Friday, August 19, 2005

Cowboy caterer faces collapse

by Caroline Colebrook

GATEWAY Gourmet (GG), the American owned company at the centre of the strike that paralysed British Airways services from Heathrow Airport last weekend, is likely to lose its contract with BA after the Daily Mirror published evidence that the company had deliberately provoked the strike.

The evidence took the form of a leaked internal company memo from a year ago planning to provoke just such a strike. It detailed six steps:

1) recruit, train and check drivers;
2) announce the company’s intention to the trade union;
3) provoke a strike;
4) sack the current workforce;
5) escort them off the premises;
6) replace them with new staff.

BA is likely to lose £40 million because of last weekend’s strike and, like many other airline businesses, it has been struggling financially in recent years.

This is why a few years ago it sold off its own in-house catering concern to GG, a cowboy company – part of the Texas Pacific Group – that uses American union-busting techniques to drive down wages and conditions of food preparation workers.

The company is already embroiled in industrial disputes in the US, where it is using similar techniques to try to break unions and drive down costs and maximise profits.

The contract with BA was unrealistic and the London wing of GG was losing around £25 million a year. It told the unions it was in deep trouble and there had to be redundancies.

The Transport and General Workers’ Union was negotiating staff cuts with the management. The union argued that the pain of job cuts should be shared by workforce and management.


So the company promptly promoted some workers to management level and then made them redundant. This dodge angered the union but did not in itself cause a strike.

Nor did the $10 million birthday party staged by David Bonderman, the American boss of GG – while telling the workers they must face cuts.

Then the company produced 130 new seasonal workers – while it was arguing that redundancies were necessary.

The workforce was outraged and spontaneously downed tools. Management declared the unofficial walk-out an illegal strike and sacked the entire workforce of nearly 800 workers – by megaphone message while most were assembled in the car park.

They then expelled the workforce from the premises and barred them from returning.

Those who could not hear clearly did not realise they were being sacked. The sacking applied also to those on holiday of off sick – though the company has since retreated a little on this.

The workers – many of them women – were mainly from the Asian community of west London, which supplies much of the workforce for the entire airport.


Baggage handlers employed by BA were so outraged they walked out in sympathy with the catering workers, bringing BA services to a halt.

One of the women workers said: “I work for Gate Gourmet but some of my relatives are baggage handlers. I am very proud of the fight we are showing. They treated us terribly. We were held in the canteen for hours then they just pushed us out of the building. I worked there for six years. I think they have made a big mistake.”

The union held a solidarity meeting on Saturday in Southall Community Centre. It was packed by around 1,000 supporters of the sacked workers. TGWU national officer Brendan Gold said: “The meeting was a real demonstration of community solidarity, with scores of women dressed in traditional colourful saris, many of them bouncing their children on their knees, but wondering quietly what future they would have if they did not fight back against this injustice.”


Shop steward Mrs Attwal said: “The sacked workers and their families have been very encouraged by the meeting. They want to go back to work and feel hopeful.

“They have been devastated by this week’s events. One husband and wife who both work for Gate Gourmet described how they are now so very worried about paying their mortgage. People are very upset but determined that we will go back to work.”

Since then the TGWU has negotiated a return to work by the baggage handlers and has been engaged in talks with GG at the arbitration service Acas over the fate of the GG workers.

The latest report indicates that GG is now ready to reinstate most of the sacked workers but is refusing to take back union activists. But the union is insisting that all sacked workers are taken back and the talks have broken down.

BA has intervened with a public claim that it offered GG a more generous contract in mid-July that would have dealt with the company’s financial problems and given it long-term stability until 2010.

Meanwhile messages of support and solidarity have been arriving from the international trade union movement, including from the Teamsters in America who are also fighting GG.