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Press release - Airport workers reply to UNITE statement - A Fabrication from start to finish

Issued by Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer

8 April 2008

Three sacked airport shop stewards, Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, began a hunger strike at Transport House Belfast on Monday 7 April demanding justice from their union, Unite. Rather than attempt to resolve this issue through direct dialogue with the shop stewards, the union's answer has been coercion - in the form of instructions to the police to forcibly remove them from the building and misinformation - in the form of a Unite public statement that completely falsifies what has happened in this dispute and misrepresents what the protesting shop stewards are demanding.

This statement, which was issued to the press and widely circulated by email, carries the dramatic headline "Protesters demand £1 million each from Unite". It begins: "Protesters outside Unite HQ in Belfast are demanding the union pay them 1 million each, it was claimed to day. The union said claims by that legal fees had not been paid was incorrect and the men were now seeking £3m from Unite in order to settle the dispute."

This is false from start to finish. The workers are not on hunger strike for "one million each". They are on hunger strike because, apart from a small amount paid for hardship last year, the union has not paid or offered to pay them a single penny in compensation for the hardship it caused them. 

They are also on hunger strike because, contrary to what is claimed by the Unite statement, the union has not paid the legal costs. They have paid only part of the legal costs, leaving the workers with a huge legal bill that they will never be able to pay. 

In short they are on hunger strike because the actions of their union led to them losing their jobs and are now leaving them considerably out of pocket.

How can the Unite leadership make assertions about what the shop stewards want when they are refusing to meet with them to ask what their demands are? Since the start of their hunger strike the only "negotiator" who the union has sent to talk to the strikers has been from the PSNI! Since when does any union "negotiate" with its members via the police? 

The Unite leadership can end the hunger strike at any time by arranging a
face-to-face meeting with the shop stewards and negotiating a resolution.

What the dispute was about?

The shop stewards are issuing this response to answer, one by one, the false claims made by Unite in their statement. In considering these points it is important to keep in mind what this six year long dispute has been about.

It began when 24 airport security workers were sacked by their employer, ICTS, for striking for a 50 pence per hour pay rise. The company went ahead with the sackings only after the T&GWU official responsible for the airport met secretly with ICTS management and gave them a letter repudiating the strike. This is the main ground for their complaint that the union was complicit in helping ICTS get rid off them.

Last August the shop stewards won their long legal battle with ICTS. They secured a groundbreaking legal ruling that their sacking amounted to political discrimination on grounds of their trade union and socialist beliefs. The issue of payment of their legal bill only arises because the union had previously told them they had no legal case and gave them no legal backing, leaving them to meet the full costs of the case.

Have the union reneged on its commitments?

Last September the shop stewards called off a protest at Transport House only after they received an assurance from Unite General Secretary, Tony Woodley, that the union would pay the legal costs of the Industrial Tribunal case, that it would fund the costs of defending any Appeal against the Tribunal ruling and that it would come back, within seven days, with an offer of compensation for its role in contributing to the 24 workers being sacked.

The Unite statement states that "the union has complied in full with the assurances given in September 2007". This is completely untrue.  Below are the facts of what has happened. These show that the Unite leadership has not honoured a single one of the commitments they gave last year.

1) The legal costs of the case against ICTS

Unite's claims

The Unite statement says that the union has paid £106,000 of the legal costs and "is involved in constructive and amicable negotiations with the solicitors to reach agreement over outstanding areas of claim". It goes on: "There is very little chance that Mr McNeill or Mr Gupta will be required to pay a single penny towards the costs bill".

The facts

The total legal bill for the Tribunal case is over £200,000. When discussing last August and September whether they would pay this bill, Tony Woodley and the other Unite representatives expressed concern that the bill might be too high and that they could not be expected to pay any amount that the solicitor might present. Their concerns were taken on board by the shop stewards and it was agreed that the union and the shop steward's legal teams would submit the bill to the Taxation Court to either establish that it was reasonable or else to amend it. 

The union subsequently reneged on this agreement and this is the root of the present problem. Instead of taking the bill to the Taxation Court they unilaterally decided to pay about half the bill. There has been a suggestion that they would make a further payment of less than half the outstanding amount. The solicitors representing the shop stewards, Breslin McCormick, who are still prepared to go to the Taxation Court, can confirm that there are no "constructive and amiable discussions"  about payment of the rest of the bill.

To date the workers have had to pay £38000 from their own pockets just to keep the case alive. Even if the union give way and make another payment as has been hinted the workers would end up having to pay around £20,000 in addition to the £38,000 they have already paid. 

What the workers want

They want a commitment that the full bill will be paid. After all they won a victory for all trade unionists and only incurred this bill because of the Union's insistence that they had no legal case. After years of broken promises by successive union leaderships they will not accept a vague commitment that "there is very little chance" that they will have to pay a single penny.  If Unite have a problem with the amount being demanded they should take the matter to the Taxation Court.

2) The cost of an Appeal

Unite's claims

ICTS have appealed the Tribunal decision. The Appeal date was originally set for the first week of April but has been postponed until June. Unite's statement claims that "The costs of the appeal are being paid by the union." It goes on "The agreement to pay the appeal costs was notified to Breslin McCormick solicitors several weeks ago and will be well known to the individuals."  They also say that "amicable discussions" on the costs took place between legal representatives "as recently as the morning of Friday 4 April".

The facts

Last September the Union agreed that it would meet the costs of an Appeal. It was also agreed that the barristers who had handled the case at the Tribunal would defend the Appeal. Unite committed to work out an hourly rate which they would be paid and they would be taken on that basis.

Unite has since reneged on this agreement. The claims made in its statement are pure fiction. The union has refused every request from the shop stewards' legal team to discuss the rate at which the barristers would be paid. How could they have notified Breslin McCormick of their agreement to pay the appeal costs when they have not entered into any discussions about what those costs would be?

As for the "amicable discussions" "between legal representatives" on Friday 4 April, there were not only no "amicable discussions" there were no discussions of any sort on that day, as Breslin McCormick will confirm. It is deplorable that when faced with such a serious issue as three of their members putting their health at risk in order to achieve justice, the Unite leadership just make up the facts as they go along in order to try to present themselves in a good light. 

The  barristers employed by the shop stewards to represent them at the Tribunal and the Appeal have recently informed their solicitors that, because of the union's refusal to commit to pay their costs, they are returning all the legal documents relating to the case and will not be handling the appeal.

As things stand the shop stewards will not be able to defend the case. ICTS will win by default. The shop stewards will lose the compensation they were awarded by the Tribunal. The trade union movement will lose the added protection against dismissal that was gained by the Tribunal judgement. 

What the workers want?

They want Unite to implement the agreement reached last September. This means immediate discussions with the legal team who handled the Tribunal case with a view to re-employing them at an agreed rate and a commitment that these agreed costs will be paid in full.

3) The "million pounds compensation"

Unite's claims

Unite's statement says: "The union had hoped to reach agreement in relation to this dispute, but the individuals have demanded payments of I million each to settle the dispute. Mr Woodley and Unite are unable to make such payments."

The facts:

Last September the union agreed that it would come back "within seven days" with an offer of compensation for the fact that the union contributed to 24 of its members being sacked. They broke this commitment. No offer was made within the seven days.

Not a penny has been offered since.

The shop stewards had hoped that last September's deal would be an end to this dispute and no further action would be needed. But when Unite failed to honour what had been agreed they investigated the alternative angle of a legal case against the union for damages. They have made it clear all along that they do not want to go down this road. They do not want to have both sides spend money on solicitors and barristers to resolve something that could and should be dealt with by negotiation.

They have employed a solicitor, Fintan Canavan, of Jones and Company to look into the possibility of a legal case. He has been involved in negotiations with the union solicitors about possible compensation. The figure of £1 million has appeared because this was put forward by Fintan Canavan, on behalf of the shop stewards, as an initial figure to discuss. It was made clear that it was put forward for negotiating purposes.

However it seems that the trade union negotiators at the head of Unite have never heard of negotiation. They are now using the fact that this figure was ever mentioned as an excuse to break off all negotiations and refuse to make any offer.  This is in breach of all the commitments given both to Fintan Canavan and to the shop stewards directly.

For example, Fintan Canavan met with the union legal representative in January of this year. He was told that the workers were asking for much more than the union would give and responded by saying, if that was the case, make an offer. The union agreed, following a phone call from the legal representative to Tony Woodley, that an emergency Finance and General Purposes Committee meeting would be called and an offer, much lower than what was asked for, would be made. The emergency meeting was never called and a subsequent normal F&GPC meeting decided that no offer would be made.

The issue at contention now is not, as Unite are misleadingly trying to claim, that the shop stewards are insisting on 1 million, it is that the union are refusing to offer them a single penny.

What the workers want

They want Unite to do what it said it would do last September and again in February and make them an offer. They want an immediate face-to-face meeting with senior representatives of the union to discuss and hopefully to reach a final agreement on this.

Conclusion

It would not be difficult to resolve this dispute so long as both parties want it resolved. Unfortunately the response of the Unite leadership in calling in the police and launching a campaign of misinformation indicates that they are not interested in resolving it. All trade union members and activists should immediately contact the Unite leadership in Ireland and Britain demanding that they enter into urgent discussions with the shop stewards and meet their just demands.

Tony Woodley, Jimmy Kelly and others at the top of Unite must be held directly responsible for the deteriorating health of the hunger striking shop stewards. 

see also:
Airport workers story - Heroism, victory, opportunity? - 08/09/07
 

 


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