The Gate Gourmet battle, now over five weeks old, sums up so much of what is wrong in Blair’s Britain. No other dispute received as many mentions at the TUC this week — and with good reason.
When Gate Gourmet bosses sacked the 667 workers they threw down a challenge to the entire trade union movement.
In their drive to force down wages in order to profit from their contract with British Airways (BA), Gate Gourmet bosses knew they could rely on the harshest anti-union laws in the Western world.
In particular they relied on the ban on “secondary action” in solidarity with striking workers. When BA workers did strike in support of Gate Gourmet workers their T&G union was threatened with a damages claim for tens of millions of pounds.
Gate Gourmet bosses also knew the Labour government would instinctively side with them and against their mainly Asian, mainly female workforce.
One month on these issues have only sharpened.
Messages of support and donations have flooded in, and the trade unions have demanded that the laws outlawing solidarity are repealed.
Union leaders Brendan Barber (TUC), Tony Woodley (T&G), Dave Prentis (Unison), Derek Simpson (Amicus) and Paul Kenny (GMB) wrote to Labour trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson.
They called for the government to reassess the law in four key areas — protecting strikers from dismissal, barring the replacement of workers in dispute, permitting supportive action and simplifying balloting procedures.
On Gate Gourmet, they added, “The company’s preparedness to deploy already trained workers, brought in from overseas and paid poorer wages... suggests the company’s purpose was lowering labour costs and breaking union membership.
“It cannot be acceptable in modern day Britain that a ruthless employer can turn on the most vulnerable workers in this way with impunity.
“We sincerely hope that these workers will receive the backing of this Labour government and that you will do all in your power to ensure that the deficiencies in employment law are addressed so that this darkest episode is not repeated.”
The response from Alan Johnson to the leaders of Britain four biggest unions? Piss off.
He told the Financial Times, “We’re not inclined to go to the British public and say ‘vote for us and we’ll make it easier for BA baggage handlers to walk out unballoted in industrial action that has nothing to do with their employer’.”
The trade unions are right to make their demands, but it will take much more of a fight to win such changes. The struggle may well involve refusing to be constrained by the present laws.
Bob Crow of the RMT rail union was right when he told the TUC on Monday that as well as campaigns and demonstrations that it is right to “defy and break these laws”. There is a real danger that Gate Gourmet will be highlighted as a deserving case during the TUC and Labour Party conferences and then forgotten afterwards, with workers pressured to accept a bad deal. Every act of solidarity is vital now.
The Gate Gourmet dispute has shown the need for stronger rank and file organisation and for a political challenge to Labour.