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Proletarian issue 14 (October 2006)
Gate Gourmet – workers’ courage and so-called leaders’ treachery (web only)
Over 100 of the Gate Gourmet workers who were locked out in August 2005 are still battling for their jobs. They are fighting not only against their employer but also against the labour aristocratic leadership of their trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU), and of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). All ‘official’ trade union support is denied to them; all hardship payments by the T&G have been stopped. Abandoned by their union and the TUC, they are fighting on with whatever support they receive from ordinary workers who recognise the importance of their struggle and the need for solidarity.

In November this year, employment tribunal cases that the workers have taken out against their employer are due to come up for hearing. The T&G should have been responsible for lodging tribunal applications, but waited until the very last possible day within the time limits for doing so. Many of the workers went to other solicitors to ensure their applications were made in time.

The tenacity on the part of these workers is reminiscent of the heroic struggle of the Hillingdon Hospital workers, who battled on against both their employer and their union, Unison. The role of the union, the TUC and the Labour Party is also true to the form displayed in the Hillingdon dispute. It has been just as despicable.

At the TUC congress in September this year, Gate Gourmet workers still fighting for their jobs were refused entry! At the previous year’s congress they had received a standing ovation and a resolution of support which had been proposed by Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the T&G (although it should be noted that the resolution and Woodley’s speech in favour of it were long on rhetoric and short on concrete commitment to any particular course of action).

Even before the TUC resolution of 2005, the T&G and the TUC were cooking up a deal with Gate Gourmet, and within two weeks of that congress this ‘compromise’ agreement was being pressed on the workers by the union. In his speech to congress that year, Tony Woodley had thanked Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary, in these terms: “The amount of time he has put in to try and help us find a resolution has been staggering. Brendan, thank you. I am grateful.”

That may have sounded grand at the congress, but the Gate Gourmet workers soon found that, while Tony Woodley may have had reason to be grateful to Mr Barber, they had little to be thankful for. The agreement they were each individually asked to sign (there was never a ballot) agreed to over 400 redundancies, of which 144 were to be compulsory, with the employer choosing who to dismiss. The deal precluded any employee going to an employment tribunal.

The union put a lot of pressure on the workers to sign, and the employer heightened the pressure by saying that there would be no deal unless every single employee signed. In the event, some did succumb to pressure and sign, but many held out, while Gate Gourmet took people back piecemeal on new conditions. One of the locked out workers told a fringe meeting held outside this year’s TUC congress that the ones who went back are now being treated like slaves – under more pressure, and with more work piled on, they are now admitting that signing was a big mistake.

This is corroborated by a statement made by Eric Born, Managing Director of Gate Gourmet UK, in April this year. Among other things, he welcomed the fact that the number of economy-class buffet trolleys loaded in a day per worker had risen between August 2005 and March 2006 from 34 to 53 (a 56 percent increase), and that, comparing spring 2005 to spring 2006, the number of hours lost through sickness had decreased by 58 percent to a 3 percent sickness rate, with paid overtime hours decreasing by 76 percent. Born welcomed this increase in productivity, but it has not satisfied him and he thinks there is a long way to go.

Meanwhile, it is clear that this increase in productivity has inevitably been at the cost of greater intensity of labour and worsening of working conditions. The workers who have continued to fight made a sound decision. Equally clear is the treachery of the trade union leaders who claim to serve their members, while in reality serving their own career interests and selling their members down the river.

Support for this struggle is important and there have been valuable expressions of solidarity. On 20 August this year, local CPGB-ML comrades took the party banner and supported a march of about 200 people through Southall, where many of the locked out workers live. Although small, the demonstration was spirited and included a contingent of the Hillingdon Hospital strikers with their banner. It marked a year of struggle since the lock-out.

Struggles such as this have very important lessons for us. They show how courage and determination can achieve much; they show that there are some battles that cannot be avoided and where the only honourable option is to fight; and they show that we must rid our movement of treacherous ‘leaders’ of the ilk of labour aristocrats like Tony Woodley and Brendan Barber. We have to take up the challenge presented by these lessons.

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