Saturday, April 08, 2006

Union rights and social wrongs


I'VE been reading the March-April issue of the T&G Record, the newspaper for members of the Transport and General Workers Union. Top of the front-page an item entitled "Treble Winners -T&G making a difference" hails what it calls a "trio of landmark workplace victories" in the first few weeks of this year, involving gains for cleaners in the Houses of Parliament and on the London Underground, and union recognition won at easyJet's call centre in Luton.

Full marks to the union and the workers involved.

But I could not find anything in the union journal about another group of T&G members who have been in dispute and many of whom are battling on. Last August the Gate Gourmet catering company sacked some 700 workers, mainly Asian women and members of the T&GWU, and set about replacing them with casual agency staff. Others were told they could either accept pay cuts or consider they had left. The US owned-firm, which provides airline meals for British Airways, had already been recruiting non-union drivers, many from eastern Europe, and secretly planning a confrontation with the union.

The lock-out provoked a solidarity strike by baggage-handlers and other workers which grounded British Airways at the height of the holiday season and also, incidentally, breached the anti-union laws which the Blair government inherited from the Tories. Outsourcing by public and private companies, and outlawing of so-called "secondary" action, have been the two fists by which unions have been hit in this country. They mean that people like the Gate Gourmet workers and their supporters find themselves fighting the employers and the law, the bosses and the state.

British Airways was able to get its workforce back to work, and has since then singled out and sacked shop stewards whom it blamed for the solidarity action.

On 28 September a mass meeting of the sacked workers voted to accept an agreement providing for 167 to get their jobs back, and others to take voluntary redundancy. Faced with hardship many hoped to at least take a redundancy cheque. Gate Gourmet, which had faced loss of the BA contract and was already in financial trouble was back in business. But though news is hard to come by these days, with the TV cameras departed and the union journals silent, it seems that many Gate Gourmet workers have got nothing, and are battling on, with marches and pickets, though with little chance of success.

Reporting on the vote last September, T&GWU general secretary Tony Woodley said:
"I am pleased however that our shop stewards and members have accepted a settlement that 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.
"We look forward to people returning to work and working with the company to rebuild trust and confidence.
"I would like to express our thanks to TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber for his support and effort. To stop this outrage ever happening again, our Party - the Labour Party - must change the law to protect weak and vulnerable workers as Conference overwhelmingly voted this week."

Tony Blair, who has taken the country to war for Big Oil, and led his party into the mire of backstage loans from billionaires rather than rely on open and democratic backing from trade unions, seemed to think he could get away with ignoring Labour's conference on this as he has ignored the voters on his war policy. It is now up to trade unionists and everyone who values rights and justice to prove otherwise.

I sometimes hear people talk about how trade unions should do more for the lower-paid and vulnerable in society. I go to conferences, like that organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign recently, where people talk about the important part unions can play in international solidarity. Brent Trades Union Council, on which I'm a delegate, is making plans to commemorate the Grunwick strike, which also involved mainly Asian women, thirty years ago.

Besides the mass pickets which involved miners and even government ministers (not something you see today!), we'll honour the Cricklewood post office workers who "blacked" Grunwick mail, only to fall foul of the law and be disciplined by their union as a result. They and other workers also undertook action on Apartheid in South Africa, again confronting legal reprisals. But what I've had to remind people, at the PSC conference for instance, is that the Liverpool dockers who once stood in the forefront of such actions, even stopping Namibian uranium shipments, had to fight a long struggle and see their rights and jobs destroyed, thanks to the anti-union laws.

All the time, our leaders assured us that though little could be done, it would be alright when Labour got in. Then Labour got in, led by Tony Blair, in 1997, and it is still in, and so are the laws, under which trade unionists are victimised for simply going to the aid of low-paid airport catering workers, their neighbours, friends and relatives, in the same way that the Liverpool dockers were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line mounted by their sons.

That's why I'm glad to see that this year's May Day march in London, which the Transport and General Workers and other unions are supporting, will focus on workplace rights and the need - 100 years after the Trades Disputes Act - for a Trade Union Freedom Bill. As the Record puts it :"..the right of unions to protect their members at work still suffers from legal limitations unknown elsewhere in Europe -as the Gate Gourmet dispute showed"

Ealing Trades Union Council has a public meeting tomorrow night at West London Trade Union Club, on Acton High Street, it's at 7.30, and the speakers will be John Hendy QC, a leading employment law barrister who advises several unions, and Iqbal Vaid, a T&GWU Executive member who is senior steward for the Heathrow baggage handlers.

It's part of the lead up to the May Day March which will assemble 12 noon on Clerkenwell Green on Monday, May 1st.

Meanwhile, a snippet we almost missed

Friday, 3rd February 2006, 16:57
Category: Crime and Punishment
LIFE STYLE EXTRA (UK) - The finance director of Gate Gourmet, the catering supplier previously in dispute with British Airways, was jailed for 12 months today for stealing £30,000 to gamble on the money markets. Ravinder Dhillon, 44, who was on a salary of £110,000, also allegedly billed the firm, which was losing £2 million a month at the time, for the services of a string of prostitutes.

He pleaded guilty to one charge of theft by transferring Gate Gourmet's cash to a company in Denmark for investment on the Euro-markets, in which he hoped for a 50 percent return. Married Dhillon initially faced two other charges of false accounting in which he allegedly racked up £2,500 worth of services from escort agencies and invoiced Gate Gourmet for them. The charges relating to vice girls were not put to Dhillon in court today but ordered to be left on file.

Gate Gourmet hit the headlines last summer when staff staged a wildcat strike over the sacking of 600 workers, prompting BA baggage handlers to walk out in sympathy and severely disrupting the airline's flights. Prosecutor Ronnie Berganthal said Dhillon was appointed finance director at Gate Gourmet in the autumn of 2004 and dismissed in March 2005 when an internal audit "revealed irregularities." Three transactions of £7,000, £10,000 and £13,000 between January and March 2005 were uncovered and Dhillon was arrested.

Mr Bergenthal said: "He admitted transferring the money to Denmark to be invested in a Euro-exchange market. It was in order to somehow assist Gate Gourmet, who were suffering from financial difficulties at the time, to assist them in returning some profit, gambling to assist his employers." Defence counsel David Harounoff said the Danish company was "either a scam or it collapsed and the money was lost."

Dhillon was working for £85,000 a year for Samsung when Gate Gourmet offered him a higher-paid post and he took it, said Mr Harounoff. "What he was not told was that Gate Gourmet were in dire financial straits losing £2 million a month. "They were looking for 700 redundancies and the defendant feared his employment would terminate. He thought he could make his position more secure by dabbling on the financial markets. He believed he would receive a 50 per cent return and repay the money with interest." He has since been ruined, borrowed £30,000 to repay the money and has no job, said Mr Harounoff. His wife was ill and he had extended family responsibilities.

Judge Sam Katkhuda, sitting at Isleworth Crown Court, said such a breach of trust had to be met with a prison sentence. "The money you stole from your employers was money they could ill-afford. The courts take a serious view of breaches of trust like this, especially by someone like you who held a senior position and who was in control of the financial aspects of the business. "This was not a one-off theft, it was over a period when you involved yourself in this dishonest conduct. It was a deliberate fraud for your own benefit. It is inevitable that people who commit such breaches of trust will go to prison."

Copyright © 2006 National News +44(0)207 684 3000



At 4:18 PM, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

Good post.

The workers are constantly told, givebacks and layoffs are inevitable and non-stoppable. That is why new leadership is needed, amongst other things.


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