Gate Gourmet appeal

One of the striking features of industrial relations reform is that as strikes have declined, lockouts have increased. According to a recent ACCIRT study (PDF), most working days lost in long disputes (more than a month) are due to lockouts. The extreme case of the lockout, mass sackings with replacement by new workers on worse conditions is, I think, not covered in these statistics, but is increasingly important[1]. Nothing could give a clearer indication of the inherent bias of the reform process than the resurgence of forms of industrial action that had virtually disappeared for most of the 20th century.

The Gourmet Gate dispute in the UK is a particularly nasty example of the process, and one where international action can make a difference. Gourmet Gate is a subcontractor spun off from British Airways, a company with lots of customers around the world . To support the workers in this dispute, go to Labourstart. There’s more on the dispute from Polly Toynbee, who is pretty pessimistic, but I think underestimates the chance that BA can be shamed into some kind of settlement.

fn1. The classic case was the waterfront dispute, where the new employees were, unsurprisingly left in the lurch when their backers decided to settle with the union.

15 thoughts on “Gate Gourmet appeal

  1. JQ —

    I think BA can be shamed into settlement, although not by actions of its customers or the general public, but by the pressure of its own workforce. If there is a resolution to the dispute which favours the GG employees, it will be because BA’s employees have forced BA to pressure GG to resolve it in favour of GG’s employees, with BA using its food contract negotiations with GG to exert this pressure. The UK news this evening, however, was that GG is threatening to declare bankruptcy. This may, however, be just a tactic by GG in its double negotiations with BA and the TGWU (the union).

  2. The classic case was the waterfront dispute, where the new employees were, unsurprisingly left in the lurch when their backers decided to settle with the union.

    Hence, the new employees, caught in a severe situation of asymmetric bargaining, formed a union of their own, started publicly protesting and took court action against Patrick. Um:

    Nothing could give a clearer indication of the inherent bias of the reform process than the resurgence of forms of industrial action that had virtually disappeared for most of the 20th century.

    Eloquent case in point.

  3. If you want to know what the world of work will be like when Howard’s new IR come into force, don’t look to the US, which is far removed from us on a cultural-business level and in terms of union-worker-employer relations.

    Look to Britain.

  4. Solidarity Forever

    [Via Naomi at] Not many of the news reports I saw in Australia about the strike at Heathrow recently highighted the reason why baggage handlers walked off the job. It was a solidarity strike with catering employees – of British Airways&…

  5. PrQ,
    Could this not also be an example of an economy where the market power of the companies is being better matched to the market power of the unions? If there were only strikes and no lockouts it would (to me at least) indicate that the monopsony power of the unions was being exploited to the detriment of the purchasers of labour (the companies). If it were all lockouts it would be the same in reverse. A balance of the two (at a low level) would then indicate a healthy, functioning economy.

  6. One small problemo, Andrew. The law isn’t symmetric. Under the law, unions can be sued for illegal strikes. Companies cannot be sued for illegal lockouts. And even if they could be, they would have the financial resources to fight the suit (unlike a union). A legal strike (one that occurs during a bargaining period) can be ended on the orders of the IRC if the company argues successfully that the strike is damaging the national economy. A legal lock out cannot be ended in this way.

    And so on.

  7. Dave,
    Come off the prawns. The days of the valiant little union purely representing the powerless working classes against the cold, hard exploitative bourgeois employers has died everywhere except in syndicalist fantasies.
    Companies can be sued for illegal lockouts (you can be sued for any illegal action) or any other breach of contract – if not in the IRC then in the normal court system.
    Small to medium sized companies have no more (and frequently less) financial resources than a union has and are also responsible to their shareholders who require a good return – union leaders are able to fight on a point of principle without needing to look too closely to the financial aspect.
    How many lockouts have occurred that have been against the national interest? No company selling directly to consumers could afford one – the loss of business reputation generally would be devastating to the company in a way that a strike need not be devastating to a union. A business depends (unless it is a monopoly) on its relationships with it suppliers and customers. A lockout and the consequent disruption would only be a last resort for a company, where a strike is not always the last resort for a union. While I am generally an opponent of affirmative action, I think this is a possible good example.
    Can you give us the “And so on� bits, please? I would be interested.

  8. I hear this type of case so often nowadays. Charles Dicken’s name coined the phrase Dickensian refering to conditions of his time. I wonder if, at some time in the future, people will refer to Quigginsian times?

  9. The real truth is that this bastard Yank-run company in the UK had so little respect for the middle-aged Indian women they employed they really thought they could sack them all via a megaphone and they would get away with it – no repurcussions.

    They thought wrong.

    Their sons and husbands worked as baggage handlers at Heathrow and they were not gonna let some young jerk with a Harvard MBA treat their mothers and wives like dirt.

    They walked off the jobs and caused many millions of dollars damage to both BA and Gate Gourmet.

    I got no sympathy for BA. They used to employ these women and then thought they too would get rid of this cost and responsibility by contracting out the job to Gate Gourmet.

    Then Gate Gourmet thought they could get rid of the women and bring in cheaper labour from Europe’s Mexico i.e. the former Stalinist states.

    The public reaction has been huge. The Brits don’t want Yankee workplace culture.

    Just as here the public reacted to the waterfront dispute, the Brits have reacted to this Heathrow crisis. Support. Support. Support.

    You can also support these women today by sending off a narky e-mail to Gate Gourmet.

    Do it here. Do it right now.

  10. There isn’t an inherent bias in the IR reform process, but in the boundary conditions, so to speak. It’s rather like Zola’s biting description of the impartiality of the law, “forbidding rich and poor alike from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges” (from memory – check it if you like).

    The distinction is important in knowing what you are dealing with. Adjusting for it by addressing IR is more like lifting with your back; it may produce the “right” result, but only by putting in an offset elsewhere in the system with stresses building up between the counter pressure and the pressure.

    Certainly, babies shouldn’t be thrown out with bathwater – but that’s no reason for stubborn conservatism on this area that does need to be addressed. Remember what true conservatism is? When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change – but note the qualifier, and don’t indulge in ringbarking to create a necessity like a firebug firefighter.

  11. The real issue is the “supply shock” being created in the global labour market as previously closed or isolated economies and people join and integrate with global markets. We should expect a lot of this over the next few decades.

    I’m not trying to defend their methods however for those that don’t like what Gate has done would they like to see the new employees sacked?

    This issue of cheap labour from foreign places needs to be discussed also in connection with the boarder protection debate in places such as Australia. We need to get consistent about whether we want to isolate the worlds poorest workers in misery or whether we want an open labour market that gives everybody an even shot at maximising their potential.

    I think most of this pain is transitional. However the transition could take a very long while. I suspect that mitigating the effects for some groups just prolongs the agony overall.

    Personally I believe that the greatest good for the greatest number is served by open labour markets.

  12. Terje —

    While your argument is valid, I don’t see its relevance to the GG dispute. The British economy has been open with regard to labour for 20 years, and large swathes of activity in UK industry (both manufacturing and services) are now undertaken offshore. Even British Government agencies now use offshore calling centres, for example, in places like India. However, nothing could be less global than the business which GG is in. Because it provides a perishable product (food), it needs to be right nearby its main customer, BA. Accordingly, GG’s main base is located in the very suburb of BA’s airport hub, Heathrow. It is certainly not the case that GG could readily outsource its work preparing food for BA flights to somewhere offshore, so the GG workforce is not fighting that battle, here.

    It could make business sense for BA to place food orders with suppliers nearby its offshore hubs, but only to the extent that BA has traffic through those hubs. The overwhelming proportion (perhaps 75%) of BA’s traffic is through Heathrow.

  13. Peter,

    You make serveral good points.

    My point about a labour “supply shock” relates really to the Eastern European labour force getting open access to jobs in the rest of the EU. Its a “supply shock” because suddenly the capital to labour ration in the EU has changed. In the overall new EU there is now a higher proportion of labour compared to the EU before the eastern nations joined. Or to put it differently there is a lower proportion of capital.

    One quick way out of this dilemma would be to slash capital gains tax across the EU so that the balance could be restored via a rapid growth in capital. That would restore the ratio and improve things for marginal workers (and others also). Although not immediately.

    One famous economist had something to say on this exact issue.


    Capital can multiply itself only by exchanging itself for labor-power, by calling wage-labor into life. The labor-power of the wage-laborer can exchange itself for capital only by increasing capital, by strengthening that very power whose slave it is. Increase of capital, therefore, is increase of the proletariat, i.e., of the working class.

    And so, the bourgeoisie and its economists maintain that the interest of the capitalist and of the laborer is the same. And in fact, so they are! The worker perishes if capital does not keep him busy. Capital perishes if it does not exploit labor-power, which, in order to exploit, it must buy. The more quickly the capital destined for production — the productive capital — increases, the more prosperous industry is, the more the bourgeoisie enriches itself, the better business gets, so many more workers does the capitalist need, so much the dearer does the worker sell himself. The fastest possible growth of productive capital is, therefore, the indispensable condition for a tolerable life to the laborer.

    – Karl Marx

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