The Battle for the re-instatement of the 800 sacked Gate Gourmet workers is proving to be a defining moment in the class struggle in Britain.
The events around and leading up to the sackings on 10 August have revealed in the most brutal way how far the bosses went to get their way. Arrogantly assuming that the workers would be left in isolation after they sacked them, they prepared their ground for many months to provoke the workers into action.
Their cold-hearted calculation was that sackings for taking "illegal action" could save themselves millions in redundancy payments and pensions contributions.Gate Gourmet’s British operation is but one-fifth of the total worldwide workforce of 21,400 for this US-owned company. The same company was already engaged in anti-union strike-breaking activities in the USA and Germany. Its billionaire owner David Bonderman engaged a team of lawyers and managers to implement the "plan" to sack the workers as revealed by the Daily Mirror "exclusive" on 15 August.
But the "secondary solidarity" action by baggage handlers and other Heathrow workers took them and British Airways by surprise. This was almost completely new in the elements making up modern industrial relations in Britain, not seen since the 1980s at the time of the miners’ strikes.
The Heathrow workers’ action was not only "illegal" because they didn’t ballot beforehand but also "illegal" because the present anti-union laws say workers in one company cannot go on strike for workers in another company.
British Airways (BA) ’privatised’ Gate Gourmet in 1997 when it divested itself of the company to concentrate on its "core business". This ill-concealed attempt to divide worker from worker used both Tory and New Labour anti-union laws.But BA still had control over Gate Gourmet as its main supplier for airline meals. The ultimate responsibility for all that happened lies with BA boss Rod Eddington. BA has consistently squeezed Gate Gourmet over the years to reduce its costs by reducing the cash given to Gate Gourmet for the contract to supply meals. This is common practice whether in a hospital that puts out cleaning to the lowest bidder or anywhere else that the scourge of privatisation is happening.
This is not to let the freebooters of Gate Gourmet’s owners, Texas Pacific, off the hook – they were willing participants and tried to pass on the ’squeeze’ to their own workers by means of job and wage cuts.
The division between supplier and user companies in the world of capitalism is gossamer thin. The banks and big monopolies are inextricably linked to the world of Texas Pacific. The bosses carry out many tricks and deals to protect their own incomes and profits.
Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), has come across on TV and radio as intent on winning the battle for his sacked members. He warned BA that if they try to victimise any TGWU member in Heathrow for their role in the 11 August solidarity action then the TGWU "could ballot all its 19,500 members at Heathrow." (Observer 21 August).
He also said on 22 August that "the repercussions on BA and indeed people using BA, particularly their Indian travellers and their flights to India will be severely affected if they (Gate Gourmet) don’t do the right thing" and re-instate the sacked workers. But more than good intentions are needed to win this battle.
The Court’s scandalous judgment that the pickets aren’t even allowed to speak to the scabs that try and cross the picket lines is not a "victory for the union" as Brendan Gold, the TGWU’s national aviation officer declared, but another infringement of basic working class democratic rights.Even under the existing stringent laws it was supposed to be entirely legitimate for pickets to try to persuade others from crossing their picket line, now at one fell swoop this judge has changed all that.
Possibly even worse is that the judge also rules that the TGWU is "accountable" for any ’illegal action’ taken by workers the company dismissed two weeks ago. The union is expected to challenge the ruling in a further High Court hearing.
The law and the courts are completely on the side of the bosses almost every time they are invoked in an industrial dispute. To rely on them for anything else is to throw sand in the eyes of the working class. Brendan Gold welcomed the judgment saying that "most" of the workers involved were acting legally and this judgment backed them up. What does this mean other than that the union won’t support any more ’illegal’ solidarity action?
To talk of ’legality’ when a bunch of cowboy managers sack workers by loudspeaker at three minutes’ notice would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.The union leaders should learn the lesson that mass action, legal or otherwise, is what counts. The bosses will hesitate to use the law against the union if they mobilise their members in Heathrow in solidarity with the sacked Gate Gourmet workers.
If the bosses do go for sequestration, the call must be made for wider action by the trade union movement as a whole, if necessary of a general strike character.Too often in this and other unofficial strikes the union leaders have "repudiated" the actions of the baggage handlers and others when they should congratulate them and call for more action.
Heathrow is one of Britain’s strongest trade union-organised workplaces. The TGWU has thousands more members across the hinterland of suppliers and services around the airport. Those are the workers whom the union should rely on to win this battle; anything less is an abdication of leadership.
By winning the reinstatement of the sacked 800, the TGWU and the workers will win a famous victory against the onslaught on workers’ rights, jobs and conditions.
A Gate Gourmet support site has been set up by the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) which can be visited on www.tgwu.org.uk/gategourmet
Messages of support and solidarity to the gate gourmet workers can be send via that website.
Alternatively, you can use the following postal address:
T&G, Transport House, Uxbridge Road, Hillingdon, UB10 0LY, England
Please send copies of your solidarity messages to:
Editorial from the socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales