The Socialist 30 August 2007
Strike against public sector pay cap
Belfast Airport workers score a victory
Belfast airport workers have won a stunning victory in a Fair Employment Tribunal but the shop stewards vow that their fight for justice will go on.
Four years ago I interviewed Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer when they visited London in 2003. They told the socialist that their employer ICTS, the security company in Belfast International Airport, had selected them and others for the sack after they took legal strike action. This affected 23 workers in total.
As well as campaigning against their sacking, they were also demanding an investigation into the role of their full-time TGWU official, who they accused of collaborating with the bosses in the sackings.
Now, in a complete vindication of their case, the tribunal has found not only were they unfairly sacked by ICTS but the shop stewards had been sacked because they were stewards.
This is a victory over a vicious employer and a condemnation of the union. The TGWU leadership abandoned them, telling them they didn't have a chance if they went to the tribunal. They said they should accept a miserly offer of £4,000 from ICTS with no chance of getting their jobs back. When they refused it, the union declared they were on their own.
This meant that the shop stewards had to bear the full legal costs of £200,000 and rising.
The tribunal was also pretty clear in its written findings that the TGWU official at the time was guilty of collaborating with the bosses in the sackings.
The stewards had to overcome all obstacles, despite ill health and the threatened loss of their homes. Two of them have joined the Socialist Party in recognition that it was only our party in Ireland that stood with them through thick and thin.
Since the tribunal victory the union, under threat of hunger strike from the stewards, has verbally agreed to cover their legal costs and any future costs if ICTS appeal against the tribunal decision.
The fair employment tribunal findings, some 92 pages of it, make fascinating reading. It ruled that the 23 workers were discriminated against and therefore unfairly sacked. But it also found that the shop stewards were discriminated against "for their political opinions".
With the history of Northern Ireland as a back drop, the tribunal and an appeal court have declared that "political opinion includes supporting workers' rights to belong to a trade union".
It decided that they had been sacked because the boss at the time, a Mr Finnegan (now boss of Gatwick airport security) had "made extremely disparaging remarks... about trade unions and... shop stewards".
This finding meant that there was no limit to the damages awarded against the company for sacking the shop stewards and one of them in fact has been awarded £131,000.
Another important ruling made by the tribunal included the right of the workers to reinstate strike action without having to give notice to the employer.
This arose because the date for their second strike action, 14 May 2002, was suspended then reinstated by the shop stewards after legal advice from the union's own lawyers.
The tribunal made it pretty clear that the actions of the full-time official, Mr McCusker, in issuing a letter of repudiation had no legal basis and in fact was "ineffective".
The tribunal refers to: "Mr McCusker meeting Mr Lewis and Ms Thorpe (directors of ICTS) in a public house..., when he provided them with copies of the letters he was proposing to send to the stewards" repudiating the strike.
It was this action that gave the green light to the bosses for the sacking of the 23 workers. The tribunal even speculates whether it was the bosses who thought up the repudiation letter or whether it was McCusker who suggested it to them.
The tribunal is scathing in its language about the employers. It says for example that Finnegan "was not truthful in his evidence" that he "gave a completely self-serving account" when he was cross examined.
It comments that the company's disciplinary and appeals procedure was "a total sham" on more than one occasion.
It seems to have fun commenting on the conflicting statements of the employers about how they selected the workers to be sacked. They concluded that an unofficial stoppage on 30 March 2002 "was used simply as a smokescreen to dismiss them".
And as a further kick in the bosses' proverbials, the tribunal says they "had difficulty in remembering anything other than what they wanted to remember".
When the Human Resources (HR) director Ms Thorpe was cross-examined the tribunal comments "there were three different versions of how she had conducted the 'random selection'.
First "she had used a pin with her eyes closed" then later she said "she had used a needle with her eyes open" then "Ms Thorpe said she cut up the names and placed them in a box".
The shop stewards are now waiting to see if the TGWU makes good their promise to pay their full legal and other costs. Assurances were given but, despite discussions with the senior regional officials since they got back, nothing concrete has yet been delivered.
As a gesture of conciliation from the shop stewards the TGWU was asked, if in the event of a victory, it would like to line up with the workers and say that this was a victory for the union as well as the workers. But it did not even acknowledge the correspondence from the shop stewards let alone reply.
There are a lot of lessons from this case but without the determination and readiness to sacrifice of the shop stewards in particular nothing could have been achieved.
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