By The Walrus
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Heathrow Dispute: Bring the Bosses Down to Earth

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
Strikes and solidarity are needed to bring the Gate Gourmet bosses' union busting operation to a standstill, argues The Walrus.
Issue 299

One of the most interesting aspects of the Gate Gourmet dispute has been the way it has taken the lid off what goes on at Heathrow airport – the biggest workplace in Britain. Concerted attempts by parts of the media and by the BA boss, Rod Eddington, to whip up an outcry over unofficial strike action have not been at all effective – mainly because the overwhelming impression has been that of a wildcat management acting in the most despicable fashion against a workforce made up almost entirely of Asian workers. The lasting image of the dispute is likely to be that of a company goon using a megaphone to let people know that they have just been sacked.

Union members

Many mainstream commentators have also been appalled to discover that those delightful compartments of reconstituted sausage and chocolate mousse which end up in one’s lap do not in fact come out of the sky but are put together in the kind of factory parodied by Charlie Chaplin about a hundred years ago in Modern Times. Heathrow, it turns out, is such a megalopolis and relies on so many thousands of workers, like those at Gate Gourmet, that it probably has a bigger concentration of proletarians working in it than some of the biggest cotton mills and car plants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Most people become faintly conscious of all this on those odd occasions when they are forced to descend into the netherworld that is Heathrow, albeit only for the couple of hours before getting the hell out again. Just to get there, the transport infrastructure is vast – special buses and coaches operate from umpteen hotels and car parks located in and around the airport, which is also serviced by tube lines and the Heathrow Express. The airport itself is a vast agglomeration of aircraft hangers, baggage handling facilities, flight refuelling facilities, maintenance workshops, security and customs operations, air traffic control towers and unlimited retail opportunities, as well as in-flight catering operations.

According to the Financial Times, the number of workers currently employed at Heathrow can be put at around 70,000 but this figure is probably a gross underestimate because it doesn’t take into account the full extent of the support services network. What is not in dispute is that between 25,000 and 30,000 of these workers are members of the same union as those at Gate Gourmet – the T&G. And many more are members of other unions, like Balpa (pilots), Amicus (engineers), Prospect (air traffic control), FBU (firefighters) and Usdaw (shop assistants).

By no stretch of the imagination does this make Heathrow the ‘last bastion’ of trade unionism, as the Financial Times likes to put it. It seems to have escaped their attention that, apart from anything else, the level of unionisation is every bit as high at Gatwick, Luton and Stansted, not to mention all the other main regional airports such as Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast. What is the case is that the concentration of T&G members at Heathrow is particularly high, which explains why the union’s general secretary, Tony Woodley, has taken on such a prominent role in the Gate Gourmet dispute.

For bosses of the major airlines, such high levels of trade union membership at main airports paradoxically represent both a blessing and a curse. For the most part, and contrary to the usual media caricature, the presence of unions actually helps to keep the level of major day to day grievances to a minimum – without this level of cooperation from workers and their representatives an organisation as complex as a modern airport simply would not be able to operate.

The truth is, though, that all this give and take malarkey only just manages to paper over the conflicts which constantly rage just below the surface in the crazed environment of places like Heathrow. And backslapping partnership agreements between airline bosses and union leaders can all too easily end in tatters – mainly due to the cruel realities of the airline industry, which is even more cut-throat than most.

When the formerly state-owned British Airways was privatised in the 1980s, it was hailed as one of the great triumphs of the Thatcher era. But over the intervening 20 years the company has actually stumbled from one crisis to another – under pressure at the one end from shareholders greedy for maximum profits and at the other from long-haul rivals like Virgin and, in Britain and Europe, from the new ‘low-cost’ operations of firms like EasyJet and Ryanair.

BA management have never quite been able to make up their minds on how to keep the shareholders happy at the same time as keeping the opposition at bay. And, truth to tell, it is a bit of a predicament – because the logic of the market is that the only way they can really take on the likes of Stelios and Michael O’Leary is by adopting similar tactics.

In much the same way as outfits like Bupa benefit from the fact that the NHS pays for the training of most nursing and other medical staff in Britain, the other private airlines very often rely on British Airways for skilled staff. And until relatively recently the generally better level of terms and conditions available at BA have instilled a degree of loyalty to the company. But this relationship has come under severe strain in the last few years because of the tendency of all firms in the airline industry to descend to the lowest common denominator.

Nowhere is this better summed up than in the attitude of Ryanair’s supremo, Michael O’Leary, who glories in his reputation as a nasty, rotten (and very rich) scumbag – and who is so reviled by much of his workforce (who are not allowed to join a union) that some of his ex-employees have set up their own website, which pastes up cameos of his megalomaniac behaviour (

Venture capitalists

In a little reported press briefing which took place at the end of the first week of the Gate Gourmet dispute, O’Leary announced plans to make Ryanair the biggest airline in Europe by 2010, after placing an order for 70 more Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Predicting a ‘bloodbath’ in the short-haul market, he warned that the principal cause would be the role about to be played by his own company. ‘We are going to show up in your market and trash your yields,’ he said, in a delightful non-threatening fashion.

Alongside O’Leary at this press briefing sat David Bonderman – boss of Texas Pacific, who own Gate Gourmet – and the man O’Leary hopes will bankroll his medieval pillaging of the rest of the airline industry. O’Leary and Bonderman (who, incidentally, is also chairman of Ryanair) are already tied up through their joint interest in Texas Pacific, the venture capital firm which took over Gate in 2003. Bonderman is so loaded that he spent an estimated $7 million on his birthday party – with live music from the Rolling Stones, no less, and a stand-up routine from Robin Williams.

There is also an interesting tie-up between O’Leary, Bonderman and the new boss of BA, Willie Walsh, who actually takes command in a month or two. Walsh used to be at Aer Lingus, and came onto the radar as a possible replacement for Rod Eddington because he managed to see through privatisation of the Irish state-run airline at the same time as fending off competition from Ryanair. But all three were involved in the landmark dispute which shook Dublin airport a few years ago, when Gate Gourmet rushed to the High Court for an injunction to stop union activists even talking about the need for solidarity.

At the moment BA employees may think that Walsh is not directly involved in any of this. But make no mistake – Walsh is every bit as much of a union-buster as the other two, so there is very little point relying on him for clemency.

As it turned out, the workforce at Dublin airport refused to be intimidated on that occasion. Mass pickets closed down the entire complex and management were forced to cave in within days. This is exactly the kind of response which is needed to get the workers at Gate Gourmet their jobs back and which is essential if union organisation is to retain its credibility in Heathrow. To date, the most inspirational aspect of the dispute has been the amazing solidarity walkouts by baggage handlers. And this is exactly the kind of action which forced BA to back down last August, and the year before, in the face of unofficial walkouts by check-in staff and cabin crew.

Send messages of support to the Gate Gourmet workers. Email [email protected] and [email protected].

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