Over the decades much of the British labour movement has come to celebrate the stormy Grunwick strike of 1976-78. That does not mean the dominant forces in our movement have absorbed what was important about it.
Not 45, but just 16 years ago in 2005, another struggle by mainly South Asian, migrant women workers flared up. The fight of the Gate Gourmet airline catering workers against what is now called “fire and rehire” and against union-busting had important similarities with and differences from Grunwick. Although it did elicit important solidarity action, it did not produce the kind of powerful and sustained solidarity movement that for a while enveloped the Grunwick strike.
Like the Grunwick workers, the Gate Gourmet workers met comprehensive defeat. Although many of them continued to struggle for justice for years afterwards, the decisive defeat happened much more quickly. Their story has not been widely celebrated or discussed, even in a superficial way, but largely and perhaps deliberately forgotten – demonstrating how little has been meaningfully learnt from Grunwick.
The Gate Gourmet defeat was a significant turning point in the UK labour movement’s decades-long retreat, with so many brutal consequences for society. It shines important light on the movement’s inadequacies: in terms of working-class interests and struggles in general, and those of migrant and ethnic minority workers in particular. But it was also shines light on workers' capacities for struggle, even in very difficult circumstances.
Rosa Luxemburg wrote about labour movement defeats from which working-class activists are nevertheless able to “draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism” to create a “foundation” for new struggles. Gate Gourmet is an even more terrible story of defeat than Grunwick: but both should be reclaimed as important sources of working-class and socialist experience, understanding, power and idealism.
On 19 October, the Free Our Unions campaign held an online meeting for Black History Month to celebrate and learn from Grunwick (it was recorded and should be online soon). The idea came up in the campaign because the ebbs and flows of solidarity action, today in 2021 illegal under the anti-trade union laws, were central to the course of the Grunwick struggle.
One of the speakers was Sundari Anitha, a Lincoln University academic who has researched extensively into the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes.
For the labour movement, or sections of it, to draw strength from these experiences we must discuss and try to understand them. Anitha’s 2018 book Striking Women, co-authored with Ruth Pearson, is an essential resource for such discussions. Just over 200 pages long, it is remarkably fact-packed and analysis-rich. This really is a book I would urge everyone on the left to get a copy of.
Striking Women not only tells the stories of the two struggles in some detail, but includes extensive extracts from interviews the authors conducted – in Hindi – with five Grunwick and 27 Gate Gourmet workers, all women. (All use pseudonyms, except for pre-eminent Grunwick leader Jayaben Desai, justly famous but often an almost-exclusive focus for accounts and depictions of the strike.) The chapters on the disputes themselves follow ones on the changing role of South Asian women workers in the UK economy and labour movement; histories (plural) of South Asian migration and settlement here; and the workers’ experiences and struggles in the UK’s gendered and racialised labour market before and after the disputes. The interview excerpts are woven through several chapters.
One of the great strengths of Striking Women is that tries to let (some of) the workers speak for themselves.
Anitha and Pearson’s discussion of the different ethnic/linguistic, migration and class backgrounds of the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikers, and important points in common despite them, is illuminating.
Based on the book and Anitha’s contribution at the Free Our Unions meeting, I don’t know exactly where the authors are coming from politically – but they are clearly on the radical left, pro-labour movement but also extremely critical of the labour movement as it exists. This is a work of serious research – and sometimes a bit “academic” in style – but it is absolutely politically engaged, and in a generally very good direction.
If I have one criticism it is that the political conclusions at the end of the book are vague. They point in the right general direction for reviving and transforming the labour movement, but with relatively little in the way of clear proposals or demands, or reference to more recent struggles. On the anti-trade union laws, while the authors do flag up their central importance, they almost seem to take them as a given, making no call for a renewed labour movement campaign to abolish them.
The dispute at Gate Gourmet
In August 2005, a shift of the mainly South Asian women employed by airline catering company Gate Gourmet to prepare in-flight meal trays at Heathrow suddenly found themselves confronted with mainly Eastern European agency workers on their production line. The company had introduced these casual workers after floating a “restructuring” plan proposing the sacking of a large section of the existing workforce, as well as severe cuts to pay and conditions. The established workers withdrew to their canteen to discuss with their shop stewards and prepare to negotiate. This was a longstanding practice, yet they were given verbal warnings and then sacked over megaphone. 813 workers were dismissed in total.
Gate Gourmet took over British Airways’ inhouse catering operation in 1997, as BA sought to outsource unprofitable parts of its operation. In 2002 it was bought by US venture capital firm Texas Pacific. Faced with declining profits and determined to reduce labour costs, the company introduced a series of changes to conditions – but not without resistance from a long and heavily unionised workforce.
Striking Women goes into some depth on how this resistance was shaped by and shaped the drive for profit, work processes, and the roles of gender and ethnicity. It is eloquent on both the strength of the Gate Gourmet workers’ shopfloor union culture and the inadequacies of their union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G), in supporting the workers against management.
Unlike the Grunwick workers, who in 1976 were joining a trade union for the first time, many of those involved in Gate Gourmet had a lively history of workplace and union struggles. Some had participated in the successful struggles at Hillingdon Hospital in 1995 and Lufthansa Skychef in 1998/9. As Anitha and Pearson point out, the common trade union (shallow) focus on Grunwick to the exclusion of more recent struggles by South Asian women workers is in itself telling.
Solidarity action and the anti-union laws
The Grunwick strikers, much smaller in number than the sacked Gate Gourmet workers, cut lonely figures on the picket line in the first months of their strike. It was after the best part of a year that the famous mass movement of solidarity, involving many thousands of mostly male and white workers, rose up.
The solidarity they received included secondary industrial action by local postal workers, refusing to handle the mail on which the company relied. Despite secondary / solidarity action being legal then, the postal workers were bullied and harassed – by the courts, by right-wing nationalist activists and crucially by their own union leadership and apparatus – into eventually giving up, allowing Grunwick management to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The long retreat and decline of grassroots labour movement activity from the late 80s made it less likely that any mass solidarity movement would blossom in 2005, and more likely that the Gate Gourmet workers would be defeated before a movement had time to emerge. Unlike in 1977, too, many of the tools of working-class struggle used to great effect at Grunwick, despite legal obstruction, police violence and all the rest, were by 2005 flatly illegal, under the anti-union laws of the 1980s and 90s: among them mass picketing, industrial action without a ballot and notice period, and solidarity action. Union bureaucracies still act to block militant action, and now in symbiosis with a massively strengthened system of legal restrictions.
Yet, remarkably, 2005 did see powerful solidarity action. When the Gate Gourmet workers were sacked, British Airways baggage handlers, bus drivers and ground staff at Heathrow illegally struck in solidarity, paralysing BA for 48 hours, forcing it to ground over 100 flights and costing it over £40m.
This luminous example of working-class power and solidarity should go down in the annals of British labour movement history. For a while the T&G leadership talked about further "industrial action to protect victimised members" (including baggage handlers etc threatened after their strike). For really the only time since the 1980s, the leaders of a big union talked about getting rid or at least heavily modifying the laws banning solidarity action, as something to be fought for right then, right there.
Many of the workers taking solidarity action were also South Asian. Especially in the aftermath, some, including T&G leaders, promoted the idea they were predominantly the husbands and relatives of sacked Gate Gourmet workers, and that it was a matter of minority community ties, not class solidarity. Workers interviewed by Anitha and Pearson make clear that was not the case.
Well into October, BA had to run many flights without the usual catering. But, after all the welcome rhetoric, there was no further solidarity action, and no campaign of taking Gate Gourmet worker delegations round the vast airport workforce to discuss the issues and possibilities. On 28 September the workers reluctantly voted to accept terms which the T&G officials had negotiated (and already announced to the press as a done deal), under which only some would be reinstated. Then the bosses delayed and delayed on reinstatement. The T&G told the workers nothing could be done.
Eventually only 272 out of 813 were reinstated, on worse terms and conditions, and 411 given redundancy payments. A dwindling band of Gate Gourmet workers were left fighting on their own, in meetings and protests, with decreasing hope. Meanwhile both workers’ rights and conditions and the union at Gate Gourmet were decimated.
Experience and understanding
Under the Blair governments, the unions failed to rally and expand their membership, despite low unemployment and a substantial growth of employment in the public sector. They generally failed to fight neo-liberal reforms, including the steady growth of outsourcing, which weakened their strongest public-sector bases. As the story of Gate Gourmet makes clear, they also allowed the gutting of important bastions of private-sector union membership and organisation and the running riot of "flexible working", ie casualisation.
I found it painful to read in Striking Women how Gate Gourmet quickly went from a company where, as one worker put it, “Managers used to say it’s the workers who really run the show” to one where, in the words of another: “The union is nothing, it’s there in name only”. But of course this exemplifies a much wider trajectory. At Grunwick a section of the British workers' movement was struggling to gain new territory; at Gate Gourmet, the movement lost territory it had long held.
Not every battle joined, not even every battle fought seriously, will be won. But the big picture in this period (and since) is that the labour movement ducked fight after fight, and so lost again and again.
The anti-working class, anti-migrant monstrosity of New Labour as it developed was only possible because of this pattern of trade union abdication - and a parallel political abdication in which the labour movement failed to promote anything even vaguely resembling a working-class socialist alternative to neo-liberalism. Most absurdly, most unions failed to demand the abolition of the anti-union laws – a large part of why outrages like Gate Gourmet were possible. After a brief flurry of raising the issue in the TUC and Labour Party in 2005, the T&G and other unions failed to organise any serious campaign around it, letting things lapse back into silence. Presumably embarrassment and demoralisation about Gate Gourmet were part of that - but it only compounded the failing.
All this was the context for the staggering growth of profits and the wealth of the rich under the Blairites, and the accelerated capitalist offensive after 2008. It is also a crucial part of the context for the labour movement’s failure to consistently champion the interests and struggles of migrant and ethnic minority workers, including South Asian women.
Unions today have a host of equalities policies and the like. Many more top union leaders are women (though not many are migrants or from ethnic minorities). But we need to ask how much has really changed for the better – since 1978 and since 2005.
The most important of the small new unions of mainly migrant, BAME, outsourced workers, IWGB and UVW, owe their birth a decade ago in large part to the appalling way some of these workers were treated in mainstream unions, including Unison and the T&G’s successor, Unite.
From fighting for migrants’ rights to fighting outsourcing to fighting the anti-union laws, our movement is mostly still failing. Only a generalisation of the kind of working-class power and idealism which characterises the Grunwick strike, the Gate Gourmet dispute and the best struggles of today can turn things around.
• Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson have also created a website with information and resources about the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes: www.striking-women.org. For the comic they have produced telling the stories of Grunwick and Gate Gourmet, see here.
• For articles about Gate Gourmet from 2005, see here.