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From The Socialist newspaper, 6 October 2005

Grudging acceptance of Gate Gourmet deal

THE GRUDGING acceptance by Gate Gourmet workers of the deal cobbled together between the TGWU leadership and Gate Gourmet management looks likely to bring an end to this dispute.

Chris Newby

This is a bad deal, which will involve 144 of the original workers sacked being made compulsorily redundant.

At the time of voting the workers were being asked to accept this deal without knowing who would be offered their jobs back and who will be made compulsorily redundant. There is even a rumour that the union had said at the mass meeting that if the workers rejected the deal they would be "on their own".

In their statement, the union states that it will only be objective criteria such as attendance, performance and skills that would be used to decide who will be made compulsorily redundant.

But who knows how this objective criteria has been arrived at? The company has already said it will not take back some workers it brands "troublemakers". They would undoubtedly be looking to this process to get their way.

With this deal, management have achieved most of their objectives, in cutting the workforce and weakening the union.

National news

This struggle burst into the national news on 10 August when management brutally sacked over 670 workers, some who were on sick leave or on holiday.

What management weren't expecting was the magnificent response of the British Airways (BA) baggage handlers who stopped work in support of the Gate Gourmet workers. They brought BA to a standstill, grounding hundreds of flights around the world.

A strong motivating factor for these workers was the realisation that BA are looking to make thousands of their own workforce redundant in the next few years. Their action was key and showed how the dispute could have been won.

It's important to have an honest assessment of the lessons of this dispute. Certainly the workers showed their willingness to struggle. They turned up in their hundreds to the daily protests at Heathrow.

However in the face of a determined and vicious management, the TGWU leadership nationally and regionally, with the help of Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, have not been up to the task of leading a fighting defence of the workers, which would have entailed defying the anti-union laws.

Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the TGWU, came across at different stages of the dispute as intent on winning the battle for his sacked members. He warned BA that if they tried to victimise any TGWU member in Heathrow for their role in the 11 August solidarity action then the TGWU: "Could ballot all its 19,500 members at Heathrow" (Observer 21 August).

But it's not just what you say but what you do. Three TGWU members who took part in the action are facing disciplinary action from BA and two of these have been suspended, yet there's been no call for a strike ballot.

The unofficial action showed how this strike could have been won if this had been developed throughout Heathrow and how ineffective the anti-union laws are when met by determined, mass resistance from workers.

Right from the start, the sacked workers were not regularly involved in the decision-making around the running of this dispute. There should have been an elected strike committee of the workers with regular mass meetings to allow the widest possible participation. Workers should have been involved in trying to develop solidarity action.

Management's use of unorganised migrant workers is a critical issue that all trade unionists and socialists need to take up. At Heathrow, a key workplace, the bosses want to use these workers to force down wages and divide the workforce.

Trade unions need to be organising a massive recruitment campaign amongst this section of workers.

What this dispute critically underlines is the need for a fighting union leadership with a clear strategy to win. Being sincere in wanting to defend workers is not enough. You have to have a clear strategy and the willingness to explain truthfully what is needed to win.

The TGWU leadership, particularly Tony Woodley, failed to see that solidarity action was the key to this.

Instead he allowed others to set the agenda when the union "repudiated" the marvellous spontaneous action of the baggage handlers.

This was one dispute (albeit an important one) that has not been successful. There will be other disputes. The lessons of Gate Gourmet must be learnt if future battles are to succeed.

Willie Walsh, the new chief executive of British Airways, has made it clear what he is planning. Walsh was formerly head of Irish airline Aer Lingus, where he cut 2,000 jobs after a long battle with the SIPTU union.

BA wants to make 300 million-worth of savings before the opening of the new Terminal 5 in 2008 and Walsh has clearly been brought in to do it.

Apart from criticising the BA staff who supported the Gate Gourmet workers, he told the press at the weekend: "It is fair to say that there are working practices that are completely irrelevant to the business today. That is why Terminal 5 represents an opportunity for us to start all over again."

BA's 2,500 baggage handlers, 2,000 check-in staff and 1,000 call centre staff are thought to be in his sights.

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In The Socialist 6 October 2005:

Hands off our hospitals!

Why this year's Labour Party conference poses the need for a new workers' party

Come to Socialism 2005 - the forum for real debate

Tory Party fights for its survival

Global warming: Profit system guilty!

Scottish by-elections: Workers reject political establishment

China - new 'great power' or new revolution?

French unions unite to protest and strike

Why the IRA campaign failed to defeat the British state

Grudging acceptance of Gate Gourmet deal

New attack on council workers' pensions

Ten years ago - Liverpool dockers' strike


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