Gate Gourmet - Workers Defeated by Unions

The recent dispute at Gate Gourmet, where baggage handlers walked out in solidarity with sacked catering staff, is one of the clearest examples of the way the unions take over class struggle to divide, isolate and help defeat workers. The circumstances behind the dispute show the arrogance and contempt with which the bourgeoisie treats the working class. Over 600 workers at Gate Gourmet, who supply meals to BA, were sacked on August 10th. They had gone to work to be greeted by 130 agency staff bussed in to replace them. They were kept in a canteen, not allowed food or water or to go to the toilet and then informed they had lost their jobs by megaphone. Many only realised what was happening after they were forced out by hired bouncers. Some of those not at work, off sick or on maternity leave, had their P45's pushed through their letter boxes in the dead of night.

The workers at Gate Gourmet are typical of many sectors of the working class who work in appalling conditions for low wages. According to a recent study by Oxfam, Gate Gourmet workers faced abuses of labour rights, along with long hours for low wages with little or no job

security, sick pay or basic employment rights. The media represented the mainly Sikh Gate Gourmet workers as exceptionally underpaid and marginalised. In truth they represent many who work in the centre of the capitalist heartlands and were fully unionised, represented in fact by the T&GWU, one of the biggest unions in the country. Rather than representing some exception, their conditions and appalling treatment increasingly represents conditions faced by the working class as a whole.

Unions defend capitalists

The brutality of the treatment faced by Gate Gourmet workers may have come as a nasty shock to them but it had been in the pipeline for some time. Even though they only take home £12 000 per annum, roughly half the London average, Gate Gourmet was intent on making cuts after losses of £22m last year, citing cuts in airline meals contracts from BA as one of the main reasons. It is owned by a US investment bank, Texas Pacific, who set up a new firm to hire cheap labour to replace Gate Gourmet workers. Company officials had met the T&G on 30 occasions prior to this to negotiate down wages and discuss the best ways to introduce job cuts. In June, a compromise was reached whereby restructuring would be introduced if it was across the board and included managers. The company agreed, regraded 147 shop floor workers, made them redundant and refused to touch the previous managers. This alone might have been seen as a provocation for action. Instead the T&G, in the words of one of their stewards, did "everything possible to keep this company going" including encouraging them to work an extra 25% for no pay. Needless to say, Gate Gourmet workers had had no pay rise in the previous year. The unions were more than happy to implement cuts in the name of financial realism.

So when baggage handlers walked next day in solidarity after hearing what had happened at Gate Gourmet, the unions were taken as much by surprise as Gate Gourmet bosses themselves. BA workers have a history of anti-union militancy. They walked out against their unions in 2003 in a two day unofficial action against the introduction of swipe cards which they won. The walkout by over 1000 baggage handlers immediately brought all BA flights from Heathrow to a stop. The union immediately denounced the action. Howls of protest spilled from the media, most of which concentrated on stranded holidaymakers and very little on the appalling conditions and treatment of Gate Gourmet workers. Much was made of the fact the sacked workers were predominantly Sikh and said the only reason there had been solidarity action was because the baggage handlers were related to them. (In fact most of the baggage handlers were white, and while many insincere hands have been wrung at the apparent lack of racial integration in society, this example of class solidarity was met only with hostility). After repudiating the action, the T&G immediately went to ACAS to find a speedy solution with BA. Meanwhile, Gate Gourmet ran to the courts to get an injunction against sacked workers who were peacefully demonstrating outside its factory, showing once again that democracy and free speech don't apply to workers fighting to defend themselves. The following day, a settlement between BA and the T&G had been reached and the baggage handlers were called back to work. Left isolated, Gate Gourmet workers were then persuaded by the T&G to accept redundancy terms offered by the company who wrote to 1400 staff and 600 strikers asking if they would accept redundancy payments of between £6000 and £12 000 to leave the firm. Some 300 of the 660 workers sacked opted to leave, as did a further 700 employees. Since Gate Gourmet originally only wanted 700 redundancies this is a clear victory for them. Gate Gourmet insisted workers sign letters agreeing not to launch unfair dismissal claims against the company. It insisted it would not take back the most militant workers, which was agreed by the union, and the most militant workers who have refused the redundancy pay-off will not get their jobs back 'under any circumstances' according to management. Finally the union has been in talks to avoid further sympathy strikes by BA staff. This may seem like a clear capitulation by the T&G to what Tony Woodley, the general secretary, described as a 'bitter and historic dispute with innocent workers victimised', yet the union is claiming it as a victory for the working class, despite the fact that the militant strikers from both Gate Gourmet and BA are currently being victimised and hung out to dry by the T&G.

Left supports unions

As soon as the danger was over the T&G made the usual radical sound bites supporting secondary action and urging the Labour Party Conference to back solidarity action and make it legal, ignoring the fact that the Government has a track record of class hatred and legalised suppression. Socialist Worker said that the actions against three union activists in the strike at Heathrow was a "Plot to break the union" (SW, 1st October 2005) and that at the heart of the Gate Gourmet dispute itself was: "...union organisation versus union-busting", citing the fact the union has no choice other than to legally repudiate secondary action or face losing its assets. (SW, 13th August 2005). This ignores the real nature of the unions and the way they operate in capitalism today. They are an important safety valve through which workers are allowed to let off steam, but they do not organise workers or unite them. Gate Gourmet is no exception where members of the same union are kept from supporting each other. Even before 'anti-union' legislation was introduced most workers found themselves isolated in their own small part of the union and solidarity from other unions was rare. Unions for the past hundred years have policed the class struggle, delayed it, crippled it with bureaucracy and delaying tactics and isolated it before imposing a 'realistic' solution, realistic of course to the needs of capital. Unions have only ever existed to promote one section of the working class in a particular trade or area over another, and if the needs of their members conflict with the needs of their industry or business to survive, then their members are inevitably sacrificed for the good of capital.

As the economic crisis worsens and the relentless need for profitability continues, attacks such as those at Gate Gourmet will increase. In fact, the new Chief Executive of BA is already making noises about necessary job cuts if the airline is to be competitive and 15% of the workforce are set to lose their jobs. Moreover, BA's main pension scheme has a £1billion deficit. Tough times lie ahead.

Only solidarity can bring victory

Yet the actions of the baggage handlers should not be underestimated. For them to strike and put themselves at risk in support of other workers was an act of courage and bravery. It is also proof that capital's terms need not be accepted. There have been other recent examples from transport and post office workers showing their willingness to break free of the stranglehold the union has on class struggle. By uniting with Gate Gourmet workers, the baggage handlers proved that while the class is united it is powerful. Along with other sections of the working class, BA workers facing future attacks can use this weapon to succeed. Workers can act outside their union, hold their own mass assemblies and elect recallable delegates, and need not be bullied or intimidated by the unions and their calls for legality. Solidarity like that shown by the baggage handlers to Gate Gourmet workers is the only way to fight back.


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