Northern Ireland: Sacked airport workers six year long battle for justice

Union leaders play hardball with workers

Five pm, Friday 11 April: For the thousands of workers emptying out of their workplaces to swell the Belfast rush hour traffic and head home, it was a Friday much like any other. But for the three sacked airport shop stewards, Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, protesting outside Transport House, it was anything but a normal Friday. Already five days into a hunger strike, and, in the case of Madan and Gordon, having also gone three days without water, the shop stewards watched as Unite union officials left the building, walking past them as though they were not there, and mentally readied themselves for a continuation of their protest through the weekend and into a second week.

Five days earlier the shop stewards had arrived at Transport House equipped with a banner, sleeping bags, a small tent and a ladder. They had clambered onto the concrete awning at the front of the building. They were there because of the failure of the union to honour an agreement it had reached with them the previous September. At that time, Unite General Secretary, Tony Woodley, had promised that the Union would pay the considerable legal expenses the workers had incurred in their protracted, but ultimately successful, legal battle against their employer ICTS.

An Industrial Tribunal had upheld the shop stewards’ claim that ICTS had sacked them because of their trade union opinions and socialist political beliefs; a decision that strengthens the hand of all trade unionist activists in that it makes it more difficult for employers to sack them.

Tony Woodley also promised that Unite would meet the legal costs of any appeal, should ICTS try to have this decision overturned. He also committed to pay the workers’ compensation for the union’s mishandling of their dispute from day one. A compensation offer, he said, would be made within seven days.

Seven months on, not a single one of these promises had been met. Only part of the legal bill for the Tribunal had been paid, leaving the workers with an impossible sum of up to £70,000 which they would have to meet out of their own pockets. The union had also reneged on its promise to fund the cost of any appeal. Proposed negotiations with the barristers over their fees had not taken place. The barristers were set to walk from the case, potentially handing ICTS a victory by default. As for compensation, not a penny had been offered.

For the shop stewards this meant that the legal defeat they had inflicted on ICTS could be reversed and all they would have to show for six years of struggle would be crippling legal bills. Not surprisingly, they began their protest in determined mood.

Union leaders play hardball with workers

Had the union leadership chosen to talk to them and had they come up with firm guarantees on the outstanding bills the protest could have been over quickly. After all, the shop stewards were not asking for anything more than had already been agreed seven months earlier.

Instead, the General Secretary, Tony Woodley and the Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, decided to play hardball in an attempt to break them. Just a few hours into the protest, the police arrived, summoned by Jimmy Kelly, with instructions that the protesters should be arrested if they did not leave the building.

Eventually the shop stewards agreed to come off the awning and continue the protest on the pavement outside Transport House. Gordon McNeill and Madan Gupta were so enraged by the union’s action that, ignoring pleas from their supporters, they decided to escalate their action to a hunger and thirst strike.

Meanwhile, the union also upped the ante with a campaign of deliberate disinformation. A statement was issued to the media and widely circulated by email claiming that the issue of the legal costs had been resolved and that the reason for the protest was that Unite would not meet the shop stewards’ demand for "one million pounds" compensation.

The statement referred to "amicable" discussions on the Friday before the start of the protest between the union solicitors and the shop stewards’ legal team on the costs – discussions which in fact had never taken place. As for the "million pounds" compensation, the workers had made it clear from the outset that their protest was not over any set figure but was because the union had broken its promise and had not offered them a single penny.

For five days the union maintained its stance that there would be no talks so long as the shop stewards continued their hunger strike. Ironically, Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, obstinately stuck to this line, forgetful of the fact that, 27 years earlier, as a main organiser in Waterford of the campaign to support the [prison] H Block hunger strikers, he had been condemning Margaret Thatcher for her similar intransigence!

As Madan Gupta and Gordon McNeill’s health visibly deteriorated – three days in to the protest both had to be hospitalised suffering severe dehydration – the support campaign began to take off. Two lunchtime rallies organised by the Socialist Party at Transport House drew shop stewards and union activists from many workplaces, as well as Socialist Party and Socialist Youth members. There were also Socialist Party organised lobbies at the Unite offices in Dublin and London. During the week, scores of workers came to the protest to offer support, many of them with tales of similar sellouts by union officials.

Then, as the Friday teatime rush hour exodus was beginning and the shop stewards were preparing for a weekend on the pavement, they received a letter from the union solicitors indicating that the union had backed down and would meet all their key demands. Crucially, there were written guarantees that the legal costs would be paid and the appeal fully funded. Negotiation would take place on compensation with a 30 April deadline for this to be resolved.

The shop stewards were able to pack up and go to hospital for much needed medical attention, hopeful that, at long last, their struggle to achieve justice from their union might be over.

Six year long battle

This six year long battle began when airport security workers pressed their reluctant T&GWU official, Joe McCusker, to organise a strike ballot over pay. They were demanding that their measly rate of £5.50 per hour be increased to £6, to bring them in line with the pay of the airport porters.

With a 99% vote for strike action they began a series of one-day strikes. A suspension of the action to allow for negotiations was ended when it became clear that ICTS were only playing for time and were not prepared to come up with a decent offer. It was when the strike action was resumed on 14 May that things started to go terribly wrong.

Strikers were approached by ICTS management who warned them that because their action was illegal they could all be sacked. From this point, Joe McCusker went AWOL. Repeated attempts by the shop stewards to get hold of him over the next two and a half days all proved fruitless.

ICTS management did not, however, have the same difficulty. Two days after the strike, they were able to have a secret meeting with McCusker in a hotel close to the airport where he handed them a letter repudiating the action. ICTS then sacked about half of the strikers, making sure that all the shop stewards were on the list.

Before this strike there had been an all too cosy relationship between the union, the airport management and the various companies, such as ICTS, who operated there. The ICTS shop stewards upset this; so the union responded by colluding with ICTS and the airport to get rid of them.

This is what lies at the core of the six year long dispute between the shop stewards and the union. What happened during the 2002 strike cannot be put down to the role of one "rogue" official acting out of turn. The then leadership of the union, right up to and including the General Secretary, Bill Morris, also argued that the strike was illegal. They then attempted to cover up what had happened.

Nor can the current leadership absolve themselves of responsibility by placing all the blame on their predecessors. After the strike, Tony Woodley, then preparing to succeed Bill Morris, met the airport workers and assured them that, under his leadership, the union would be fully behind them in taking on ICTS and the airport.

These turned out to be empty words. In June 2003, Tony Woodley tried to pressurise the sacked workers to accept a deal he had negotiated with ICTS. This offered a pittance in compensation and accepted the victimisation of the shop stewards and most of the sacked workers.

Tony Woodley insisted that the workers had no legal case and that this was a "dammed good deal" that they should accept. The sacked workers unanimously decided to ignore his advice and rejected this offer.

With this, the union effectively washed its hands of the dispute, leaving the workers to fund and fight the legal battle against ICTS on their own. The issue of legal costs only arises today because the union refused to back their action. Meanwhile, the shop stewards continued their campaign for justice from the union, demanding a full explanation of what had happened in 2002.


They then encountered the dark underside of this kind of "trade unionism". On the one side, there were attempts to bribe them, with cash-in-hand offers, if they would walk away, while, on the other, they were faced with paramilitary death threats and other attempts to intimidate them into silence.

The shop stewards persevered both with the legal action against ICTS and with their campaign for justice from the union. It was only when they won their landmark legal ruling, last August, that the union had no choice but to appear to make a gesture on costs and compensation.

That should have been the end. Instead, the union has added another sorry chapter to this unfortunate narrative. By reneging on their promises, by using the police and by their intransigent refusal to talk during the hunger strike, they have given the story an ending every bit as ignoble as its beginning.

All this is a long way removed from the worthy sentiments expressed by Jimmy Kelly at the start of this year. His remarks, quoted in Industrial Relations News (23.1.08) could well be a comment on the T&GWU/Unite leadership’s handling of the airport dispute from 2002 right up to the present:

"My criticism would be that a lot of workers see union leaders as too attached to the bosses and Government and that is impacting on our ability to grow…We need to build workplace organisation rather than do soft deals with employers".

Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer would fully agree. What a pity these sentiments were not applied to their dispute!

SWP leadership’s shameful role

The UNITE leadership are not the only people who should hang their heads in shame following the airport workers’ protest. The leadership of the Socialist Workers Party should join them.

During the week of the hunger strike, SWP members were nowhere to be seen. This was hardly surprising since it was one of their members, Unite Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, who was responsible for the union’s intransigent stance.

Rather than help build support for the shop stewards, leading SWP members, when challenged, were saying in private that they supported the stance of the union.

Perhaps realising that this position would not stand up in public, they attempted to save face by issuing a last minute public statement, put out on the Friday, just hours before the union caved in.

On the surface this put a "neutral" position, calling on the workers to end the hunger strike and also calling on Unite to talk to them. Sadly for the SWP, the idea that in a bitter struggle, such as this, there is a comfort zone of "neutrality" and "reasonableness" is just an abstraction.

In truth, the SWP statement is nothing more than an attempt to provide a left cover for the actions of the Unite leadership. Scandalously, it repeats verbatim the slanderous misinformation issued by the union at the start of the week. The statement, "welcomes the fact that the present leadership of UNITE (the successors of ATGWU) has agreed to meet the full legal costs of the tribunal case that the airport activists undertook."

With the legal costs issue thus neatly put to the side it goes on to declare that: "The current dispute between the workers and their union concerns the issue of compensation for further campaign costs and hardship endured."

What is this but a regurgitation of the slur contained in the union’s statements that all the shop stewards were interested in was compensation? As the shop stewards repeatedly pointed out in the period leading up to and during the hunger strike, the most important issue for them was the legal costs.

If, as the SWP assert, the legal issue was resolved, why were the union and shop stewards’ solicitors discussing and trying to resolve this issue right up to and after the time the SWP statement was issued?

Of course, the Unite leadership, during the hunger strike, did claim that the legal costs would be paid, but they had been saying this since the previous September, when they had also promised to make a compensation offer within seven days. The hunger strike was because they had failed to fulfill these commitments. For the shop stewards, verbal promises, given one day and broken the next, would no longer suffice.

Seven months on, and five days into a debilitating hunger strike, the SWP were calling on the workers to end their action in return for yet more verbal assurances on the costs and with nothing at all on the table on compensation. In other words, they should call off their protest for less than they had been offered in September!

The SWP statement is as revealing for what it leaves out as for what it contains. It makes no mention of the decision by Jimmy Kelly to call the police to forcibly evict the shop stewards.

In other circumstances, the SWP would be louder than most in denouncing such police involvement. Has their position on this now changed? Or is it justified to use the police in this way only when it is a member of the SWP who makes the call?

Solidarity from Jimmy McGovern

DURING THE week long hunger strike messages of support were received from all over Britain and Ireland, as well as from further afield. One important example was the following message from playwright, Jimmy McGovern:

"Remember the way the TGWU betrayed Liverpool’s dockers? I bet you thought no union could never sink so low again. I did too. We were wrong. The way in which Unite has treated the Belfast Airport workers is a disgrace. Unit’s leaders should hang their heads in shame."

Jimmy McGovern

Gordon McNeill

Following the suspension of the April hunger strike, Gordon McNeill told the Socialist (monthly paper of the Socialist Party in Ireland):

"I’d like to thank everyone in Ireland, Britain and across the world who backed us by sending messages supporting our action. I especially want to thank my colleagues in the Socialist Party who stood with us throughout this dispute. We have suspended our action until 30 April but remain vigilant in case the union leadership don’t deliver.

"Let what we have done be the start of a struggle to put our union, and all unions, back in the hands of the membership. Union officials should be elected and should be on the same wages as their members. We need a leadership that is accountable so that members never again have to resort to the type of drastic action we had to."

Appeal for support

Madan Gupta and Gordon McNeill have still not recovered from their five day fast and are in no condition to go through another protest. To avert another hunger strike, we appeal to all trade unionists to inundate the Unite offices in Belfast, Dublin and London with messages demanding that the union meet the just demands of the shop stewards.

Contact Unite

028 90232381
01 873 4577
020 76112500

Contact Unite General Secretary Tony Woodley

Tony Woodley

Contact Unite Irish Regional Secretary Jimmy Kelly

Jimmy Kelly

cwi in Northern Ireland

Socialist Party cwi page

Socialist Party website

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May 2008