The Importance of Solidarity

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(300)

The Walrus's article on the Gate Gourmet dispute at Heathrow (September SR) highlights the brutally destructive nature of 'market forces' in action.

But there are a few other points I want to add after having been down to the picket line. For several weeks now several hundred low paid, mostly Asian, mostly women workers have continued to picket the Gate Gourmet work site, from which they were ruthlessly sacked for refusing to accept even lower pay and more miserable work conditions than they already had. Free marketeers have gone onto the offensive, and the Gate Gourmet workers are on the frontline of a battle that will have serious implications for all workers in Britain.

Their plight would barely have made a by-line in the national dailies or on the news had it not been for the terrific solidarity action by British Airways baggage handlers. With thousands of air travellers suddenly inconvenienced and stranded at the airport, the nation's attention focused on how BA and its principal catering supplier were redefining employee relations.

Mass sacking by megaphone raised the stakes in a frightening way, not just for the Gate Gourmet workers but also for BA chief executive Rod Eddington. He had good reason to fear that thousands of other airport staff might make the connection as to how this approach to negotiations might apply to them, and the problems BA would face if solidarity action continued.

Regrettably, the baggage handlers were exhorted to return to work before the promises of meaningful negotiations had had any chance of being anything more than lip service for the sacked workers.

As the Walrus explained, venture capitalists like Michael O'Leary and David Bonderman are only able to build their empire on the misery they create for workers. Unions are not an option as far as they are concerned. By smashing the unions (or at least castrating them) they hope to gain a competitive edge on those employers still nominally burdened by such things, effectively raising the stakes for any unionised workforce standing in the way of shareholder profits. The appointment of Willie Walsh as BA's new CEO is another ominous sign for Heathrow workers, but as the Dublin airport workers showed, there is no need for it to be all one-way traffic when working class unity and solidarity prevail.

As a union activist I have been to the picket line a number of times now over the past several weeks, delivering collections and standing in solidarity with the sacked workers. Initially the pickets were very optimistic that the dispute could be resolved quickly in the face of the embarrassing exposure of the employer's dirty tricks.

This view has now subsided, and more recently the stark realisation is hitting home that, without further escalation of solidarity actions, those who will be allowed to return to work on the bosses' terms will effectively have been starved into submission.

To prevent these workers becoming the latest victims of the anti trade union laws, the TUC needs to launch a seriously high profile fundraising solidarity campaign to stop them being starved back to work.

The sacked workers, with the support of fellow trade unionists, need to take the audacious step of appealing directly to their fellow unionists at Heathrow and other airports for further industrial solidarity action.

If we don't want to join in on this relentless race to the bottom for workers then we need to relearn how to win fellow workers to take solidarity actions. Solidarity strikes are the kind of action that employers fear most of all (that's why there is a law against them). It is this type of action that shows workers just how useful and potentially powerful they really are, and is the only way to force profit-hungry bosses to treat workers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Peter Hughes
London