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Gate Gourmet – It’s the opposition stupid!

John McAnulty

25th October 2005

The signing, on 19th of October, of a new agreement between British Airways and the catering firm Gate Gourmet, marks the end of a savage struggle between airport workers and bosses, ending in the defeat of the workers.

The developments around the struggle of airport catering workers at Heathrow are of immense significance for workers in Britain and Ireland. They cast a searing light on the intensifying capitalist offensive, the new forms of organisation by capital, the immunity the state grants to the capitalists and the contrasting legal repression designed to prevent an effective response by the workers organisations, the necessity of workers to respond and the power of workers united when they do respond.

The eventual defeat of the struggle however points to a major obstacle to resistance within the workers movement itself – the unwillingness and incapacity of the trade union bureaucracy to fight back against the offensive. This is especially striking when we realise that the leading figures in the dispute have been promoted by many on the left as the “awkward squad” – a new breed of bureaucrats willing to break with New Labour to fight the bosses’ offensive.The nature of the obstacle is even more striking when we look at the bigger picture and see that the same leadership have now signed up to support wage cuts through the back door of pension entitlement.

One of the central elements of the legal shackling of labour under the British anti-union laws is the ban on secondary picketing. It is illegal to take industrial action against anyone not your employer who is directly involved in dispute with you. This gives an overwhelming advantage to capital, which is able to set up companies at the drop of a hat and declare who is, and who is not, an employer.

So modern capital relies heavily on outsourcing. This means that major elements of production are hived off to other firms who have only one customer – the parent company. This allows the parent to sidestep the terms and condition it has already agreed with unions and to avoid a whole series of obligations and costs it would have as a direct employer. It also makes it illegal for the outsourced worker to take action against the parent company.

There is one final twist. Outsourcing was initially to small local companies who were able to argue that poor pay and conditions were a result of their size and low profit margin. However, as time has gone on, the tendency towards monopoly has seen the small companies replaced by global giants combining the superexploitation of migrant workers, low wage regimes and a policy of international union-busting.

Gate Gourmet is a perfect example. In-flight meals were once prepared by BA itself and the workers had the wages and conditions of service that applied across the company. Now they are prepared by Gate Gourmet, set up as a local firm but actually a multinational specialising in this area and with a long history of exploiting migrant workers and driving down wages and conditions. 80% of the Heathrow subsidiary’s income was obtained from BA.
The dispute began with BA pressing Gate Gourmet for reduced costs. Gate Gourmet in turn struck a deal with the ATGWU enforcing a pay cut on already low-paid workers. The workers rejected this and internal documents then show that the company planned to force the sacking of the workforce and the hiring of a new one. A leaked 2004 internal memo said: “Provoke unofficial industrial action. Dismiss current workforce. Replace with new staff.”
When the workers held a meeting on 10th August to discuss the situation they were sacked by megaphone on the grounds that the meeting amounted to unofficial industrial action. The sackings initially applied to those off sick and those on holiday.

Other workers on the site, most notably the baggage handlers, took supportive action and BA was damaged by a string of cancelled flights.

The ATGWU stepped up to negotiate but one of the conditions was that they proved their compliance with industrial relations legislation by instructing the baggage handlers to return to work. The ATGWU complied and found itself in negotiation with the only possible action that could have won the strike abandoned at the door.

In these circumstances the slow process of being whittled down and of Gate Gourmet proposing a compromise where they took back 60% of the workers was highly predictable. Others were offered redundancy and a few militants blacklisted.

But the problems with the union bureaucracy extended well beyond the negotiating table. When workers arrived at the Trades Union Congress to demand the repeal of anti-union laws they were met with a rare dose of blood and thunder from the bureaucracy. The blood and thunder were entirely fake.

At the start of the strike ATGWU secretary Tony Woodley was calling on Labour to amend the legislation against ‘secondary action’. The “playing field” was too “heavily tilted… in favour of employers against workers” and legal solidarity action – “exercised responsibly” – could help redress the balance (The Guardian August 16).

However, Woodley went on immediately to repudiate the action of his own members: “This is not to argue in favour of the sort of ‘wildcat’ action taken last Thursday. But I believe that it is time to bring solidarity action within the framework of the law – define its legitimate scope and make it subject to the same regulations on balloting and notice which regulate other industrial disputes at present.”

Woodley and the other bureaucrats did not in fact demand repeal, but rather pleaded with Blair for a slight modification to allow them to extend action to companies like BA who were clearly complicit in the attempts to cut wage rates in Gate Gourmet. When Blair, backed by Brown, contemptuously told them to mend their manners they fell silent.

The policy of the trade union leadership is quite clear. It is to look at the bigger picture and lobby New Labour for concessions. It was from this perspective that they reached the Warwick accord with Labour and committed to fighting for a fresh term for Blair in Westminster.

The accord did not mention the anti-union laws. The trade unions agreed to support Labour in the elections and in return Labour agreed to suspend attacks on pension rights and negotiate with the unions. As a result the Labour government has now agreed to limited pension protection for some public service workers and in return the trade unions have agreed to support swingeing cuts in the pension entitlement of young workers joining the public service today.

Workers are under increasing attack. They have at hand the power of solidarity action that enables them to fight back. The union bureaucracy repudiates that weapon and collaborates to ensure that the laws remain in use and that the government that enforces them remains in power. The idea that a left bureaucracy will organise to defend the workers is an illusion. It’s the other way around. When workers self-organise they may be able to split the left bureaucracy and re-establish their right to control the unions and run them in their own interests.



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