A battle with implications for every worker in Britain was raging at Heathrow airport as Socialist Worker went to press.
Talks were taking place between officials of the T&G union and the company, but one thing was already clear.
A vicious union-busting operation, planned secretly for 12 months, had come unstuck, leading to strike action that made the front pages on every continent.
The plot by multinational Gate Gourmet to destroy union organisation, culminating in mass sackings on Wednesday of last week, reveals what bosses believe they can get away with even after eight years of Labour government.
As the corporate media lined up to attack BA staff for taking action in sympathy with the sacked workers, in defiance of the anti-union laws, precious few asked why there were not laws to protect the Gate Gourmet employees.
They were sacked by megaphone, handed pre-prepared dismissal notices with just three minutes warning and manhandled off the premises by hired thugs.
Pregnant women were dragged out by security guards. People not at work that day, on sick or maternity leave, were sacked. One man found out he was out of a job just hours before his mother’s funeral.
In their place came scab workers from an agency set up by Gate Gourmet’s chief executive eight months ago.
Gate Gourmet’s union-busting plan included advising BA, its major customer, of possible disruption of catering supplies when it sacked the workers.
Executives of companies across the Heathrow complex must have been hopeful that Wednesday night that Gate Gourmet had done them all a favour in setting a benchmark for smashing workers’ conditions, pay and union organisation.
Then, the following morning, came a magnificent response which has been sorely lacking in Britain for over two decades.
Hundreds of BA ground staff, on hearing of the brutal sackings, stopped work and within hours had brought the airline’s Heathrow operation to a standstill.
This was a mostly male, largely white “traditional” workforce bringing industrial muscle to bear in support of a largely Asian, 50 percent female group of abysmally paid workers in the same union.
Amid government ministers’ insults about the need for immigrants “to integrate”, it doesn’t get much more integrated than this — or more opposed to the business friendly values of New Labour.
As the solidarity action hit hard at BA, which eight years ago outsourced its catering operation to Gate Gourmet, some of the media cynically tried to drive a wedge between the two groups of workers.
There should be tea and sympathy for Gate Gourmet workers, they said, but contempt for “bully boy” baggage handlers.
But as the saying goes, “Sympathy is like honey on the elbow — you can see it, you can smell it, but you can’t taste it.”
What Gate Gourmet workers need is not pity, but active support and solidarity — that is, action by others to help them win.
And that’s what they got last week. T&G members at BA revealed the basic truth behind Blair’s talk of a new economy.
Even the most powerful multinationals depend on workers — even on particular small groups of workers — and those workers have power when they act collectively.
The business pages of the papers reeked of the great fear that lessons were being hammered home to a new generation.
Bosses from different companies are allowed to conspire against workers. Why shouldn’t workers come together democratically to resist?
Why shouldn’t those in a stronger position help those in a weaker one?
The BA workers shattered another myth. The anti-union laws, brought in by Margaret Thatcher and preserved by Tony Blair, are supposed to prevent secondary action.
They certainly intimidate workers. But they could not stop BA workers at Heathrow taking action, knowing that if management turned on them, strikes would spread to other airports.
The action also revealed the fundamental class faultline in Britain, and with it who stood where. Senior Labour MP Barry Sheerman accused union members, not Gate Gourmet’s bosses, of pre-planning and plotting.
George Galloway MP spoke for the whole of Respect when he “applauded the solidarity” and pledged support for the fight. Left wing Labour MPs also backed the sacked workers.
That fight was ongoing on Tuesday. The BA workers’ action had forced Gate Gourmet and BA into talks with the union. Had union leaders not called the action off there would probably have been a clear victory at the weekend, which it may now take renewed action to achieve.
But basic working class solidarity has already ensured that a vicious company has not been able to quietly get away with opening the floodgates to US style union-busting in Britain.