At the beginning of August a dispute which had been bubbling away for
some time blew up. Gate Gourmet, the exclusive supplier of on-flight catering
for British Airways (BA), sacked 600 staff for taking unofficial strike action
to defend their jobs.
The company has been threatening compulsory redundancies for months
after staff voted earlier in the year to reject a package which would have cut
pay and conditions. Things came to a head last month when, while still
threatening lay-offs, they brought in casual staff to cope with basic demand.
This provoked the walkout which Gate Gourmet managers then seized on to carry
out the sackings.
Workers, 70% of whom are middle aged Asian women, were then frogmarched
off the premises by security staff. Up to 30 ‘bouncers’ removed their security passes, staff identity cards, and
locker keys. Some people were forcibly removed after refusing to leave,
including a pregnant woman who, it was reported, was carried out by the arms and
legs. People outside the gate were told by a supercilious manager barking into
a megaphone that they were all sacked and would receive their P45s by post. The
workers were not cowed. They set up a picket on the hill opposite the plant.
Word got around the airport and especially BA staff, who have a close
relationship with Gate Gourmet workers. Until 1997 they worked for the same
company, and to all intents and purposes Gate Gourmet still functions as part
of BA group. By the afternoon 1000 BA ground staff, check-in staff, and baggage
handlers at Heathrow terminals one and four were on strike in sympathy in a
marvellous display of solidarity. Without these critical workers all BA flights
from Heathrow had to be grounded, and as time went on more and more of BA’s
world operations ground to a halt. In doing this they demonstrated not only the
tremendous power of the workers when they are on the move, but also just how
insignificant the anti-union laws are when they are subjected to a serious
As queues of angry holiday makers lengthened BA executives issued
frantic statements apologising for the disruption but pointing out that the
dispute was not of their making. For all of their assertions of how ‘dashed
unfair’ the whole thing was they could do nothing to get the staff back to
work. The workers remained solidly out in solidarity with their brothers and
sisters in Gate Gourmet.
The dispute at Gate Gourmet has been brewing for a long time. In 1997
BA sold their on-flight catering operation to Gate Gourmet, then owned by
Swissair, since then it has been acquired by American venture capitalist firm,
Texas Pacific Group. They did this to drive down the cost of catering for their
flights. BA and its associate airlines remain the major customer for the service,
and Gate Gourmet in Britain is still geared
to producing for them. But this doesn’t add up. How does simply spinning off
catering into a separate concern cut costs? If the quality of the food remains
broadly the same, and costs are to be cut, there is only one other way to cut
costs and that is by making what they call ‘efficiency savings’.
BA and Gate Gourmet both responsible
Gate Gourmet have been cutting back on wages and conditions using the
threat that, unless they were delivered, BA would take their business
elsewhere. In other words posing the question to workers: What would you rather
have a pay cut or your P45? In this way they hoped to cut £14 million of their
running costs this year by inflicting misery on hundreds of workers. For BA this
is not a problem, this was their original intention! BA’s assertion that the
dispute has nothing to do with them is untrue, by getting rid of the in-house
caterers BA washed their hands of the whole affair. They pressurise Gate
Gourmet management to cut costs and they simply pass the pressure down to their
staff, who are already low paid and work in bad conditions.
Now they have decided that the only way to cut costs, while maintaining
profits, is to sack the existing staff who are already forced to work for
peanuts, and hire workers from eastern Europe who can be forced to work for
It has since emerged that this was all part of an orchestrated plan by
Gate Gourmet management. Documents leaked to the Daily Mirror newspaper reveal
that management planned a detailed strategy to force the workers into taking
unofficial strike action so that they could go ahead and fire them. The
documents are very clear that BA and British Airport Authority (BAA) should be
informed of these in advance. Gate Gourmet deny that they carried this plan
out. But one way or another it is exactly what happened. This is an attempt to
smash the T&G in Gate Gourmet and to bring in even lower paid and more
Gate Gourmet managers are implementing these attacks but BA stand
squarely behind them. This dispute is indirectly with BA who are applying the
cuts from on high. That is why the workforce in BA, already sick of cuts in
their own wages and conditions, instinctively rallied round the sacked Gate
Gourmet workers. The workers at BA have been increasingly militant over the
past years, staging unofficial strikes every year for the past three. This has
been in response to the savage cuts implemented by BA as a result of increased
competition in air travel since 9/11 and the expansion of budget airlines.
In the wake of 9/11 BA announced the sacking of 13,000 staff. They now
have plans to go far deeper with the cuts. A large number of the new cuts will
fall on staff at their international base at Heathrow, including 10% of
check-in and baggage handling staff who will lose their jobs when all
operations move to the new Terminal 5 building in 2008.
BA’s managers seem to be blissfully unaware of the effects of their
cuts on morale. The chairman of BA, Sir Rod Eddington, last month infuriated
workers by saying that the strike was caused by the agitation of a few
troublemakers and announcing that an official enquiry would take place into the
sympathy strike and that the ring leaders would be disciplined. Suprisingly
they don’t seem to see the connection between four years of job cuts,
increasing workload, more job cuts looming, and low staff morale which has
resulted in unofficial strike after strike.
Last month Gate Gourmet was attempting to take a tough line with the
strikers. They also promised to take back some of the sacked staff but not all
of them. They are trying to drive a wedge between the sacked workers by
branding some of them troublemakers who provoked the strike, and others as good
people who got swept along in the heat of the moment. They have accused a small
hardcore of workers of staging the strike through bullying and intimidation.
That is some claim – What are they saying? That a small minority of 20-30
workers intimidated 600 Gate Gourmet workers into going on strike, and then for
an encore intimidated a further 1000 BA workers into taking solidarity action!
The real bullies are Gate Gourmet and BA who provoked this strike for their own
reasons, without any regard for the people whose lives they are ruining, and
now are doing everything they can to try to defeat it.
Behaving like children at the end of last month Gate Gourmet managers
announced they are thinking of going home and taking their ball with them. They
have said they are considering pulling out of their British operation
altogether, this is unlikely because the business is potentially profitable. To
add fuel to the fire BA have even come in and said they will not be extending
Gate Gourmet’s contract, only to contradict themselves the following day. Everyday
the story changes and it seems to be designed to create maximum confusion. Gate
Gourmet and BA are locked in a turbulent love affair, one day the engagement is
on, the next day it is off.
In any case it is not the job of the unions to make concessions to keep
exploitative employers in business. The bosses can say what they want, they can
threaten to close down or they can promise the earth. They are not bound to
keep their word, and they do not have to deliver anything. That is why it is
dangerous for the union to engage in horse trading with the members jobs and
This is a winnable dispute provided it is linked with a campaign
against the cuts in BA of which it is a part. The mood is strong among Gate
Gourmet staff who have maintained a picket line at the gates for weeks now. BA
workers are frustrated and annoyed with the attacks they have suffered over the
last years and the ones which now loom over the horizon. That is why they are
willing to fight to defend the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. It is right that
the unions should negotiate but that doesn’t mean making concessions. They are
negotiating from a very strong position. The demand should be for immediate
reinstatement, back pay to cover all loss of earnings, and a pay rise for all staff.
Gate Gournet workers must win
If Gate Gourmet managers want to act bullish then we should see what
effect a few extra days of strike action has. The wildcat strikes crippled BA’s
worldwide operations for two days which caused chaos for weeks. While the
workers lost two days pay; BA lost over £50 million. In this event if Gate
Gourmet managers refuse to settle then BA will instruct them to.
The Gate Gourmet workers can win their jobs back and strike a blow
against the attacks of the company and BA. The union must take a tough line
with the employers. The union is in a very strong negotiating position which is
the result of the magnificent movement of solidarity by BA workers.
However if the bosses think they can string us along and we will go
away, we will need to employ tougher measures. The union should plan a series
of strikes; ballot all remaining Gate Gourmet staff at other locations in the UK. They should put
out an international appeal for solidarity action at Gate Gourmet
internationally, and lastly to really put the thumb screws on they should
ballot for action in BA. These could begin as one day strikes and build up
until the objective is met. Every time the workers lose a day’s pay BA loses
A victory for the workers at Gate Gourmet would be a massive setback
for the programme of cuts at British Airways which has been ‘modernising’ by
trampling over workers and cutting services since privatisation. The profit
motive of big business has ruined our transport infrastructure. Now BA are
pushing through seemingly endless rounds of cuts in pursuit of profit. The
Labour government should nationalise BA, Gate Gourmet and all major companies
which were formerly part of the BA group.