Socialist Worker

How to build the unions after Heathrow action

A T&G and a GMB union official reflect on the industrial action in and around Heathrow airport — and on the kind of trade unions that militant workers need

Issue No. 1965

Sacked Gate Gourmet workers at a meeting on Monday of this week (Pic: Guy Smalllman)

Sacked Gate Gourmet workers at a meeting on Monday of this week (Pic: Guy Smalllman)

The unofficial action by British Airways (BA) airside workers — baggage handlers, bus drivers and check in staff — is significant for all those with a vested interest in militant trade unionism. It exposes the current weakness of official union structures and culture.

The initial imagery of the stoppage, apart from the journalistically lazy “passenger distress” stories, was of predominantly white male workers taking personally risky solidarity action in support of an overwhelmingly Punjabi

female workforce, in calling for justice against their sacking.

Welcome as this is, the initial outcome of the action is a need for an urgent review about the role of trade unions and their ability to protect their members against global companies such as BA and naked aggression from anti-union companies such as Gate Gourmet.

The T&G union has had to face both, with unpalatable results in the last two weeks.

The action two weeks ago was the first time since the mid-1980s that effective mass secondary strike action has taken place, wrong-footing the employers and also, sadly, the tortoise-like structures of our own official trade unionism.

By their action BA airside workers gave their T&G regional officials dealing with Gate Gourmet a 24-hour loaded gun to threaten management with — reinstate and we may not shoot you, just yet.

The T&G had been sat in negotiations around redundancy and downsizing with this company for well over a year. Suggested packages and proposed “deals” that emerged from these talks have been rejected by the workers.

This ever decreasing circle of self-harm was ended by the brutality of Gate Gourmet who, with the obvious tacit approval of BA, sacked workers by megaphone and courier, and brought in hired security and scab agency labour.

The unofficial stoppage gave union negotiators the upper hand briefly, regardless of the way the union had to go through the posturing required by legal advice and the anti-union laws.

It was critical that immediate face to face talks should have happened with Gate Gourmet and BA.

The reinstatement of all sacked workers prior to any other discussion should have been agreed as the bottom line, involving sacked lay representatives at Gate Gourmet and the unofficial airside strikers.

That did not happen nor, mistakenly, was it sought by the rank and file. This allowed the “professional negotiators” a free hand to agree to the criteria of the basis of talks.

In addition to setting accountable demands with its rank and file, strengthening their participation, the union leadership should have

immediately facilitated the creation of campaign coordination bodies to delegate speakers to other workers involved in airline support services.

The union should also have organised leafleting at Heathrow terminals and other airports, involved the local Sikh temple, set up e-mail and telephone pickets of BA business lines, held protests at BA offices, ensured PCS union members in job centres in west London did not process job vacancies at Gate Gourmet.

This and another 100 practical actions would show that the T&G means business.

We needed, and still need, to ensure that when the union machine moves into a war situation with aggressive employers, every action that could ensure success is being worked through. In response to the heroic action of airside members the T&G national officers agreed, without precondition and without the involvement of sacked stewards or airside reps, to talks with the Acas negotiating service alongside the repudiation of the unlawful action.

Despite the growing momentum to place responsibility on BA, which was the key to swift dispute resolution, the rush to “legitimate industrial relations” allowed the contractor and the contracted off the hook and the time to get their respective lawyers involved.

As the clock ticked on and civilised times for setpiece Acas talks were made, the advantage gained by the surprise solidarity action became blunted.

Anyone with the slightest negotiation experience knows that a retreat to the neutrality of Acas is only desirable when you are on your knees.

Gate Gourmet management, without BA sitting on its shoulder, returned to form. It demanded that the local T&G official and Gate Gourmet shop stewards did not participate in face to face negotiations.

The national union officials humiliatingly agreed to proceed with talks.

Little wonder that Acas talks broke down last week after the employer’s ludicrous suggestion that if the union backed the company in extended its catering contract with BA, it might be persuaded to reinstate all the “non-troublemakers” depending on cost implications.

We were a week into the dispute with nothing to show except an insulting plea from BA urging “both sides” to resume meaningful talks.

BA is now processing disciplinary action against T&G airside members who took secondary action. Due to collective strength, this is unlikely to result in dismissals.

But warnings are expected to be given to staff in order to prevent or limit airport disruption on this or, significantly with the appointment of a new BA chief executive in Willy Walsh, any future issues.

With the airside muscle removed from the Gate Gourmet dispute the development of a classic “lock out” looks likely.

We need our grassroots organisation to match our ambition

The militant minority within trade unions, especially those that proclaim they are “fighting back”, as the T&G does, has a duty not just to simply condemn or point the finger of blame at the “national official”, the bureaucracy or the capitulation to “meaningful negotiation”.

They have to work for the sort of rank and file union organisation that matches the ambitions, strength and courage shown by BA airside strikers and the Gate Gourmet workers.

This requires grassroots union activists to be disciplined enough to work together to form industrial combines across unions, raising “fighting funds” and preparing for disputes well in advance of any action.

Ad hoc committees of “doers” should plan and prioritise industrial sectors that are ripe for confrontation that workers could win and gain strength from.

This does not and should not create alternative union structures, but works within and in addition to existing lay union democracy, recognising the restrictions that the anti-trade union laws bind our union administrators and officials to.

Having a strong and well organised rank and file means ensuring that officials are presented with and held accountable to the demands and the aims of the grassroots.

Many union officials secretly value strong activism, including unofficial action, as it strengthens their negotiating hand.

This means the cultural norm will be for negotiations to become the property of the grassroots membership, undertaken in their presence.

It means opening up the cosy atmosphere that exists between union officials and their corporate counterparts.

For the grassroots to take control of their unions will mean self-organising websites, training to deal independently with the media and press, setting in place lines of communication that can pass through to other workers — preparing them to join secondary action should they be willing, persuaded and required to do so. It is an easy action, especially for the left, to shout “sell-out” and rail against the “corruption” of our union movement. It takes much more to build.

With the seemingly inevitable process towards amalgamation of the T&G, GMB and Amicus unions, due to be concluded in January 2007, the opportunities to build a fighting and democratic union could be immense.

Yet the discussions focus almost exclusively around a bureaucratic amalgamation rather than our grassroots agenda. The question is can we, currently an unorganised militant minority, mould the principles and structure of that mass union?

The action at Heathrow requires an urgent answer and immediate steps to ensure that this happens.

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Sat 27 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1965
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