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Rumblings at Heathrow

The solidarity action is a reminder of what people can achieve when they stand up for themselves.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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In mid-August, baggage handlers, loaders and other ground staff at Heathrow airport took strike action in solidarity with 670 catering workers who had been sacked by Gate Gourmet. It brought British Airways to a standstill, causing hundreds of flights to be cancelled, thousands of passengers to be left stranded for days and £30million in losses. Gate Gourmet subsequently tried, but failed, to win a court ruling preventing the sacked workers from protesting near its Heathrow plant.

The fallout from this dispute continues: British Airways says it will not sign another deal with Gate Gourmet until it changes its working practices. Gate Gorumet says it faces collapse unless it gets a better deal from BA by 5pm today. The 670 workers are still demanding their jobs back. Now Oxfam has got involved, pointing out that the working conditions at Gate Gourmet are appalling. The solidarity action of two weeks ago seems to have been replaced by middle-class pity for the sacked workers today.

Behind all these latest developments, something interesting – and positive – has taken place at Heathrow.

For the past 20 years or so, strike action has been in decline. In 2004, there were only 130 stoppages in the UK, the lowest on record (1). Between 1970 and 1974, there were an average of 2,917 strikes per year (2). This decline is hardly surprising. Trades union membership has fallen from a peak of 13.2million in 1979 to 6.8million in 2004 (3), and the unions are only too keen to reassure the government and the media that they won’t be encouraging militancy.

‘The second a strike ballot is called there are voices rushing to predict a summer or a winter of discontent. These figures confirm that the opposite is in fact true’, said Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), responding to the 2003 strike figures. ‘When all else fails and negotiations with employers break down, unions may opt for industrial action but only ever as a last resort.’ (4)

The strike at Heathrow Airport was a bolt from the blue. Management at loss-making in-flight caterer Gate Gourmet put forward proposals to cut jobs and worsen conditions. The unions suggested that if the proposals were to have any credibility, some managers would have to lose their jobs, too. So Gate Gourmet promoted 147 staff to management grade – and promptly sacked them (5). Understandably, and against union advice, the staff rejected Gate Gourmet’s plans.

After months of negotiations, it appears that Gate Gourmet had decided to press ahead with the changes regardless, the most obvious sign of this being the employment of casual staff. The implication was that the owners were prepared to replace existing staff with temporary workers on even worse pay and conditions.

When Gate Gourmet workers organised a protest against this, they were sacked on the spot. It has been suggested that Gate Gourmet deliberately provoked the strike to allow them to sack workers, avoid redundancy payouts and bring in cheaper staff. Whether this is true or not, management were nothing if not brutal in their haste to crack down. They clearly did not expect what followed.

Staff working for British Airways (BA), including baggage handlers and ground staff, walked out in sympathy. That such sympathy exists should not be surprising – the catering operation was formerly run in-house by BA and was only sold to Gate Gourmet in 1997. As a result, there is a close connection between the two sets of staff. Nonetheless, this was still the most high-profile solidarity strike for 20 years – and was conducted in the face of opposition from employers, the law and even the union that was supposed to be representing them.

The effect has been dramatic. Gate Gourmet is now under far more pressure to strike a deal than could ever have been the case if it was simply dealing with its own staff. This is because BA staff were prepared to go beyond the limitations imposed on them, not by their employers, but by their union.

While trade unions have often throughout their history been a brake on working-class militancy, in recent years they have moved completely away from their traditional role as self-defence organisations for workers. Today, they are unions only in name.

In the 1980s there was an all-out assault on trade unions by the Conservative government that sought to blame them for Britain’s economic malaise. This argument was accepted not just by true blue Tories, but by many in the labour movement, too – particularly after the chastening experience of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979, which undermined the Labour government. The result was that opposition to the draconian anti-union legislation passed by the Conservatives was muted. Secret ballots became mandatory in place of mass meetings, unions were forced to give notice of strikes, and ‘secondary’ action (striking in support of other people) was banned. With a few exceptions, unions were far more concerned to defend their own position than to find effective ways to defend their members.

Today, unions promote themselves as a peculiar mix of insurance company, advice bureau and think-tank. For example, the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU), which is at the centre of the Heathrow action, promotes itself as providing legal services, education, support for international trade unions, policy and research, and health and safety. It treats members as individual customers rather than as part of a collective. And this from a self-proclaimed ‘fighting back’ union (6).

In the increasingly rare cases that industrial action is taken, most recently in the case of firemen, union leaders prefer to plead that workers are a ‘special case’ rather than that they have a right to a decent living. In other words, union officials just want employers to act in a reasonable way.

While the news for the past few weeks has been dominated by the London bombs, events such as the Heathrow strikes are potentially more explosive. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, writing in 1909, noted that while terrorism looks spectacular, it changes little. But workers organising to defend their interests threaten to transform the way society works.

‘A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences: strengthening of the workers’ self-confidence, growth of the trade union, and not infrequently even an improvement in productive technology’, Trotsky noted in his article, ‘Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism’. On the other hand, he regarded terrorism as an anti-political act. Even murdering a government minister or a factory owner, he notes, produces ‘a change of proprietors devoid of any social significance’ (7).

The Heathrow strike may prove to be an isolated example of such independent action. But it does illustrate the possibilities if people are prepared to stand up for their interests.

(1) The total number of days lost to strikes, nearly one million, was higher than it has been for a number of years. See Days lost to strikes soar to nearly 1m, Guardian, 9 June 2005

(2) In the same period, around 14million days were lost through strikes. Strikes in the UK: withering away?, European Industrial Relations Observatory)

(3) Official statistics highlight union membership trends, European Industrial Relations Observatory

(4) Strike action falls to record low, BBC News, 3 June 2004

(5) Anger at Heathrow as Gate Gourmet sack workers by megaphone, T&GWU, 10 August 2005

(6) Working for your rights, T&GWU

(7) Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism, by Leon Trotsky, 1909 (republished on the Trotsky Internet Archive

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Topics Politics

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