ALMOST two months after unions and management at Gate Gourmet signed an agreement, officially ending the long dispute, hundreds of workers are still picketing outside the factory gates, waiting to get their jobs back.
The dispute brought chaos to British Airways at the height of the holiday season last August when BA baggage handlers walked out spontaneously in solidarity with workers sacked by the Heathrow catering company Gate Gourmet.
The Gate Gourmet workers had been sacked after some of them walked out when the company brought in low-paid temporary staff at the same time they were negotiating redundancies.
The whole thing was a provocation to allow Gate Gourmet to sack its entire workforce and replace them with lower paid workers – without having to pay any redundancy packages.
The Transport and General Workers’ Union played a leading role in negotiating to get the baggage handlers back to work and in getting a deal with Gate Gourmet that would reinstate most of the workforce reinstated with acceptable redundancy packages for the rest in a deal agreed in early October.
Gate Gourmet refused to take back some active trade unionists. But last week Parmjit Kaur, a worker still waiting to get her job back, declared: “It’s not over. People think it is over but we are still picketing, we are still out of work, we come here, we put up a tent every day".
Kaur worked as a tray setter for Gate Gourmet for 11 years. She says: “It’s very hard. All I want to do is work but I’m not allowed to. I am not on strike; I am fighting for my rights. They have kicked us out with nothing.”
Last August she and her colleagues met in the canteen when workers were angry that the company had brought in temporary workers on lower pay.
They were told over the tannoy system – a message that many did not hear clearly – that they had to go back to work at once or face the sack.
“We were made to feel like criminals,” said Kaur. “We were told to hand over our passes and leave. We were escorted off the building.”
Meanwhile British Airways is accusing TGWU officials, including general secretary Tony Woodley, of encouraging the unofficial walkout by the baggage handlers.
The company has threatened three shop stewards with disciplinary hearings and claims it can prove their involvement beyond a doubt. Now it claims that the stewards have implicated Tony Woodley in giving private support to the walkout.
The union has warned that there could be a ballot for an official strike if the stewards are sacked.
A TGWU statement said: “We completely refute any suggestion of any involvement along the lines apparently suggested by anonymous sources.
“The TGWU dissociated itself from the unofficial action and did all it could to secure a return to work within deadlines set by BA.
BA is threatening to sue the union for compensation for the strike, which, it claims, cost it £45 million. This could push the union – one of the biggest donors to the Labour Party, towards bankruptcy.
New BA chief executive William Walsh is also trying to introduce new working practices at Heathrow and is in the middle of negotiations with the union over a £1 billion shortfall in the company’s pension scheme.
Last October’s Labour Party conference passed a motion calling for the abolition of the Tory anti-trade union laws that outlaw solidarity action, like that taken by the baggage handlers.