Friday, August 19, 2005

Irreconcilable differences

BRITISH AIRWAYS services from Heathrow Airport last weekend were brought to a standstill by an unofficial walkout by baggage handlers in solidarity with the sacked catering workers at Gateway Gourmet, the American-owned company that supplies in-flight meals to BA.

The reaction was spontaneous at the appalling and provocative way the Gateway Gourmet workers had been treated. The company had long been in financial trouble and had been locked in negotiations with the Transport and General Workers’ Union over redundancies.

In the middle of these negotiations the company introduced 130 new temporary seasonal workers – on lower wages and reduced conditions. No wonder the Gateway Gourmet workers were shocked. If the company needed extra workers, why was it trying to make redundant the workers it already had?

It was all part of a carefully worked out plan to sack the entire current workforce and take on instead a new workforce at much reduced wages and conditions. The workers, as expected, stopped working. While in the company car park they were told by megaphone that they had 20 minutes to return to their posts or be sacked. The message was garbled and many did not hear or realise what was happening.

The company then sacked its entire staff, including those on holiday or off sick, on the grounds that they were taking part in an “illegal strike”. The sacking notices had been prepared beforehand, as had the new lower-paid workforce.

Then the Daily Mirror published a leaked company memo, revealing that a year ago Gateway Gourmet had planned exactly such a manoeuvre to provoke its workers into a strike in order to sack the lot and replace them with a cheaper workforce. The chances of such a strike spreading within the airport had been recognised but discounted.

As news of the company’s cynical tactics spread, solidarity has poured in for the workers from all around the globe. The irony is that in Britain, the TGWU is barred by law from supporting the strike by the Gateway Gourmet workers and the spontaneous solidarity action by the baggage handlers. All the union can do is to act as a go-between, trying to negotiate a settlement and it must dissociate itself from the strike – or face bankruptcy.

This case like no other illustrates how Britain’s anti-trade union laws allow outrageous employers to walk all over the workforce. The company claims it wants to get rid of “outdated 1970s working practices” – meaning workers having any rights at all. They seek to replace 1970s working practices with the “master and servant” laws of the 18th century.

TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley calls for the repeal of the anti-union laws that breach the conventions of the International Labour Organisation – to which Britain is a signatory. Our working class has fewer freedoms and trade union rights than those in Europe or the United States and bosses take advantage.

Woodley goes on to say that this case highlights the dangers of the contracting out culture where large “respected” companies like BA sub-contract work they used to do themselves to cowboy companies like Gateway Gourmet who will cut wages and conditions to a bare minimum using the most outrageous manoeuvres but allowing BA to pretend the dispute is outside of its control.

But Woodley also says that repealing the anti-union laws will improve workplace relations and this will benefit everyone involved.

He’s wrong. Like many other social democrats he rejects the concept that there is an irreconcilable difference between what is good for the bosses and what is good for the workers. He tries to appeal to the better nature of the capitalists, asking them to recognise that solidarity and collective bargaining is a natural impulse for workers. The employers know it only too well, which is why they ban it if they can.

This is a class war. The contradiction between the interests of the bosses and the interests of the workers is the fundamental driving force that will eventually lead to the overthrow of capitalism.

The bosses know it and our trade union leaders should know it too. It is a no-holds-barred war. Asking nicely is not good enough. The organised working class must be organised strongly enough to be in a position to demand or it will always be weak and outmanoeuvred by greedy bosses.