“T&G union, zindabad! BA staff, zindabad!”
These cries of “long live” the union and the thousands of BA workers taking solidarity action filled the air at a 1,000-strong mass meeting of sacked Gate Gourmet workers this morning.
The overwhelmingly Asian workforce did not look remotely beaten down, despite the brutal way they were dismissed with three minutes’ notice on Wednesday.
They were angry, certainly, but also joyously confident — and no wonder.
A level of solidarity action not seen in Britain for two decades had brought a giant multinational to a standstill at Europe’s busiest airport.
Thousands of BA staff stopped work on hearing of the sacking of 800 fellow union members in the catering company that supplies the airline.
The result was that by Friday morning not a single BA flight was departing from or arriving at Heathrow.
By Friday afternoon the action had forced Gate Gourmet bosses into talks with T&G officials, which, despite the company’s wishes, included discussion of resintating the workforce.
That was enough for T&G members at BA to say they would “return to position”. But most workers had already gone home and those who remained were not going to do any work.
A new shift was due on at 8pm, by which time union officials hoped to have made progress.
“Words cannot express our gratitude for the support we have received,” says the Gate Gourmet workers’ union convenor, Mr Dhillon. “It brings joy to our hearts.
“We are not on strike. We were not on strike when we were sacked. All we were doing was trying to hold a meeting to discuss management’s plans to bring in agency staff.
“What we want is dignity and respect. That costs nothing. But it is worth fighting for.”
As required by an injunction under the anti-union laws, the T&G union has formally repudiated the secondary, solidarity action at BA.
But the union’s national officer for aviation, Brendan Gold, also told the meeting, to rapturous cheers, “Is it any surprise that workers will want to take action in solidarity with other workers, action not seen in this country for 20 years.”
And it is union organisation versus union-busting that is at the heart of this dispute.
“There is no doubt the company planned this,” said one worker of 15-years standing. “They already had the sacking notices prepared — in four different languages.
“They were hand delivered to people who were on sick or on leave.”
Kamla Saroyia, who has worked at Gate Gourmet for eight years, was one of them. “I was off work sick, and was sacked. My daughter in law is on maternity leave. She was sacked too.”
The details of how Gate Gourmet has treated its workforce are truly shocking.
“They hired security guards, bouncers, on the day we were sacked,” said one woman worker. “We were kept in the canteen area and not allowed to go to the toilet.
“There were people with diabetes or other conditions. There was a pregnant lady. We had no access to food or water. Then they told us we were all sacked.
“The security guards were grabbing the ladies and dragging them really hard.”
Every single worker who was corralled into that room on Wednesday confirms this brutality. And the abuse goes back before then.
A group of eight women told Socialist Worker that one Gate Gourmet manager had casually informed them that, “With the money you are on you could buy a lot in India.”
The women live in London and are on about £12,000 a year.
“We have done everything possible to keep this company going,” says Mrs Atwal, a T&G steward. “Over the last few months we have been doing 25 percent extra work for no extra pay. We had no pay rise this year.
“And then we are treated like this. It is because of this kind of treatment that we need a strong union.”
“This is not management, this is dictatorship,” said one woman, shaking with anger and pride. “We are not slaves. We are workers. And we are fighting to be treated as workers.”
Shop steward Ken Kainth said, “This is a battle for the future of the union in Heathrow and other airports.
“If they break the T&G here, then other companies will do it. That’s why we have to stick together and why the solidarity from other workers is crucial. This is a big battle.”
An insidious line of questioning from some sections of the media was that the solidarity action was the result of Asian family ties.
In fact, the BA baggage handlers and ground crew who took action are overwhelmingly white.
Gate Gourmet worker Jonathan Gardener had a clear explanation for the solidarity, “Look, I’m Cornish and a lot of my workmates here are Punjabi. But we’re brothers.
“We are in the same union branch as the BA workers. So that makes them our brothers too. You can call that a family connection if you like.”
Fellow worker Michael Allen added, “People have worked for this company for a long time. Some of them were here when it was part of BA, before it was tendered out.
“There’re lots of connections between different groups of workers at the airport. There’s nothing sinister about it. It’s called solidarity.”
Many workers were clear that not only were the sackings carefully planned, they are also part of an attempt to weaken the unions at BA itself.
“I believe Gate Gourmet told BA they would bust the union, but it might mean a few days of no food supplies,” said an experienced union member. “You don’t sack the entire workforce, which you know means disrupting production, without telling your biggest customer.
“A lot of us think BA said, ‘Good luck, we’ll give you a few days grace.’ Then it wasn’t just food BA was without, but flights as well. They didn’t bank on workers taking solidarity action.”
However close to the truth that assessment is, the scale of this dispute has certainly taken BA aback.
And because it is national news, victory for the Gate Gourmet workers — through union solidarity — would be seen as a huge boost for the entire movement.
The Gate Gourmet and BA workers were on the front foot this afternoon, but they know how high the stakes are.
“We can win this,” said one woman, who has worked at Gate Gourmet for 12 years. “We can win quickly. But that does not mean we don’t need support beyond the airport.
“Send us your support. Do what you can to back us. We are fighting for you as well.”