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Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide

Settlement reached in Gate Gourmet Heathrow dispute

Posted to the IUF website 06-Oct-2005

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The Transport & General Workers Union (T&G) has reached a settlement with Gate Gourmet in the dispute which began on August 10th when the airline caterer sacked almost 800 workers at Heathrow Airport.

Although the initial number of sacked workers was quickly adjusted to 670 - once Gate Gourmet realised that amongst those sacked for "engaging in illegal industrial action" were workers on holiday, sick and maternity leave - the outrageous facts of the matter have remained unchanged. As the sordid background to Gate Gourmet's actions was gradually revealed, the company's conduct came under increasing public attack and its reputation worsened steadily.

For months prior to the sackings, Gate Gourmet had been engaged in negotiations with the T&G over concessions on salaries and working conditions in order to secure the financial survival of its operations in the UK. Gate Gourmet was in fact under pressure from its parent company, the US-based investment firm, Texas Pacific Group (TPG), to improve its performance. As has been reported, TPG even devised a plan to achieve cost savings for Gate Gourmet and better returns for its investors - a plan which Gate Gourmet swears was never put in place nor even seriously considered, but which bears an uncanny resemblance to what actually happened: workers were provoked into staging a walk-out which was used as a pretext for mass dismissals and the flying-in of replacement workers from outside the UK, workers who had been recruited through a labour-hire agency Gate Gourmet had earlier set up for the purpose.

These sub-contracted replacement workers earn less than the already low-paid workers directly employed by Gate Gourmet.

Under duress to improve returns for TPG's investors, Gate Gourmet not only put pressure on the T&G, but on its main client, British Airways, which it pressed for concessions on its contract. BA has since agreed to a new contract with more favourable terms for Gate Gourmet, but indicated it was contingent on Gate Gourmet and the T&G coming to agreement.

While over 600 sacked workers and supporters staging daily protests on grounds outside Heathrow Airport, the T&G continued to engage in talks with the company over the reinstatement of all the sacked workers. In late August, in a compromise move, voluntary redundancy packages were offered to all Gate Gourmet staff, those who still had their jobs as well as those who had been sacked. This initiative was soon jeopardised, however, by the company's insistence on deciding who would be eligible for the package and its public avowal that so-called "troublemakers" would not be reinstated.

According to T&G General Secretary Tony Woodley, the settlement, ratified by an overwhelming majority of the workforce on 28-29 September, "...will see the great majority of our members going back to work or taking voluntary separation. The remainder, who would have faced compulsory redundancy under the company's plans prior to the dispute, will now have representation and access to an appeals procedure following a fair process. Even those members will at least now receive compensation whereas they would have received nothing after being sacked."

The T&G has expressed its thanks to all who have supported them and the sacked Gate Gourmet workers throughout this struggle. When the crisis broke, The IUF and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) quickly mobilised support from affiliates organising workers in airline catering. Through LabourStart, almost 8,000 protest messages were sent to Gate Gourmet and contributions were collected for the T&G's hardship fund for the sacked workers.

The prerequisite has now been met for the new BA contract to take effect. But there is no reason to expect that the improved economic terms for Gate Gourmet will be passed on to the workforce. The workers were the victims of a stratagem, sacrificed by Gate Gourmet in the name of higher returns for its investors and caught in the middle of Gate Gourmet's commercial dispute with its main client. And thanks to prevailing legislation in the UK, Gate Gourmet could act with impunity.

The T&G has had to manoeuvre in an environment hostile to labour and insensitive to the reality faced by hard-working but low-paid service workers. This dark episode in industrial relations has underlined the need for legal reforms to redress the disparity between the means and mechanisms available to labour and to capital. The debate is on in the UK and needs to be taken up by the trade union movement everywhere. If we want to continue to effectively defend the interests of working people and protect vulnerable groups in our societies, we cannot allow our ability to leverage the collective persuasive power of our membership to be curtailed.