Strikes at Heathrow: Class solidarity is our only defence
The solidarity shown by the workers at BA and Gate Gourmet is an example to the whole working class. The article below, written by the ICC shortly after the strike by BA workers, draws out the main lessons of this action. These deserve to be studied and understood by everyone who really wants to defend the working class. The weeks since then have provided a lesson of a different kind, but one that is equally important and worthy of study. It is an example of how the ruling class works together against the working class.
The bosses of Gate Gourmet have played the card of financial realism. They point to their losses in recent years and the predicted loss of some £25m this year and argue that without job cuts and changes in working practices the company will have to go into administration. They have also taken the offensive, attacking “outdated and inefficient work practices” (Gate Gourmet website) where workers are paid “a full day’s pay for half a day’s work” (ibid). They have victimised the most militant workers and gone to court to try and stop all picketing at their premises. This has bought accusations of bringing American work practices into Britain, ignoring the fact that British Airways created the whole situation by outsourcing the provision of meals in order to cut costs in the late 1990s. In fact the attacks have nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with the economic situation. As we show in our article, the reality is that every company is under intense and unsustainable pressure as the economic crisis of capitalism gets worse. They can only survive by doing each other down and, above all, by increasing the exploitation of the working class by cutting wages and worsening working conditions. In this situation making a deal with the bosses almost always means accepting something a little bit worse than the time before. Since the job of the union is to make these deals they inevitably end up on the same side as the bosses, working hand in glove with them. This can be seen clearly in the actions of the TGWU.
Before the unofficial action the TGWU was engaged in protracted talks with Gate Gourmet: “Talks have been ongoing with Gate Gourmet for many months in order to improve the business. During this time the T&G, has played an active role in meeting the business needs” (TGWU website). Following the strike they suddenly discovered that “Gate Gourmet had planned this action for some time” (ibid). When the workers took action to defend themselves and their fellow workers at BA showed real, practical solidarity, the union denounced their ‘unlawful’ action, and, in the words of Tony Woodley, head of the TGWU, took “appropriate action” to end the strike (letter from the TGWU to BA quoted in the Guardian 19/08/05) - although this is not mentioned on the union’s website. With the BA workers going back to work and the Gate Gourmet workers sacked the union began to sound militant. The bosses at Gate Gourmet and BA were warned of further action if workers were victimised. At the same time the union continued “working hard to find a settlement” (ibid), even though Gate Gourmet was adamant that 600 or more workers had to go. The workers are now isolated from real solidarity, stuck on a hill while the lorries of Gate Gourmet thunder past. Fake solidarity, the solidarity of the phrase, of the fiery resolution and the passionate union boss’s speech takes its place. Tony Woodley has launched a campaign for the legalisation of solidarity “within the framework of the law…subject to regulations on balloting and notice that regulate other industrial disputes”, although, of course “This is not to argue in favour of the sort of ‘wildcat’ action taken last Thursday” (“Solidarity will have to be legalised” by Tony Woodley in the Guardian 16/08/05).
Behind the company and the union bosses stand the government and the state. The government has not taken sides, other than to regret the ‘disruption’ caused, while letting it be known that it is working ‘behind the scenes’ for a settlement. The courts dispense words of wisdom about protecting lawful business and the right to protest. This pretence of impartiality and concern for law and order hides the fact that such law and order is the ‘law’ and ‘order’ of the ruling class. Throughout its history the working class has only made real progress when it has challenged the domination of the ruling class. Its real struggle has always been outlawed and its militants always portrayed as thugs and bullies. The Labour MPs now expressing support are happy to do so because they know that the real potential of the workers struggle has been defeated.
The bosses, the unions and the state have come together to defeat the workers. They want the working class to learn the lesson that class struggle, initiated and controlled by the working class, is futile and that only the unions can defend them. The working class, on the contrary, must draw an entirely different lesson. That lesson is simply: Know your enemy. North 31/08/05
ICC Statement of 15/8/05
The media – the public voice of the state and the ruling class - have been venting their fury against the Heathrow strikers. How dare the workers there put class solidarity above the profits of the company? Don’t they know that things like workers’ solidarity and class struggle are out of date? All that sort of thing went out of fashion in the 70s didn’t it? According to an executive from one of BA’s rivals, quoted in the Sunday Times (13 August): “In many ways aviation is the last unreformed industry…It is like the docks, the mines or the car industry were in the 1970s”. Why won’t these Jurassic workers get wise to the fact that the principle of today’s society is ‘every man for himself’, not ‘workers of the world unite’?
It’s strange though how this ‘new’ philosophy of freedom for every separate individual doesn’t prevent the bosses from demanding absolute obedience from the wage slaves. Some media voices, it is true, have been a tad critical of Gate Gourmet’s overt shoot-to-kill methods: when the food workers held a meeting to discuss how to respond to a management ploy aimed at their jobs, the meeting was locked in by security goons, and 600 workers – even those off sick or on holiday – were sacked on the spot for taking part in an unofficial action, some of them by megaphone. This is pretty high handed, but it’s just a more open expression of a management attitude that is increasingly widespread. Workers at Tesco are facing the abolition of sick pay for the first three days off – other companies are looking with interest at this new ‘reform’. Warehouse workers are being electronically tagged to make sure that not a second of company time is wasted. The present political climate – when we are all supposed to accept any amount of police harassment in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’ – will only increase the bosses’ arrogance.
These attacks are not down to this or that set of bosses being especially ‘greedy’, or adopting ‘American-style’ methods. The growing brutality of attacks on workers’ living and working conditions is the only way the capitalist class can respond to the world economic crisis. Wages must be kept down, productivity kept up, pensions slashed, unemployment pay reduced, because every firm and every country is involved in a desperate struggle to out-sell its rivals on a glutted world market.
And faced with these attacks, the solidarity of the workers is our only defence. The baggage handlers and other staff at Heathrow who walked out when hearing about the mass sackings showed a perfect understanding of this. They themselves have been subjected to the same kinds of attacks and they have been involved in similar struggles. The immediate effectiveness of their strike immediately revealed the power of the workers when they take united and determined action. It is the only basis for forcing the bosses to reinstate the sacked workers, and it will make airport bosses hesitate about launching similar attacks in the near future. Isolated in one category, workers are easy prey for the ruling class. The moment the struggle begins to spread to other workers, the picture is transformed.
Class solidarity: humanity’s true hope
But there’s an even more important meaning to workers’ solidarity.
In a society that is disintegrating all around us, where ‘every man for himself’ takes the form of terrorist bombs, racist assaults, gangsterism and random violence of all kinds, the solidarity of the workers across all trade, religious, sexual or national divisions provides the only antidote to this system, the only starting point for the creation of a different society, one based on human need and not the hunt for profit. Faced with a system sinking into generalised warfare and self-destruction, it is no exaggeration to say that class solidarity is the only true hope for the survival of the human race.
That this is by no means a vain hope becomes clearer when you look beyond the borders of Britain. Over the past two years, there has been a growing revival of workers’ struggles after years of disarray. In the most important of them – the French workers’ struggles against attacks on pensions in 2003, the German car workers’ fight against redundancies – the element of solidarity has been fundamental. These movements confirm that the international working class has not disappeared and is not defeated.
Naturally the media have been trying to hide the significance of the solidarity actions at Heathrow. They started talking about the family ties between the food workers and the baggage handlers and other airport staff. These do exist but while the majority of the food workers are from an Indian background, the majority of the baggage handlers are ‘white’. In short, this was authentic class solidarity, cutting across all ethnic divisions.
The news broadcasts also tried to undermine the sympathy that other workers might feel for the airport employees by shining a spotlight on the sufferings of passengers whose flights were disrupted by the strike. When you’ve spent the best part of a year sweating away at a job of work, it’s certainly no joke to find that your holiday plans have been thrown into chaos as well. Explaining their actions to other workers and the population in general is a task that all workers have to take on when they go into struggle. But they also have to resist the hypocritical media blackmail which always seeks to make them the villains of the piece.
The real role of the unions
If the ruling class doesn’t want us to recognize class solidarity when we see it, there’s another truth it tries to obscure: that workers’ solidarity and trade unionism are no longer the same thing.
The methods used in this struggle were a direct challenge to the union rule book:
- the Gate Gourmet workers decided to hold a general meeting in their canteen in order to discuss the latest management manoeuvre. This was an unofficial assembly, held on company time. The very idea of holding general meetings where you discuss and take decisions goes against all official union practices;
- the other airport staff equally ignored these official guidelines by striking without ballots; and they further defied the union rulebook by engaging in ‘secondary’ action.
These kinds of action are dangerous for the ruling class because they threaten to take workers beyond the control of the unions, which have now become the ‘official’ – i.e. state-recognised - organs for keeping the class struggle under control. And in the recent period, there has been a steady increase in ‘wildcat’ actions of this type: the last major dispute at Heathrow, numerous strikes in the post; and at the same time as the latest Heathrow struggle, there were unofficial strikes among the bus drivers of Edinburgh and at the Ford foundry in Leamington Spa.
In the case of Heathrow, the TGWU succeeded in keeping a lid on the situation. Officially, it had to repudiate the unofficial walk-outs and urge the workers back to work. But with the help of ‘revolutionary’ groups like the SWP, the T and G has managed to present the struggle as being about ‘union busting’, identifying the victimisation of militant workers – which was certainly part of Gate Gourmet’s strategy – with an attack on the union. This makes it easier for the rank and file union reps – most of who genuinely think that they are acting on behalf of their fellow workers – to keep the struggle inside the union framework.
But what’s brewing underneath these appearances is not a struggle to ‘defend the unions’, but increasingly massive movements in which workers will confront the trade union machine as their first obstacle. In order to build the widest possible class solidarity in and through the struggle, workers will face the need to develop their own general assemblies open to all workers, and to elect strike committees answerable only to the assemblies. Militant workers who understand this perspective now should not remain isolated, but should begin to get together to discuss it in preparation for the battles of the future.