In a magnificent show of solidarity, thousands of workers at Heathrow airport in London have walked out unofficially in support of sacked colleagues at caterers Gate Gourmet. At the moment check-in staff, baggage handlers and bus drivers are on strike at Terminals 1 and 4. Some 20 incoming flights have been re-routed away from Heathrow and outgoing flights halted.
At the heart of this dispute is a company determined to unilaterally slash pay, worsen conditions and bust unions—and the determination of British Airways to stand alongside it.
A T&G union member told Socialist Worker, “If we lose this one we lose the airport. We knew we had to take unofficial action because otherwise we’d lose the militancy and the momentum.”
Speaking of its workforce Gate Gourmet told the T&G that “this is a community we cannot work with”. The employees concerned are almost all low-paid Asian workers.
But it’s not just Gate Gourmet that is out to attack workers. British Airways wants to lay the ghost of the victorious unofficial walkouts by check-in staff in July 2003. These cost the company £40 million plus, gave a boost to union members throughout the airport and prevented a wholesale assault on pay and conditions.
Willie Walsh is about to take over as sole chief of British Airways as Rod Eddington steps down. Walsh came from Aer Lingus with a reputation for “standing up” to the unions. This dispute is his baptism of fire—he wants to cow the unions and prevent them from defending their members.
And Walsh’s greatest fear is swift, effective action unconstrained by the anti-union laws—which is just what he has now got.
Yesterday, Wednesday 10 August, Gate Gourmet sacked 800 workers employed at Heathrow. Fellow workers reporting for duty on Thursday 11 August were faced with the ultimatum of signing a new contract, which would slash pay and conditions, or face the sack.
Gate Gourmet supplies British Airways with in-flight meals. The firm is owned by Gate Gourmet International, which was bought by US-owned Texas Pacific in 2003.
T&G members work as catering assistants, earning around £12,000 a year, and as drivers, earning just under £16,000 a year.
The T&G has been negotiating with Gate Gourmet for months over jobs and conditions. In June this year a rescue package was put forward by the company. However, the T&G representatives said that any restructuring proposals needed to be across the board and include management grades if the plans were to have any credibility.
The company then regraded 147 shopfloor workers as managers, only to make them redundant. It was then made clear that managers in the new structure would be on higher starting salaries than before and would not be part of the restructuring.
Following this pay rise for managers and sacking of 147 workers, the workforce rejected the company’s rescue package proposals by a margin of nine to one.
In August Gate Gourmet informed the T&G that they wished to employ 120 additional temporary staff. The T&G responded by asking why they wanted to make people redundant and employ new staff.
Yesterday, 10 August, the company brought in new workers without discussion. T&G representatives went to seek a meeting with Gate Gourmet managers.
Staff assembled in the canteen in preparation for a meeting. While reps were talking to management, staff were told they had three minutes to get back to work or they would be sacked. They refused and remained in the building.
Workers turning up for the afternoon shift were then sacked by loudhailer! Union officials heard someone, thought to be a Gate Gourmet manager, make an announcement which people found difficult to hear.
It transpired very soon afterwards that a ten minute warning had been issued to staff arriving for the afternoon shift stating that if they failed to report for work they would be sacked.
This was later confirmed in a note handed out. By the time the people realised what was happening, they had effectively been sacked.
These union-busters have to be stopped. They will rush to the law in an effort to make the union disown their members. But a continuation of the initiative that has already been shown can lead to victory.
The great solidarity already shown has to be continued and deepened across Heathrow. Gate Gourmet also operates at Gatwick, Glasgow, Bristol and Newcastle. Support there would step up the pressure further.
There should be no going back until all Gate Gourmet’s attacks are withdrawn and there are serious moves towards taking catering back in-house.
Every union must back the Heathrow strikers.