Northern Ireland: Belfast International Airport workers win ground-breaking court victory

But struggle for justice continues

Last week, twenty two airport security workers at Belfast International airport, who were sacked in 2002 for going on strike, won a landmark Industrial Tribunal case against their employer, security company ICTS. Most significantly, the four shop stewards, two of them Socialist Party members, have won their case that they were sacked because of their ‘trade union opinions and socialist political beliefs."

Belfast International Airport workers win ground-breaking court victory

Five years ago – on 14 May 2002 – forty four low paid security workers went on strike at Belfast International airport. They were demanding that their employer, international security firm, ICTS, raise their wages to £6 an hour to give them parity with airport porters.

There were other grievances too – there was no shift allowance, no overtime pay, and no sickness scheme. Less than a year after 9/11, ICTS, originally set up by individuals with a background in the Israeli security services, clearly wanted to provide security in Belfast airport on the cheap.

The strike followed months of fruitless negotiations. Eventually the workers, 140 in total, insisted on their union, the T&GWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), calling a strike ballot. 97% of the workers voted ‘yes’ to industrial action.

ICTS were notified of a series of strike days but the earlier days were suspended to allow for negotiation. When it became clear that ICTS were not going to come up with a decent offer the workers decided to go ahead with the action on 14 May. Just hours before the strike was due to begin, they received an assurance from their union official, Joe McCusker, that the action was official and the union was fully backing them.

The forty four workers on the first security shift of the day were not long on the picket lines before the shop stewards began to get an uneasy sense that all was not quite right. ICTS managers had come out to tell them that the strike was illegal and to issue threats. Meanwhile, Joe McCusker was nowhere to be found. Calls to the T&GWU office and to his mobile went unanswered and messages were not returned.

As the hours went by, the shop stewards became increasingly concerned and decided to end the strike after the first shift. Meanwhile, they would try and get clarification of their position from the union. They kept trying – without success – to contact Joe McCusker.

At 3.30pm the next day a secret meeting took place in a pub close to the airport. Present were two senior directors of ICTS along with the elusive Joe McCusker. At the meeting McCusker gave ICTS copies of letters he was about to send to the shop stewards on behalf of the union repudiating the strike. The decision to repudiate the action had been agreed by the then general secretary of the union Bill (now Sir Bill) Morris.

These letters were the green light ICTS needed. They immediately sacked twenty four workers (one was soon reinstated) among them three who, because they were on a different shift, had not taken part in the strike.

Since then the workers, and, in particular, the three T&GWU shop stewards, Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, have fought a bitter and protracted battle seeking justice; justice from ICTS and justice from the T&GWU.

Pickets, protests and hunger strikes

This has involved pickets, protests and demonstrations at the airport as well as protests at the union offices both in Belfast and in London. The three shop stewards have twice gone on hunger strike in the foyer of Transport House in Belfast and, this month, have had to threaten another hunger strike in Transport House in London in order to get the union to stop ignoring them and take their demands seriously.
In the course of all this Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer have become three of the best known and, more importantly, most respected, trade unionists in Northern Ireland. Two of them have also drawn political conclusions from what has happened to them and have joined the Socialist Party.

One year after the strike, Tony Woodley, who had replaced Bill Morris as T&GWU general secretary, intervened and negotiated a deal with ICTS. This involved a paltry payout to the shop stewards and workers. After strike pay they had received was deducted – which the union were insisting upon – Gordon McNeill would have been left with about £4000 and the rest of the workers getting much less. Some would have received nothing.

There was an agreement that six workers would be reinstated but also a stipulation clearly laid down by ICTS that the shop stewards would never work at the airport again.

Tony Woodley personally phoned Gordon McNeill and urged him to accept this as "a dammed good deal" and the best they would get. He told him that because the strike was illegal they had no chance of winning a legal case, not even an unfair dismissal case, against the company.

The shop stewards put this offer to the sacked workers who unanimously rejected it. From this point on the union, by and large, abandoned the sacked workers and washed their hands of the issue.

It was around this time things took a more sinister turn. The shop stewards received death threats against themselves and against their families. The threats came by letter and, more ominously, at gunpoint, when two of them were bundled into a van and told to "back off or else".

The shop stewards refused to be intimidated and continued their fight against ICTS and their struggle for an explanation from the T&GWU as to why they had repudiated the strike. They decided to carry on with a legal case against ICTS but, without backing from the union, they had to fund this on their own.

ICTS deliberately dragged out the case, probably trying to bump up the costs to force an out of court settlement. Finally, after five years, the workers, this August, received the Industrial Tribunal decision.

Their claim was that the bulk of the workers were unfairly dismissed. But since there is a low ceiling on the amount that a Tribunal can pay out for unfair dismissal, the four shop stewards (the three T&GWU stewards and a fourth from the GMB) took a different case. They claimed that their sacking was political discrimination on grounds of their trade union opinion and socialist political beliefs.

Ground breaking judgement

In a ground breaking judgement the Tribunal found in their favour. In total, the twenty two workers who took the action were awarded £750,000 in compensation. The workers rightly hailed this as a significant victory for all trade unionists.

Up to now, employers could sack "obstructive" shop stewards and then shrug their shoulders at the paltry compensation paid out after unfair dismissal cases as "cheap at the price." The new ruling allows any worker who is victimised because of their role as a trade unionist to take a claim of political discrimination rather than an unfair dismissal case and at least have the possibility of more substantial compensation.

This is the second important legal victory these workers have secured. In order to get the Tribunal to rule on their case, the workers first on all had to fight a battle in the High Court and ultimately in the Court of Appeal to establish whether or not their strike was legal.

At issue was whether, under the current anti trade union laws, a strike that has been suspended can be reinstated without notice to the employers. These Thatcherite laws have been designed to force workers to jump through hoops before they can legally strike. Following a successful ballot workers have to give seven days before starting action.

Where a strike has been suspended it is currently the practice of all trade unions to cover themselves by again giving seven days notice before reinstating action. In the case of the 14 May airport strike the employers disputed how much notice had been given but this became irrelevant when the Court found that there was no legal obligation on the workers to give any notice, never mind seven days notice, of the reinstatement of a suspended strike on any already nominated strike day.

This decision potentially puts a huge hole in the Thatcherite anti-union laws which the unions can exploit – if they want. Under this ruling a union could, for example, ballot for discontinuous strike action, nominate every other day for a year as a strike day, suspend the action and then reinstate it at will with no further notice to the employers.

This is a loophole in the legislation which the airport workers have been able to expose and which confounds the legal opinion that the trade unions have been acting upon for years. Of course, it is only a loophole and, after a time, if the unions do use it to strengthen their hand, the government will most likely bend the knee to the employers and pass legislation to close it.

Huge legal bills

During the years of campaigning the shop stewards have repeatedly stressed that the best way for workers to get justice is not through the courts but by directly taking on the employers through industrial action. Their experience bears this out.

True, they have won an important victory and, at first glance, the £750,000 pay-out looks impressive. On closer examination the settlement is a lot less generous than it may seem. This award is shared among the twenty two workers who took the case, with the biggest payouts going to the shop stewards because theirs was a discrimination case.

But Industrial Tribunals do not award costs and the workers now have a legal bill of around £200,000. Much of the burden of raising this money has fallen on the shop stewards. They have had to re-mortgage their homes – they are now facing re-possession – and take out crippling loans, some from loan sharks – to pay the first instalments of this bill. Two of them are unemployed and clearly blacklisted and much of the money they have got could well be recouped by the state through loss of benefits.

And, if ICTS decides to appeal the decision, this would mean another costly legal action. Should this happen, the shop stewards simply do not have any collateral left to raise the money they would need to finance it. The decision could potentially be overturned simply because they have no means to defend it. ‘Justice’, such as it exists in the capitalist courts, is a commodity only available to those who can afford it!

The Industrial Tribunal decision was widely reported in the press and on radio and
TV as a victory for the workers. At a press conference facilitated by the Socialist Party, Gordon McNeill said it was "a good day for trade unionism" and called on workers to join and get active in the unions.

He also pointed out that, despite the £750,000 award, ICTS had so far got off relatively unscathed. Like most employers, they have insurance against such claims. "Our issue with ICTS", said Gordon, "is not resolved. The directors of this company were found to have lied their way through the Tribunal. Yet these people are in charge of the security of every passenger who flies out of Belfast International airport. We are now seeking a meeting with First Minister, Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, to demand that the Assembly remove ICTS from the airport and bring airport security back into the public sector."

But the anger of the shop stewards was also directed at the leadership of the union – and understandably so. The Tribunal hearings were wound up at the start of June. As soon as they were over the shop stewards wrote a very conciliatory letter to Tony Woodley and to all the senior T&GWU officials in Ireland asking for without prejudice discussions to resolve their differences so that, in the event that they won their case, they could jointly celebrate this victory and use it strengthen the union. They did not get so much as an acknowledgement, let alone a reply. So, at the press conference, they announced that they would be travelling to Transport House in London to begin a hunger strike.

Union democracy

They are demanding that the union set up an inquiry, made up of people acceptable to the shop stewards, into the union leadership’s handling of the dispute in 2002 and since. They are also asking that the union meet their legal bill and give a commitment to meet future legal expenses should ICTS appeal the decision.

On top of this, they want their campaigning expenditure and the debts they have incurred as a result of this five year battle to be met.

In the event, when they got to London, they did not have to go on hunger strike because Tony Woodley, alongside the senior Irish regional officials, agreed to meet them. During the lengthy negotiations Tony Woodley gave them personal assurances that he would do his best to come up with a resolution to the issue. The shop stewards were not entirely convinced, especially as he would not put anything down on paper, but decided that they would give the union leadership until the next meeting of the T&GWU Executive, in mid-September, to deliver on their word.

Since that meeting the shop stewards have had discussions with the senior officials of the union in Ireland and have come away with the clear impression that the union leadership is trying to backtrack on the assurances that were given in London. They feel they may have no option but to resume their public protests demanding justice from the union.

Unless and until the union takes decisive steps to make up for their betrayal of these workers, the abiding memory that will linger of this dispute will be of that shady encounter in a pub near the airport where T&GWU official, Joe McCusker, handed ICTS directors the ammunition they needed to sack his members.

The case for union officials to be elected, not appointed, and for their pay to be linked to wages of those they represent, not the inflated salaries they currently enjoy, could not be clearer.

Belfast airport workers discriminated against "for their political opinions"

Tribunal produces scathing conclusions against airport employers

Bill Mullins, Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) Industrial Organiser, looks at the conclusions of the Fair Employment Tribunal:

Four years ago, I interviewed Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer when they visited London in 2003. They told the Socialist that their employer, ICTS, the security company in Belfast International Airport, had selected them and others for the sack after they took legal strike action. This affected 22 workers, in total.

As well as campaigning against their sacking, they were also demanding an investigation into the role of their full-time TGWU official, who they accused of collaborating with the bosses in the sackings.

Now, in a complete vindication of their case, the tribunal has found not only were they unfairly sacked by ICTS but the shop stewards had been sacked because they were stewards.

This is a victory over a vicious employer and a condemnation of the union. The TGWU leadership abandoned them, telling them they did not have a chance if they went to the tribunal. They said they should accept a miserly offer of £4,000 from ICTS, with no chance of getting their jobs back. When they refused it, the union declared they were on their own.

This meant that the shop stewards had to bear the full legal costs of £200,000 and rising.

The tribunal was also pretty clear in its written findings that the TGWU official at the time was guilty of collaborating with the bosses in the sackings.

The stewards had to overcome all obstacles, despite ill health and the threatened loss of their homes. Two of them have joined the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) in recognition that this was the only party in Ireland that stood with them, through thick and thin.

Since the tribunal victory the union, under threat of hunger strike from the stewards, has verbally agreed to cover their legal costs and any future costs if ICTS appeal against the tribunal decision.

Fascinating reading

The fair employment tribunal findings, some 92 pages of it, make fascinating reading. It ruled that the 22 workers were discriminated against and therefore unfairly sacked. But it also found that the shop stewards were discriminated against "for their political opinions".

With the history of Northern Ireland as a back drop, the tribunal and an appeal court have declared that "political opinion includes supporting workers’ rights to belong to a trade union".

It decided that they had been sacked because the boss at the time, Mr Finnegan (now boss of Gatwick airport security) had "made extremely disparaging remarks… about trade unions and… shop stewards".

This finding meant that there was no limit to the damages awarded against the company for sacking the shop stewards and one of them, in fact, has been awarded £131,000.

Another important ruling made by the tribunal included the right of the workers to reinstate strike action without having to give notice to the employer.

This arose because the date for their second strike action, 14 May 2002, was suspended then reinstated by the shop stewards after legal advice from the union’s own lawyers.

Union official’s actions "ineffective"

The tribunal made it pretty clear that the actions of the full-time union official, Mr McCusker, in issuing a letter of repudiation had no legal basis and, in fact, was "ineffective".

The tribunal refers to: "Mr McCusker meeting Mr Lewis and Ms Thorpe (directors of ICTS) in a public house…, when he provided them with copies of the letters he was proposing to send to the stewards" repudiating the strike.

It was this action that gave the green light to the bosses for the sacking of the 22 workers. The tribunal even speculates whether it was the bosses who thought up the repudiation letter or whether it was McCusker who suggested it to them.

The tribunal is scathing in its language about the employers. It says for example that Finnegan "was not truthful in his evidence" that he "gave a completely self-serving account" when he was cross examined.

It comments that the company’s disciplinary and appeals procedure was "a total sham" on more than one occasion.

The tribunal seems to have fun commenting on the conflicting statements of the employers about how they selected the workers to be sacked. They concluded that an unofficial stoppage on 30 March 2002 "was used simply as a smokescreen to dismiss them".

And as a further kick in the bosses’ ’proverbials’, the tribunal says they "had difficulty in remembering anything other than what they wanted to remember".

When the Human Resources (HR) director, Ms Thorpe, was cross-examined the tribunal comments "there were three different versions of how she had conducted the "random selection".

First "she had used a pin with her eyes closed" then later she said "she had used a needle with her eyes open" then "Ms Thorpe said she cut up the names and placed them in a box".

The shop stewards are now waiting to see if the TGWU makes good their promise to pay their full legal and other costs. Assurances were given but, despite discussions with the senior regional officials since the workers returned to Belfast, nothing concrete has yet been delivered.

As a gesture of conciliation from the shop stewards, the TGWU was asked, if in the event of a victory, it would like to line up with the workers and say that this was a victory for the union as well as the workers. But the union did not even acknowledge the correspondence from the shop stewards, let alone reply.

There are a lot of lessons from this case but without, in particular, the shop stewards in determination and readiness to sacrifice, nothing could have been achieved.

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September 2007