working conditions.
The workers were given 90-day HR1 redundancy notices on 8 March, which expired on 9 June. The company had given the union four months’ notice that they will change terms and conditions which expires on 19 August before the current lock-out.
This horrendous example of union-busting tactics has sickened other airport workers who see it as an attack on every airport worker and TGWU member.
That is why baggage handlers and other airport staff at British Airways walked out in sympathetic solidarity action. Although union officials may have had some influence in the walkout, the key thing was that a mood was there to take action and walk.
British Airways staff could face job cuts of up to 15%-20% in the next few years when the company moves wholesale to Terminal 5. Also, Willie Walsh is soon to take over from Rod Eddington and has a reputation as being more hardline anti-union from his time at Irish national airline Aer Lingus.
Solidarity to win this dispute
Many union members and workers will want to show solidarity with the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. This could include messages of support and collections to help the workers at a time of financial distress. (address below) But it is the tremendous example of solidarity action by British Airways workers that shows the best way to deal with the aggressive union-busting bosses like Gate Gourmet and others in the airline industry who would wish to emulate them. Within hours of the workers walking out hundreds of flights were cancelled and over £30 million was knocked off the share price of British Airways. The company also could face costs of up to £40 million.
The baggage handlers’ actions gave a tremendous uplift to the sacked workers and showed that when working-class people move in a determined way then no anti-union laws or hardline management can stand in their way. Regrettably, just as their action was really beginning to bite, union officials allowed a return to work at British Airways on the basis of being granted talks at conciliation service, ACAS.
Whilst, at a certain stage, the union may have been prepared to enter negotiations at ACAS with Gate Gourmet, it should only have been on the basis of all the sacked workers being reinstated on their old conditions before talks began.
Had the BA workers stayed out then it would have been possible that other airport workers at Heathrow, and even Gatwick, could have come out as well. Enormous pressure would have then been brought to bear on Gate Gourmet management to fully back down.
Unfortunately, the union officials gave away their best card. They should have refused to enter negotiations until management accepted they would allow reinstatement of the whole workforce. Instead, the hardline bosses refused to allow three of the negotiating team to participate because they were sacked ‘militants’.
Again, the TGWU officers accepted this management diktat. The old adage that you can not regain in negotiations what you throw away on the picket line holds true.
However, despite these setbacks it is still possible that, given the potentially explosive mood over the sackings and related issues, if the talks break down there could be more unofficial walkouts.
Even if there are no further walkouts, the dispute at Gate Gourmet could become a protracted and bitter dispute. In that case there will be a vital need for urgent solidarity – both practical and financial – and the building of an effective rank-and-file shop stewards committee, covering all grades at Heathrow.
The saying that an injury to one is an injury to all has never held truer – particularly in the airline industry where ruthless management are trying to squeeze every last concession out of their workforce. If Gate Gourmet management get away with their attacks then it will be a green light for Willie Walsh and other union busters to step up to the starting line.
* We urge everyone to send messages of support to the sacked Gate Gourmet workers at T&G, Transport House, Uxbridge Road, Hillingdon, UB10 0LY and to visit the sacked workers at their protest on the Southern perimeter road near Terminal 4.
For more information contact the Socialist Party on 020 8988 8778
Quotes from Gate Gourmet workers
Gulbar Randawa has worked at Gate Gourmet for seven years.
“Two months ago I booked a three-week holiday to India to go on 13 August. I had three rests days this week but yesterday got called in to work for the late shift at 4pm. I arrived to see huge queues of people outside the factory, the car park was full and I waited 40 minutes to try and get in. I asked a manager where could I park to go to work. I finally got into the workplace at 5pm and, when I said I was reporting for work I was told by security that I had 20 minutes to get my stuff as I was sacked.
“I had already booked my holiday for myself, my wife and three kids and paid for it. I have a big mortgage as well – about £1,000 a month – and last night I couldn’t sleep with worry and pressure.
“I have done a good job for Gate Gourmet, seven years and I was never off sick and never in trouble or had any warnings. And at the end of the day they gave me this shit. I’m very angry. I hope the union can get us back our jobs.”
Another worker, who wished to stay anonymous, told us: ”Some of the agency staff that they have taken on are here as migrant workers illegally, without passports. They don’t have proper security clearance. All Gate Gourmet workers have at least five years’ references and security clearances. Cabin crew in the aircraft has been asking these agency workers, when they take the food on the planes, if they are in the union, knowing that all Gate Gourmet workers are union members. If they find out they are not union members then they ask them to get off the plane.”
Another worker, Mr JS Tamani showed me a copy of a letter he had from the company which said: “Please be aware that the company is reviewing whether to make deductions from final wages to pay for the penalties the company has incurred as a result of your disruption.”
Another worker, calling himself Dibs, told us that he has actually been out working for the company at another site. When he arrived back at the office, after most of the workers had already been sacked, he was escorted from his lorry to the exit gate by two burly security guards who said to him that he was sacked and then said “and what is your name” to tick it off a list they had before forcing him off the premises.
Other workers said that they had worked for 22 years for British Airways in relatively good conditions before the company was sold off to Gate Gourmet, now they told us “the place is a filthy mess, insanitary and unhygienic in some places and with many heath and safety hazards”. Another worker said in the last few weeks there had been two accidents on part of the shopfloor needing repairs where workers had broken their legs.
Another worker told me that a container that was used to make ice for drinks on the planes had not been cleaned for six months.
A group of sacked women workers were bitter that management had sacked them without any notice or discussion and how hundreds of people were given less than five minutes to decide their future. All the workers had their ID cards snatched off them and were told to clear their lockers within 20 minutes.
Heathrow workers fight pay and job cuts
Workers at Gate Gourmet – a catering company at Heathrow which works for various international airlines – have decisively rejected a company plan which would lead to huge job cuts and worsening of conditions.
from The Socialist, 8 July, issue 400
The workers, members of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) voted against their own union’s recommendation and rejected the proposals by 1,305 votes to 88 for (with 61 votes void). The plan is allegedly designed to remove a £40 million operating loss the company is making – although the company is currently paying out over £11 million in overtime to some workers, according to sources at the company.
A similar plan put to unions working for the parent company in the USA was also rejected by unions there.
Some of the proposals include:
- 675 redundancies (so far the proposal is for them to be voluntary) out of 2,500 – 3,000 workers.
- Wage cuts by moving from 26 grades of pay to five new grades. Of the 26 existing grades, 22 will become a general hand grade and four will have other grades.
- Existing staff will maintain their current wage differentials but from now on all overtime for the new general hand grade (regardless of current differentials) will be paid as a percentage of the starter’s rate – £6 an hour – rather than the current hourly rate. This could mean someone could work overtime on a lower rate than their current hourly rate.
- A move from 25 days paid sick leave in any one year to five in any year.
- Changes to working hours to mean that time allowed for changing into uniform at the start and end of shift will now be done in the worker’s own time.
- Changes to pension entitlement and other working conditions – including cutting back choice in the staff canteen and increasing prices.
The workers were given 90-day HR1 redundancy notices on 8 March which expired on 9 June. The company has given the union four months’ notice that they will change terms and conditions which expires on 19 August.
There has been unease, however, at the way that some TGWU officers have been handling the issue, recommending acceptance of the company plan which would cut wages, term and conditions of the workers.
A number of stewards at the company have opposed the company plans and the way the union has responded to them, complaining about lack of information and proper consultation.
This has led to three stewards, out of 33 at the company, being put on gardening leave – where the company pays them to stay at home – and being excluded from doing their union duties.
They have a petition against this signed by about 100 of their members and have sent it to TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley and TGWU national official Brendan Gold.
The stewards were told by management at one stage that, although they were on gardening leave, they could attend union meetings on site if the union agrees.
They have, however, turned up to a few meetings, including once to cast their ballot on the company plan, but were held by security while another shop steward was sent to the security hut by union officials with three ballot papers for them to cast their votes, which they refused to do because they wanted to cast them alongside everyone else.
They have also tried to stand outside the gate at change of shift to communicate with members but were given letters from management warning them not to attend any Gate Gourmet site or organise meetings, even outside the workplace.
The stewards have gone to TGWU central offices to demand that they are treated properly as stewards and hope to take the issue up with TGWU officials at the union’s conference.