Heathrow: Unions sell defeat as victory

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The dispute at Gate Gourmet has been brought to an end. The 670 catering staff were sacked in August for taking unofficial action when they heard of the scale of the attacks their employers were planning to implement. The dispute lead to a secondary walkout by British Airways baggage handlers and ground staff at Heathrow airport, which led to massive disruption for several days. According to the BBC, the deal struck between the employers and the T&GWU – and accepted by a mass meeting of the workers at the end of September - means that 300 of the sacked staff have accepted voluntary redundancy, with 144 compulsory redundancies being imposed – which means that only 226 of the workers have got their jobs back. We can safely assume that very few of the ‘troublemakers’ the employers initially refused to take back are amongst those being reinstated.

As we said in the last issue of WR, “…the attacks have nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with the economic situation. …[T]he 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.” (‘Strikes at Heathrow: Class solidarity is our only defence’, WR 287)

Unions police workers

As on many other occasions, the union has presented this deal as a ‘victory’, but since the job of the union is to make these deals they inevitably work hand in glove with the bosses. This can be seen clearly in the actions of the TGWU. Before the dispute broke out they were involved in discussions with Gate Gourmet, so they were well aware of its precarious financial position. When the workers at Heathrow took solidarity action the union leadership denounced them and pulled out all the stops to get those who had walked out back to work. With the Gate Gourmet workers then isolated, the union began to make militant noises, with fiery speeches at the TUC Congress calling for the legalisation of secondary picketing. While the Labour government have no intention of overturning the Tory ‘anti-union’ legislation, neither do the trade unions have the interests of the workers at heart, in fact completely the opposite. The unions are concerned about future struggles that pose the possibility of workers breaking out of the union prison. Such ‘legalised’ secondary action – “within the framework of the law and subject to balloting” – is akin to an ‘open prison’ where workers would still be under close supervision by the union’s goons.

Indeed, if the words and deeds of the T&G have benefited anyone then it is the employers. Their central complaint was that British Airways – Gate Gourmet’s principal customer - was driving such a hard bargain that it was throwing the company to the wall. As a result of the settlement deal Gate Gourmet have “…provisionally secured an improved BA contract…” (‘Gate Gourmet approves peace deal’, BBConline, 28/9/05).

Leftists rally round unions

The central tack taken by the leftists, principally the SWP, has been to divert attention away from the real reasons for the attacks – the economic crisis - by developing a campaign to defend ‘British unions’ against Gate Gourmet’s ‘union-busting’ American parent company. This has further developed into a campaign to defend 3 union officials at Heathrow who are under investigation by British Airways (with the support of the state) for allegedly organising the secondary unofficial action that caused such disruption. There have even been accusations that workers have been offered up to £350,000 for information implicating the leader of the T&G – Tony Woodley – in giving the go-ahead to the action at Heathrow, which would leave the union open to a £40million bill for compensation. (‘Heathrow: plot to break union’, SW, 1/10/05). While it is certainly true that the employers and the state are keen to nip any genuine signs of class solidarity in the bud, they certainly wouldn’t want to ‘break’ the union which provides very mechanisms for policing the working class. The leftists are clearly carrying out their loyal duty as the left wing of capitalism by calling on the workers to rally round the union officials, to come to the defence of their gaolers.

Solidarity boosts confidence

The dispute at Gate Gourmet and the show of solidarity by the workers at Heathrow provided a boost of confidence not only to workers in Britain, but at the international level. Again, as we said WR 287, “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.” By bringing the dispute to a relatively quick end, by not dragging it out, the bourgeoisie has shown its own intelligence. It is keenly aware of the growing unrest within the proletariat and its ability to draw its own conclusions, of the threat posed by its mortal enemy.

Spencer 1/10/05.

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