Gate Gourmet at London’s Heathrow Airport prepares and delivers in-flight food, mainly to British Airways (BA). This work used to be carried out by an in-house BA catering section. In 1997, the catering was sold to Gate Gourmet, which was at the time owned by SAirGroup (previously Swiss Air). The company was later sold to Texas Pacific, a US-based group. As is usual in such sales of parts of a company’s activity (covered by the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment – TUPE – regulations), most of BA’s catering staff were transferred, and became employees of Gate Gourmet, under its various ownerships.
By selling off its catering, BA freed itself from the contracts and working practices agreed with its workforce. When Gate Gourmet was sold to Texas Pacific by the SAirGroup, BA was able to impose tougher terms for the supply of catering. In order to meet these terms, Gate Gourmet had to ‘streamline’. In other words, it set about squeezing the already low paid workforce. It set out to reduce the number of staff, to reduce the number of holidays and the number of sick days allowed per year, and to pay all overtime at the basic rate.
In June this year, Gate Gourmet UK, which was “operating at a loss”, reached an agreement with the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) that would put most of these objectives into place. The agreement was presented by both ‘sides’ as a “rescue package” to “secure the company’s future”. The union apparently promised that it would deliver a ‘yes’ vote, but, in the ballot, the workforce, who would have had to live with the reality, rejected the deal by a majority of 9 to 1.
Leaked documents show that Gate Gourmet had meanwhile been laying plans to secretly recruit a replacement workforce (one of the company’s directors in fact set up a labour sub-contracting company to do this) and then provoke the existing employees so that they could be dismissed and replaced by cheaper staff at worse conditions of work.
When new part-time staff turned up for work on 10 August 2005, the existing staff met in the canteen to discuss how this was connected with the rumours of their impending dismissal. Gate Gourmet managers quickly clarified the matter by dismissing 667 employees on the spot! The company says that efforts were made to ‘persuade’ the staff back to work. Anyone with any experience of such situations will know only too well how adept employers are at creating confusion and using it as a screen under which to carry out their plans.
However, what Gate Gourmet hoped would be a slight inconvenience to BA passengers, as in-flight meals were disrupted while the new workers took over, turned into a massive cancellation of BA flights. Ground staff, particularly baggage handlers, walked out in sympathy with their fellow workers in Gate Gourmet. This action lasted for 24 hours, but it took several days for the backlog of passengers to be delivered to their destinations and flights to get back to normal. It has been estimated that BA lost £30m to £40m.
This solidarity action by BA ground staff was illegal (under the anti-union laws brought in under Thatcher and extended under Blair) because it was not taken against an employer ‘involved in the dispute’, and unofficial because it was not backed by the union.
Union response: call for less ‘macho’ capitalism
Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the TGWU, said at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Conference in Brighton: “It is hard to envisage a man like Gate Gourmet boss David Seigal being taken seriously anywhere else. A man who claims that one-third of his workforce are ‘troublemakers’ and ‘radicals’ behaving ‘irrationally’. A man who claims there are 200 militants in his workforce who can never be re-employed – nearly one third of the total sacked.
“The fact is that the only trouble maker here is Mr Seigal himself. His actions have not only brought his own company to the brink of bankruptcy, they have led to his main customer losing millions of pounds – not to mention depriving hundreds of workers and families of their livelihoods.” (Reported in the Morning Star of 12 September 2005)
According to Woodley, Seigal’s main crimes are obviously against his company and BA, with the workers included as an afterthought. That darling of the pseudo-left, Ken Livingston, Mayor of London, expressed similar thoughts in a ‘solidarity’ message he sent to the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. It said: “Gate Gourmet appears to be a very bad employer with appalling Dickensian labour practices and its behaviour is damaging both travellers and British Airways. This kind of macho management is the last thing we need and Gate Gourmet should see sense and reinstate all the sacked employees.” Once again, it seems that the damage to BA is paramount, and all that is needed is for Gate Gourmet to be less “macho” in its management style.
These two gentlemen see what Tony Woodley himself described to the TUC Conference as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. They would infinitely prefer to see monopoly capitalism presenting a non-macho acceptable face, since that would be easier for them to ‘sell’ to the working class. That way, they and their fellow labour aristocratic gentry could continue to sponge off the fairly generous sops that are thrown to them in return for their role as the peddlers of bourgeois ideology in the working-class moment.
In an article written for the Guardian, Woodley says: “For too long employers have been able to take advantage of a lopsided legal framework that makes securing justice for even the most exploited workers hugely difficult.” (‘Solidarity will have to be legalised’, 16 August 2005) What Woodley fails to point out is that the whole point of capitalist law is to enable the exploitation of the working class. Certainly the working class has to fight to for the best conditions it can achieve, but it does so with its hands tied behind its back if it fails to understand this basic reality of the system.
Woodley’s approach, however, allows him and his ilk to avoid taking any action (let alone confronting imperialism) under the pretext that their main task is to repeal the anti-trade union laws and ‘level up the playing field’! And, in the process, they peddle illusions in the Labour Party as being the vehicle for doing this. Even the Morning Star, which is also guilty of peddling illusions in the Labour Party, said in its leading article on 13 September 2005: “It has been convenient for new Labour to continue, over the life of this Parliament, the one before that and the one before that, to ignore the suppurating sore of the Tory anti-trade union laws. Indeed new Labour has ignored it for so long that there is little point to calling them the Tory anti-union laws any more, since Labour has so effectively made them its own.”
They are, of course, imperialist anti-union laws put and kept on the statute books by two imperialist parties, Tory and Labour. But the Morning Star spoils its ‘insight’ by going on to peddle its tired old refrain that just getting rid of Blair (“new Labour”) will make it all right. Its editorial of the previous day had referred to “the need for the movement to back the call by Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley for Mr Blair to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Party” .
What is needed is trade union leaders who are willing to defy the anti-trade union laws; laws which actually made it illegal for the people who handle and load passengers’ cases onto BA planes to take solidarity action with their colleagues who prepare and load in-flight food onto the same BA planes!
Submission to anti-union laws
But these labour aristocrats are not going to risk that; they leave the risk to the ordinary workers and then have the gall to condemn their action. Woodley referred to the baggage handlers’ walkout as “unlawful action which the T&G has had to repudiate” . (Morning Star, 12 September 2005). He emphasised that, in recognising that “supportive action has a proper role to play” , he is not “in favour of the sort of ‘wildcat’ action taken last Thursday [by the baggage handlers]”. (Guardian, op cit) In the same article he goes on to say “Solidarity among workers … is the foundation stone of the labour movement. Of course it needs to exercised responsibly.” In other words, according to Woodley, solidarity action is fine as long as it is ineffective – no need to repeal the laws then, just carry on talking about it!
When it came to the crunch, it was the ordinary workers of BA who cocked a snook at the laws and were prepared to defy them. Tony Woodley and his union spent their energies trying to get the baggage handlers back to work. And they have since then spent their time trying to stitch up a redundancy deal with Gate Gourmet – so the workers will still be losing their jobs but with a pittance in ‘redundancy pay’.
If the baggage handlers had not taken action we would probably have heard nothing of the plight of the Gate Gourmet workforce. Some passengers would have had iron rations for a few flights while Gate Gourmet, according to plan, replaced sacked workers with newly recruited workers at worse rates and conditions.
It is not easy to forecast whether Gate Gourmet workers will be able to stand out against both their employer and their trade union. That was the position in which the similarly contracted out catering and domestic staff at Hillingdon Hospital found themselves. Their struggle, honourable and highly significant for the working class, was long and gruelling.
The immediate task facing the Gate Gourmet workforce is to shake off the shackles that bind it to the Labour Party. One band of those shackles is made up of union leaders who peddle social democracy and another band is the very mistaken belief that somehow the Labour Party might act in the workers’ interests. Both of these fetters have to be broken if the working class is to be able to fight its immediate battles, and also if it is to take on the task of the overthrow of imperialism, without which it will face repeated onslaughts like that from Gate Gourmet.
In saluting the workers at Heathrow for their courageous action, we end this article with some words of Karl Marx, written in his pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit in 1865, but still so apposite today.
Marx recognised the need for workers to fight the everyday conflict with capital, but went on to say the working class “ought not forget that they are fighting with effects; that they are retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives but not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” (Marx’s emphasis)
We wish the Gate Gourmet strikers every success in their struggle for their jobs, and for decent pay and conditions. That they attended, en masse, the recent anti-war demonstration in London, shows that they understand that their struggle is part of a wider struggle against oppression at home and abroad.