THREE-WAY talks between the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the airline catering company Gate Gourmet and British Airways broke down in acrimony last Tuesday.
Talks may resume again within a few days but TGWU chief negotiator Brendan Gould said: “I am despondent and disgusted at the way things have been concluded and I feel very frustrated at the lack of progress. Everything we were working towards has collapsed.”
The sticking point in the negotiations is the refusal by Gate Gourmet to reinstate all the workers sacked three weeks ago after deliberate and calculated provocation by the company led to a walkout.
They have agreed to reinstate most of those sacked but still want to exclude those they label as troublemakers – meaning union activists and those who will encourage their fellow workers to resist cuts in wages and conditions. The TGWU is adamant that all must be reinstated.
This was part of a strategy by Gate Gourmet to replace its existing workforce entirely with an even lower paid one. The sacking led to an unofficial solidarity walk-out by BA’s baggage handlers that halted all BA flights from Heathrow over three days and cost BA millions.
The Texas-based Gate Gourmet claimed financial difficulties and says the terms of its contract to supply BA with airline food are causing its operation in Britain to make a loss.
During negotiations it set a deadline of Tuesday night for BA to come up with an improved contract – or Gate Gourmet would put itself into administration.
BA claims that just such a contract has been on the table for some weeks. But it said that Gate Gourmet must resolve its dispute with its staff before it can be implemented.
There are reports that, behind the scenes, the Government is putting pressure on Gate Gourmet to agree to a settlement because it is concerned that further strikes could paralyse Heathrow.
The sacked catering workers are mainly from the local Asian community, which supplies most of Heathrow’s staff. There is a high degree of sympathy for the sacked workers because of the way in which they were treated.
The TGWU asserts that Gate Gourmet’s threats to go into administration are simple blackmail.
TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley told a packed meeting of sacked workers and their supporters in a local Sikh temple that the company had planned to go into administration as a tactic to cut the workforce and wage levels.
“They always planned to do it,” he said. “They planned to go in and out of administration to put more pressure on BA so they could fulfil their cynical and well-thought-out plan. There was no consideration whatsoever for the effect on you, your families or the communities you live in.”
He said the dispute had implications for labour relations throughout Britain. “This is an issue for the whole country. Can a company walk into Britain and plan the cynical sacking of innocent men and women to cut costs and be allowed to get away with it? I say no.”
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told the meeting: “I sense the British public share our outrage about what has happened. For a company in Britain today to say ‘you are sacked and you are sacked and you are sacked …’ – that is not the way we do business. If this dispute is not resolved, that message will just not just go around this country but around the world.”
Local Labour MPs John McDonnell, Anne Keen and Piara Khabra are backing the sacked workers, many of who are facing serious financial hardship.
The root of the problem lies in Britain’s anti-trade union laws, dating back to the Thatcher era, which forbid solidarity strikes and prevent the unions defending the workers effectively.
The Blair government is also blocking the implementation of the European Union’s “Agency Workers Directive” which would provide temporary workers with same pay and conditions as permanent staff.
Trade unions throughout the EU have been lobbying hard to get this law approved.
If enacted, companies like Gate Gourmet would no longer be able to use agency staff as cheap labour at the expense of full time workers.