Northern Ireland: Belfast Airport workers

The long battle for justice

The Socialist has carried regular articles about the battle being waged by three shop stewards, sacked from their security jobs at Belfast Airport. The three TGWU/Unite members have been struggling for their union to fulfill promises to provide legal fees incurred in their battle against their former employer ICTS. They have also been fighting for compensation from the union because of the collusion of a union official in their sacking. Peter Hadden, a leading member of the Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Northern Ireland explains the situation.

Belfast Airport workers

Sacked airport shop steward, Gordon McNeill, has ended his hunger strike at Transport House in Belfast. The protest ended in dramatic fashion. On day thirteen of his fast Gordon was served with an injunction obtained by the union, barring him and his two colleagues, Chris Bowyer and Madan Gupta, from protesting "in or at" Transport House.

Gordon’s response was to stay put in defiance of the injunction, but one day later union officials called the police to have him forcibly removed from the building.

Having gone two weeks without food, including six days without either food or water, Gordon was in poor shape, very weak and constantly dizzy. The police had to call fire crews to hoist him from the Transport House balcony and then ordered an ambulance to take him to hospital.

In hospital Gordon continued his protest, refusing food but also refusing fluids in protest at the union’s use of the police and courts to deny his right to protest. However when doctors gave an ultimatum that they would go immediately to the High Court to get an order to feed him, Gordon ended his fast rather than be force fed.


Meanwhile, with Gordon removed from the scene, we saw another example of the kind of petty vindictiveness that some top leaders of the union have displayed throughout this dispute. Union officials removed the tent, sleeping bags and other personal belongings of the shop stewards, trashed them and dumped them at the side of the building.

The reason for the hunger strike was the refusal of the Unite leadership to implement the promises and assurances they gave the shop stewards following protests at Transport House in Belfast and then in London at the end of last summer.

Unite general secretary, Tony Woodley along with Irish regional secretary, Jimmy Kelly, had committed that the union would pay the legal fees for the successful Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunal cases against their employer, ICTS.

They had also agreed to fund the stewards’ costs of an appeal by ICTS against the Tribunal finding that the company had politically discriminated against the shop stewards, sacking them because of their socialist views.

Unite also agreed to compensate the shop stewards for the fact that their union official colluded with ICTS to have them sacked – and that an offer would be made within seven days.

With the threat of protest lifted, the Unite leadership then reneged on all the promises they had made. This became the pattern of events over the past eight months. Further protests or threats of protests would be followed by further discussions, renewed commitments and new deadlines. And, with the regularity of clockwork, these deadlines would pass with no movement from the union to fulfil their promises.

By April the only concrete step the Unite leaders had taken to live up to their word was to make a part payment of the outstanding legal bill. In frustration, the shop stewards embarked on a hunger strike at Transport House to try to force the union’s hand. This ended five days later with an assurance that the legal bills would be paid and an offer on compensation would be made. There was a new deadline of 30 April.

30 April came and went with no movement whatsoever from Unite. Instead the union set a new deadline of 6 May. This too passed with nothing but the, by now, customary silence from Unite’s upper echelons.

A few days later the shop stewards did receive a letter from the union solicitors which just moved the goalposts by putting conditions on any future offer. It made clear the union could commit to no deadline for a settlement.

Faced with the prospect that the Unite leadership could endlessly drag out this issue, the shop stewards began the hunger strike that has just ended. They made clear this time that mere promises would not do and that the protest would continue until all the outstanding issues in dispute were resolved.

The Socialist Party initiated a campaign of protest action. Posters were produced, a website/blog set up, an online petition launched and there were pickets and protests at Unite offices in London and Dublin as well as in Belfast. There was fairly extensive media coverage in Northern Ireland.

Hundreds of trade union activists, as well as prominent individuals like Ricky Tomlinson, Jimmy McGovern and Ken Loach, added their voices in support. Locally the Fire Brigades Union, the Irish National Teachers Organisation and the public-sector union NIPSA conference added their support.

This pressure finally told. A week and a half into the protest the union gave way on the legal fees, paying the outstanding bill and employing barristers for the appeal. That left the issue of compensation.

An offer of sorts did arrive. However to describe this as a compensation offer would be to bend the truth. The offer was bound tightly with suffocating strings. In particular the union were demanding a gagging clause to silence the shop stewards on every aspect of the union’s role in the dispute.

This is not compensation, it is a bribe; a disgraceful attempt to buy silence in order to suppress the truth. It was when Gordon McNeill rejected this, making clear that his right to speak the truth is not for sale, that Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly decided to up the ante – on the one hand, using smears and propaganda to try to discredit Gordon and on the other using the courts and police to physically break the protest.

The union issued statements accusing Gordon of being on a "money grab" and claiming the shop stewards were looking for a million pounds each from the union. Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly, who made this accusation, know that this is completely untrue. We can’t reveal – at this point – the "without prejudice" correspondence between solicitors, but the Unite leaders have this material and know that no one is talking about a million pounds or anything like it.

Let’s just say that the union’s idea of compensation/bribe would be about a quarter of Tony Woodley’s annual salary.

The Unite statements also single out the Socialist Party for attack, making equally unfounded accusations about our role. We are in the process of producing a detailed reply to all of the points raised.

Suffice for now to say that the Socialist Party has nothing to apologise for in the role we have played. Two of the shop stewards are Socialist Party members. If the Unite leadership, six years ago or at any time since, had done as we have done and stood by their members, none of this would have happened.

Hunger strike

We did not advocate a hunger strike. Rather we advised against it, in part because we believed that the top Unite leaders would have let Gordon McNeill die before they would give him justice. But once the battle had begun we were never going to do anything else but put our full weight behind our members.

The hunger strike and the protest campaign were not "anti-union" as has been claimed. Rather they were in defence of genuine trade unionism.

The Socialist Party and the shop stewards have made clear throughout that there is no dispute with the membership of Unite or any other trade union.

The only dispute is with a trade union leadership that firstly colluded with an employer to have its activists sacked and then tried to bury the truth about what happened. These, plus the use of a court injunction to repress a peaceful protest and the attempt to silence members with bribes, are the actions which are "anti-union" and which discredit the trade union movement.

With the hunger strike now over, the shop stewards have launched a new phase of their struggle. There will be a campaign to defend the right to protest, which will include action to defy the injunction barring them from Transport House.

Secondly, rather than be silenced, they are preparing an initiative to ensure that, in Gordon McNeill’s words, "every dot and comma" of what happened over the past six years is brought to light.

They will tell the incredible tale of how a straightforward strike for a 50 pence an hour increase wove its way through a complex maze of intimidation, paramilitary threats, attempted bribes, protests and hunger strikes to the situation we are now in.

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June 2008