Monday, January 10, 2022

Gate Gourmet — Another Union Sell-Out? (2005)

From the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

For those given to circular reasoning, the announcement on 12 September this year of a deal for a redundancy package for sacked Gate Gourmet airline catering workers will be seen as yet another example of trade union officials selling out or even deliberately sabotaging the struggles of the working class. The case seems harsh and clear. On 10 August Gate Gourmet, which  provides airborne catering to British Airways passengers, sacked 667 workers – infamously, now – by megaphone. The employees had stopped work and had gathered in the canteen to discuss developments in ongoing redundancy negotiations – chiefly the management’s decision to take on 130 new temporary workers. This was clearly a provocative move to try and undermine the existing staff’s position. The staff were told to return immediately to work, and they refused.
There is clear evidence of deliberate provocation – security guards were on hand to control the situation; extra staff were bussed in immediately to replace the sacked workers; the following working day, all staff received dismissal letters, even those who had been off sick the previous day. The firm even went as far as to inform other companies they work with of the dispute in advance.

Clearly, management had chosen the best time to orchestrate this attack: the height of the holiday season, with the guarantee of headlines about holiday chaos and passenger misery from the uniformly loyal lickspittles in the capitalist press. This strategy was given a fillip when British Airways baggage handlers heard about this ruthless behaviour, and walked out to help defend people they work with daily, who are moreover in many cases their friends and neighbours. A wildcat solidarity strike. This spread the disruption and guaranteed more passenger misery, chaos and gangrene – or whatever other unpleasantness tabloids are attributing to strikes today.

The strike lasted for two days, grounding hundreds of flights. Eventually, the baggage handlers returned to work, and union officials from the Transport and General Workers Union began negotiations over the status of the sacked workers. Although for legal reasons the union had  been unable to support the either the wildcat or the solidarity strike they did established a picket of the company’s headquarters to continue their campaign.

Even this was too much for Gate Gourmet, and having successfully called out their allies in the press to their cause, they then sent in their reserves from the state. The High Court was asked to rule the picket unlawful – to protect those staff who wanted to continue working (as their devoted employers had it) from being intimidated by the people who had been sacked by megaphone and escorted from the grounds by gentle flower scented security guards. A shining display of concern for their staff.

Although the court ruled that the picket was ‘lawful peaceful assembly’ picketers were forbidden from blocking the route into work, taking photos of staff or even trying to talk to them, at all. Further, the T&G union was made responsible for the conduct of the picket – a move that directly threatened the assets of the union should any infractions of the courts injunction occur.

The role of the law has been significant in this case. Much of the press made hay from the ‘illegal secondary industrial action’. This is not strictly correct, secondary action – where workers for one employer strike in support of workers for another – is merely unlawful, not illegal ( is not protected by law, as striking is, but is not itself prevented by law). This merely means that unions who engage in the practice are liable for civil proceedings from employers for claims of restraint of trade. It was protection from such litigation – in the aftermath of the precedent of the famous Taff Vale case of 1901 – that spurred the growth of the Labour Party and the unions’ interest in it.

Calling the action illegal, though, has a significant symbolic and ideological role in giving the impression – to a generally law-abiding populace – that striking is criminal and by extension wicked. A great many comment pages on the internet were filled with people complaining about secondary action (note, not solidarity action) and bemoaning the return to the 1970s.

This dispute is being used by union leaders to renew calls for changes to industrial relations law in the UK, citing it as a hard case that justifies modification of those laws. At last month’s TUC conference the call went up that at least workers in firms with contracted out services – like BA’s catering – should be allowed to engage in solidarity action. This is incredibly unlikely, since the government is desperate not to look even remotely like it supports trade unions and seems, in fact, to be proud of the restrictive industrial relations law in the UK.

It is also unlikely, because such a course would utterly undermine the whole point of contracting out – especially in it Public Finance Initiate (PFI) form of contracting out state services. Outsourcing and contracting-out previously in-house services is meant to change the legal standing of union members so that they are officially working for different companies even if they work together to provide a service. It is classic divide and rule.

The downside of this tack, though, appears to have surfaced in the Gate Gourmet dispute. It turns out that the catering firm (or at least the Gate Gourmet part of a bigger holding company) is losing something like £25 million a year. These strikes have come when Gate Gourmet has been in the middle of trying to renegotiate their contract with BA. The seemingly provoked strike, then, works advantageously for them, because it means they can use the disruption from their cost cutting exercise to damage BA’s service and business. In effect, it seems they have taken industrial action to renegotiate their contractual terms.

Contracting out means handing over control of labour management to outside companies, and opens up a firm – seemingly – to damaging industrial disputes not of their making but in which they are snared.

All that aside, the workers have proven, yet again, that anti-union laws do not stop them taking action. It is, and always has been, the determination and consciousness of workers that guides their disputes. No law could stop people refusing to work. As in most of the recent unofficial action – other baggage handlers, Royal Mail strikes, etc. – management will not try and pursue the matter afterwards anyway – the damaging repercussions to their own business usually outweigh the benefits of hounding strikers or bringing legal action.

That is why Gate Gourmet pre-empted trouble by its union busting attack. It is negotiating from a position of its bottom line – making losses. It wants to shed around 700 jobs. The deal struck with the Union allows 300 of the workers – previously classed as sacked – to apply for redundancy at 2.5 times the statutory level.

In such a situation where saving jobs is clearly going to be impossible, pushing up the market price of cutting jobs is a rational course for the trade union. However, only half the sacked  strikers are likely to get that money, as Gate Gourmet wants to try and ensure that its union-busting sticks. The union continues to campaign to have the remainder reinstated, but this appears unlikely.

The employees were hardly living in the lap of luxury to begin with – catering assistants were pulling in something like £12,000 per annum and drivers around £16,000 – this in the London area with high housing and general living costs. Management even tried to get staff to come back to work signing a new contract on drastically reduced wages and conditions. When it came to the bottom line, they clearly felt they could ask their workers to stoop lower.

It is pointless to criticise unions for not immediately launching a revolutionary insurrection to protect jobs – they are tools for the workers to engage in the labour market, not revolutionary organisations. Their memberships are of many different political persuasions, workers banded together for the purpose of protecting their interests. If they have to adapt their outcomes to market realities that is the fault of the market, not the union. Wishing that union bureaucrats would be replaced with more radical leaders is no way forward; they, too, would only have to abide by the willingness to fight of their membership and the lie of the labour market, just as the hacks do now.

It is not necessarily personal malice on the part of employers that fuels industrial disputes. Both sides are actors on a stage set to determine their actions. The law of ‘no profit no employment’ means that these sorts of disputes will always occur. The remorseless impersonal logic of the labour market will ensure that. Workers need to understand that no amount of union secondary action – legal or otherwise – can banish this menace from their lives.

To end the evil of the wages system will take a revolution, though – and it’s not going to be started by a spark from a small industrial dispute. The revolution needs to be built in the hearts and minds of workers who can defeat both the force and ideology of the dominant class to remake society. Unions cannot make revolutions, only the working class themselves can. Through clear, determined political action, we can clear the way so that no-one need ever go through struggles like the Gate Gourmet workers again.
Pik Smeet