Airport workers story - Heroism, victory, opportunity?
8 September 2007
At a meeting in Belfast on Thursday 30th August representatives of sacked Airport security workers told a dramatic tale. It was a tale of oppression and heroism, collusion and corruption, triumph and opportunity.
Oppression and Heroism
The main speaker, Gordon McNeill, told of their employment in rock-bottom conditions by the multi-national security firm ICTS, a firm originally set up by individuals with a background in Israeli ‘security’. The minimum wage hourly rate did not include holiday pay, sick pay or overtime rates. When 9/11 led to massive increases in work rates and many new procedures had to be mastered, the workers asked for a pay increase to £6 an hour to give them parity with airport porters.
The call led to difficulties with both bosses and their union, and it was only with difficulty that they persuaded the ATGWU to call a strike ballot – a ballot that got a 97% yes vote.
The workers went on strike on 14 May 2002 with assurances from their officer, Joe McCusker, that they were on an official strike and that they had the full support of their union. It wasn’t long before things started to go badly wrong. ICTS management threatened the workers and claimed the strike was illegal. When they tried to contact the official and the union office they found that none of their calls were answered. In confusion they called off further action and redoubled attempts to contact the union.
Too late. The next day 24 workers were sacked, including three who hadn’t been on strike. Since then the workers have been involved in a bitter struggle led by T&GWU shop stewards Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer. The struggle involved both a vicious and vindictive employer and a union making initially the most minimum efforts to protect their members and later abandoning them totally.
After a year the new ATGWU secretary, Tony Woodley, stepped in with a deal. Six workers would get their jobs back, the shop stewards would be permanently blacklisted and a number of people would get cash payments for unfair dismissal. Woodley called this “a damned good deal” and the union washed their hands of the workers when they rejected it.
Their followed years of struggle; pickets, protests, hunger strikes and legal battles that led to penury, ill-health and broken relationships. At every step the shop stewards were told that they couldn’t win by their trade union and by every lawyer they consulted – the forces stacked against them were just too great. One said that he would take the case if they could find a point in the law - Gordon McNeill trawled the law libraries and, after months of intense study, found such a point.
The personal, political and legal battle led to a verdict this year, established by law, that vindicated the workers. It also unearthed (not for the first time) a sink of corruption in the ATGWU.
Legal documents uncovered during the case discovered that the ATGWU official, Joe McCusker, was involved in a secret meeting in a pub with ICTS directors. McCusker gave ICTS copies of union letters repudiating the strike. This had been agreed by the then general secretary of the union Bill Morris and there are indications that part of the reason was pressure from Downing Street to prevent any airport stoppages. The letters were used by ICTS as the base for the mass sackings. When Tony Woodley took office as union secretary his response was to do a deal and cover up. When the workers didn’t play along he abandoned them.
This is victory at all sorts of levels. It is a personal triumph for the almost superhuman efforts of the shop stewards. One explained; “Our motto was – it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”.
It’s a victory against rackrent bosses, very often multinationals, who feel that can use the most vicious of methods to drive the workers down with impunity.
They believed they had total freedom to organize scab labour – the judgement gives workers the power to bring forward or postpone action on notified days of action without further notice – to scab in future disputes the employers will have to have a reserve army of labour on call throughout the dispute.
Before this settlement the biggest threat the bosses faced was an unfair dismissal claim with a maximum cost of £10000. That has now been expanded by the judgment to the possibility of unlimited fines.
Most significant of all, the judge found that sacking trade unionists for undertaking official action was a form of political discrimination. Gordon McNeill believes that this represents a legal counterweight to the Thatcher anti-union laws, a legal foothold that could be used by workers to begin to re-establish the right to strike.
We should also count as a victory the exposure of the ATGWU. ‘Sweetheart deals’ where the bureaucracy line up with the bosses and official or unofficial ‘partnership’ deals where they line up with bosses and government, are the order of the day. The evidence that this is the case provides socialists with valuable ammunition when they try to persuade members to take back control of their unions.
The opportunity exists to begin to revive trade unionism. Calls for a trade union enquiry could link socialists across a range of unions. Any united network would be able to offer the information gained from this struggle to advise others – especially important when airport workers seem to be major targets across the British Isles and are routinely sold out. A rank and file network across the unions would be an alternative pole of attraction, able to resist the smothering hand of the bureaucracy.
If this were to happen the Socialist Party would have to work outside its comfort zone, both politically and organisationally. It would have to stop copywriting campaigns, so that there was some real possibility of uniting socialists and not simply using campaigns to build their own organisations. As it was, at the meeting I attended, the information sheet was information about the Socialist Party, not the campaign and the fundraising was again for the party and not the campaign.
More importantly was the political issue. Peter Hadden, speaking for the SP, stressed on a number of occasions that not all union officials were corrupt and dishonest. This is of course true, but it obscures the political point that the union bureaucracy, as a group, have interests that are different from those of the working-class members. This is underlined by the role of Tony Woodley, who was after all the ‘left’ candidate for the ATGWU secretary’s job. We learn that he acted to cover up the betrayal of the security guards, but he also sold out the Gate Gourmet airport workers and more recently BA cabin staff. Woodley was a major leader in trade union support for the re-election of Tony Blair on an open programme of privatisation and attacks on the working class. And he was a leader of the ‘Awkward squad’ of ‘left’ trade unions! Part of the deal that led to the creation of the new superunion UNITE from AMICUS and ATGWU was that the tradition of one party electing officials would be abandoned.
The Socialist Party have a long history
of collaborating with the ‘left’ bureaucracy – in fact a number of members
are members of the union bureaucracy and in Britain they have been running
a number of initiatives aimed at persuading members of the ‘Awkward squad’
to form a new social-democratic party. Their own campaign in support
of the airport workers indicates just how meagre the outcome of such collaboration