By Colin Foster
British Airways finally signed a new catering contract with Gate Gourmet on 20 October, and over the days since then there has been some movement on the deal supposedly made by Gate Gourmet with the TGWU on 26 September to end the lock-out of GG workers at Heathrow. But no worker has yet been reinstated, and it is still not clear when, or whether, any workers will be reinstated.
Gate Gourmet has now sent out letters to workers named for compulsory redundancy. These letters offer them a pay-off in return for signing away any rights to legal action against Gate Gourmet, not only on unfair dismissal, but also on unlawful imprisonment. (Management shut workers in the company canteen on 10 August, refusing them even access to toilets, before locking them out). They also stipulate that the workers cannot ever in future apply for jobs with Gate Gourmet or any associated company.
Gate Gourmet insists that every one of the 144 workers named for compulsory redundancy has to sign to accept these terms — or otherwise the whole deal is off, and Gate Gourmet will not consider itself bound by the elements of the deal under which it said it would reinstate 187 workers (397 whom it was prepared to take back, less 210 who had said they would prefer voluntary redundancy) and make compensation payments to the workers taking voluntary redundancy (reckoned at 492 in total).
It is not entirely clear that Gate Gourmet considers itself bound to reinstate the 187 even if all 144 sign. The company’s’s website states: “The speed at which Gate Gourmet can consider any re-engagement of some of the dismissed workers that participated in the illegal wildcat strike on 10 August depends on how quickly the union can convince its members to sign the necessary compromise agreements” (emphasis added).
In any case, it seems very unlikely that all 144 will sign. Many workers on the picket line now trust neither Gate Gourmet nor the T&G and are inclined to take their chances with an Employment Tribunal claim instead. Even apart from that, statistically there must be a high chance that at least one of the 144 has moved away, emigrated, or otherwise disappeared.
The standard letter tells each worker named for compulsory redundancy that she or he can appeal for a “review” (by the company) of her or his individual case, but must do so within three days of receiving the letter. It gives 16 November as the deadline for signing to accept the terms.
It looks as if GG has deliberately delayed sending out these letters, and made a calculated choice for the 16 November deadline. The deadline for GG workers to submit Employment Tribunal claims for unfair dismissal is 9 November. GG wants to string out the workers so as to protect itself against Tribunal cases.
An enclosure with the letters outlines future terms and conditions at GG. Any reinstated workers will go back on their old rates of pay, but all new workers will be on lower rates, and changes in work practices which the union had been resisting before the lockout will be imposed.
The mood on the picket line is bitter. Some typical comments: “It looks like we have lost the battle”. “The union never keeps us informed”. “The union has sold us out”. “Gate Gourmet and the union are playing games with us”. “The trouble is, Tony Woodley wants to be Lord Woodley”.
If the TGWU had built on the solidarity action by BA baggage handlers for Gate Gourmet, right at the start of the dispute in August, almost certainly a better result could have been achieved. Long-sustained action would not have been necessary. Heathrow is very vulnerable to industrial action. The baggage handlers’ short action made BA cancel 700 flights. Probably effective action could have been organised even within the law: all the TGWU had to do was identify one strategic group of workers, somewhere among its 19,500 members at Heathrow, and ballot it for action on its own grievances. Maybe even work-to-rules would have applied heavy pressure to the bosses.
But the TGWU did none of that. It has some industrial leverage on GG and BA even at this stage — nearly three months on, BA has only sketchy catering on its short-haul flights — but shows no will to use it.
Instead of the TGWU going after BA and GG, BA is going after the TGWU. Unsurprising: if you retreat without a fight, your enemies will come after you. BA is threatening to take further disciplinary action against three baggage-handlers’ shop stewards accused of organising the (illegal) August solidarity action. Two of them are already suspended. The TGWU did not move for a ballot when they were first suspended, but now says it may ballot if BA takes further measures.
It seems BA is still reserving the option of suing the TGWU for £40 million compensation for the losses caused by the baggage handlers’ strike.
Back when the TGWU officials “sold” the September deal to the GG workers, they promised that the TGWU would try to find jobs elsewhere at Heathrow for the 144 named for compulsory redundancy. No GG worker has received any report of what, if anything, the TGWU is doing on those lines.
The GG workers are still locked out. They still do not know which 187 are notionally in line to be reinstated, or whether they will be reinstated at all. Their options, now that the momentum of the dispute has been frittered away, are narrowing, but the workers still need and deserve our support. The picket line is still there, at the Beacon Road roundabout on the Southern Perimeter Road, a short distance south-west of the Terminal Four roundabout.