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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 33August 29, 2005

 

Defend Militant, SWP! Give to the Militant Fighting Fund
Help Militant and Socialist Workers Party defeat a harassment lawsuit by Utah mine bosses.

New York City, Sunday, September 11:
Four Years Later: Resisting U.S. Rulers'
Global Assault on Workers and Farmers.

UK rulers stunned by strike from nowhere
Airline workers protest firing of caterers
lead article
 
Militant/Jonathan Silberman
Gate Gourmet workers picket August 12 at London's Heathrow Airport. After company fired 800 unionists, British Airways workers went on daylong solidarity strike.

BY JONATHAN SILBERMAN  
LONDON—“Our fight is a fight for dignity and respect. We want our jobs but not at any price,” said shop steward Sukhdev Singh Dhillon, speaking August 12 before a union meeting of hundreds of airline catering workers who had just been sacked (fired) by Gate Gourmet.

Members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) greeted Dhillon’s speech with chants of “We want justice!”

The unionists resolved to continue their fight for reinstatement and celebrated the solidarity they received from 1,000 baggage handlers, loaders, and bus drivers at British Airways (BA) who went on strike to support the catering workers.

The action by the British Airways workers grounded all of the airline’s Heathrow flights for more than 24 hours and hit its worldwide operations, affecting 70,000 passengers.

The bosses were stunned. “For a union to take illegal action in sympathy for an illegal action is pretty amazing,” said Gate Gourmet chairman David Siegel.

Two days earlier, Gate Gourmet, the airline catering giant, fired an estimated 800 workers when some 200 at one of the company’s three sites at Heathrow Airport walked off the job to attend a union meeting in the canteen. The company sought to justify the sackings by claiming that in attending the meeting the workers were carrying out an illegal “unballoted strike action and a breach of contract.”

“Workers had three minutes to return to work or face the sack,” said shop steward Harinder Kaur Atwal, describing the company’s threats. When the workers sat tight past this deadline, the bosses sent in goons to prevent workers from leaving the canteen “even if they needed to go to the loo” (bathroom), said Kam Olakh.

Harbinder Singh, who has worked at the company five years, said in an interview that when he intervened to protest the goons “dragging out a lady, Mrs. Bansal, they then physically removed me from the plant too. They also started filming the workers. The company had it all planned. They had sacking letters ready in various languages.” Cops went in to up the pressure on the workers.

When workers turned up for the afternoon shift and met their just-fired brothers and sisters on the impromptu picket line, managers announced through loudhailers (bullhorns) that they too were being dismissed.  
 
‘They’re trying to break the union’
“They’re trying to break the union” said Mahendra Modi, who has worked four years at the plant. “They had a good plan but they underestimated us. They never expected that we’d stick together.” Modi said the solidarity strike action by workers at British Airways was a “huge boost.” In this country such so-called “secondary” actions are unlawful.

“The BA workers were right to strike,” said Ashok Gill, with six years’ service at Gate Gourmet. “The union will be finished at the airport if they get away with this. For years, people have been discussing the lessons of LSG when the workers didn’t get that kind of support. They realize that they can’t let that happen again.”

The union at LSG Skychefs, another major catering company, was broken in an 18-month-long lockout that ended in 2000. Since then, the German-based LSG has driven down wages and working conditions, and has been able to undercut U.S.-based Gate Gourmet, formerly owned by British Airways, in the competitive contract catering business. In March 2005, Gate Gourmet (UK) lost a Virgin Atlantic contract to its rival.

Now Gate Gourmet is claiming it lost 22 million (US$39.8 million) last year and that without “restructuring” it will lose 25 million this year. The company has increased the number of jumbo jet flights the workers service daily from 42 to 72.

Ken Kaith, who has worked at Gate Gourmet for five years, told the Militant that the company is “proposing wage cuts of 2 [US$3.62] an hour, an end to overtime premia, a cut in yearly sick pay entitlement from 25 days to 5 days, a cut in holidays, more flexibility. It all came to a head this week because they brought in 130 temporary workers at the very time they’re threatening cuts.”

In the United States, Gate Gourmet is also cutting wages and slashing workers’ holiday, pension, and health care benefits. The Teamsters and UNITE-HERE unions, representing 6,000 workers at Gate Gourmet kitchens at U.S. airports and Amtrak train stations, have been working without a contract for more than a year. Unions in the United States and continental Europe have sent messages of solidarity to the TGWU.

Solidarity messages can be sent to TGWU, Transport House, Uxbridge Road, Hillingdon, UB10 0LY. Tel: 020-8573-9494; fax: 020-8569-2292; email: pbouch@tgwu.org.uk

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