“Solidarity strikes must be made legal,” wrote Tony Woodley in the Guardian on 15 August. His comment came after workers at British Airways had staged a walkout in support of Gate Gourmet catering workers, summarily sacked by bosses who wanted to replace them with cheaper more flexible workers. Woodley was absolutely right.
The solidarity action of BA workers called for courage and sacrifice. The walkouts were doubly illegal: they were not the subject of a ballot and they were “secondary”.
With a union movement under the cosh of the anti-union laws, and with workers’ at risk of the sack, such solidarity action is pretty much without precedent in recent years.
But the Heathrow workers have shown that where the action is strong, hard hitting, and powerful in its effect, then the employer balks at
taking action against them.
The lesson for other workers is that if enough of us ignore and defy the law when we pursue our interests, and that indicates taking illegal solidarity action, then the law will begin to crumble.
Without the solidarity of the baggage handlers the world’s media would not have descended on Heathrow airport or reported in any detail the mass sackings at Gate Gourmet — their action was not
irresponsible but absolutely necessary.
In expressing clear support for solidarity action Woodley was breaking out of a consensus among trade union leaders — don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the employer’s right to manage things in the best way to make profits.
But the bosses have had things their own way for far too long. The action of Gate Gourmet and BA’s management shows what UK employers think they can get away with no redress: they can sack us on the spot; they can organise a replacement workforce; they can threaten our union when other people take action in our support; they can refuse to reinstate us — and it is all legal!
If current law allows employers to get away with treating working people with no respect, the law needs to be changed.
We need to have the right to strike – then we couldn't be dismissed on the spot.
We need to have the right to take solidarity action — then other airport workers, other transport workers, in fact any other workers could help us win.
We need a right to reinstatement — then when the employer has been brutally unfair, like Gate Gourmet, we can get our jobs back.
Trade union members and trade union organisations have been shackled by the anti-union laws since they were introduced by the Thatcher Government after 1979. But the Labour Government has done little since 1997 to change the balance of power that is biased massively in favour of employers.
So now in 2005, Gate Gourmet and BA, both major businesses who make tens of millions of pounds profit from our work, can take their own “solidarity action” and organise to defeat us. When they outsource work, when they make us work harder for the same or less money, they are colluding to keep our pay low so they can make even more money.
We don’t have to take it.
Of course Woodley didn’t want to go too far. Solidarity he said, “needs to be exercised responsibly… bring solidarity action within the framework of the law — define its legitimate scope and make it subject to the same regulations on balloting and notice which regulate other industrial disputes at present.”
The trouble is all of the whole edifice of anti-union laws, which put such a lid on industrial disputes, also needs scrapping.
Most anti-trade union law was introduced by the Conservatives between 1979 and 1995. These laws strengthened employers and weakened workers. They undermined trade union constitutions making them less effective. New Labour has left most Tory anti-trade union laws in place. As Tony Blair wrote on 31 March 1997, the changes introduced in their Employment Relations Bill “would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world.” In particular British workers’ right to strike is much more limited than that of workers in other European countries.
We need positive rights at work. We need laws that protect trade unions from legal attacks, allow them to operate democratically and protect their members, laws which restore and extend collective bargaining, give each worker the right to strike and be represented by a union, and protect workers against exploitation.
By Maria Exall, CWU National Executive and United Campaign for Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws