Belfast airport workers – Six years on

Still fighting for justice

The facts of the dispute

Six years on from the decision by their employer, airport security firm, ICTS, to sack them for striking for a pay increase, the shop stewards who led this dispute are still campaigning for justice.

Two of the shop stewards, Gordon McNeill and Madan Gupta, have decided to begin a hunger strike at Transport House demanding that commitments given to them last September by UNITE General Secretary Tony Woodley and other senior officials of the union, including Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, be honoured in full.

The following is some background to the dispute which explains why the shop stewards have have been left with no choice but to resort to this drastic action.

On 8 May 2002 airport security workers in Belfast International Airport went on strike demanding a 50p per hour pay rise to bring their rate up to 6 per hour. The strike had been properly balloted and the workers had assurances from the union that it was official. During the strike the workers received threats from ICTS management that the action was illegal and that they could be sacked. The T&GWU official responsible for the dispute suddenly became impossible to contact despite repeated efforts by the workers to do so.

Following the strike the union issued a letter of repudiation of the action, thereby giving ICTS the green light to sack about half those who had been on strike, including all the shop stewards. It was subsequently established in evidence given to the Industrial Tribunal that the T&GWU official, who was unavailable for any consultation with his members, was nonetheless readily available for secret consultations with the employers. Two days after the strike he met with senior members of ICTS management in a pub near the airport and handed them a letter repudiating the strike.

The sacked workers have fought a long campaign against ICTS, and against their union who clearly colluded with the company to have them dismissed. They have demanded an explanation of the role of the official involved and of senior figures in the union, including the legal director and then General Secretary, Bill Morris, who all backed the Company’s line that the strike was illegal.

Rather than provide answers to these questions, the union attempted to cover up what happened. Union leaders made promises to back the workers in their ongoing fight against ICTS but these promises proved worthless. In the end the workers had to continue the fight on their own, using their own limited recourses. Meanwhile the officials involved in this betrayal and cover up continued in post as though nothing had happened. The official who did the secret deal in the pub and who was found by the Tribunal to have lied under oath eventually retired with full benefits and a job reference that allowed him to get a job in the Labour Relations Agency, supposedly acting as an “honest broker” in industrial disputes.

The attempt to cover up what happened continued as before when there was a change in the leadership of the TGWU and Tony Woodley replaced Bill Morris as General Secretary. An assurance made by Tony Woodley to the shop stewards that he would take up their case and lead a battle against ICTS, was never acted upon. Instead, in June 2003, he negotiated a rotten deal with ICTS management in which he accepted the victimisation of the shop stewards and most of the sacked workers in return for a pittance of compensation. Strike benefits paid by the union were to be deducted from this money. This would have left some of the workers out of pocket! Not surprisingly the workers unanimously rejected this offer, despite Tony Woodley’s insistence that it was a “damned good deal” and “the best that they were going to get”. From this point the T&GWU washed their hands of the dispute and gave the workers no further support or assistance. Instead the shop stewards faced a campaign of intimidation, including death threats received through the post. There is alleged evidence that these threats came from Transport House. There were also direct paramilitary threats warning them to “back off or else”.

Despite all this the workers fought on. They funded their own legal case against ICTS. This turned into a protracted legal battle. First they had to show that the dispute was legal, contrary to what both ICTS and the union’s legal advisors had said at the time of the strike. In January 2005, the Industrial Tribunal found that the strike was lawful. This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal in Jan 2006. With this decision it was obvious that they had a strong legal case but still the union refused to provide them with any legal backing or to offer any assistance with their ongoing costs.

Rather than allow the case to be lost by default through lack of funds, the shop stewards put every up asset at their disposal, including their homes, to make sure that the legal battle with ICTS would continue. Finally on 18 August 2007 they won a landmark victory that was a breakthrough, not only for themselves, but for all trade unionists. The Industrial Tribunal found that nineteen workers had been unfairly dismissed by ICTS. It went on to find that the sacking of the shop stewards was political discrimination; that ICTS had got rid of them because of their socialist political outlook as trade unionists. This decision makes it more difficult and potentially much more costly for employers to sack any trade union activists as much higher damages can be awarded in discrimination cases than in straightforward claims of unfair dismissal.

The shop stewards greeted this judgement as a victory for the whole trade union movement and publicly appealed to the Unite leadership to come on board and help use it to reinforce the position of shop stewards and activists in the workplaces. After the decision was issued the shop stewards traveled to London on 21 August 2007 to meet with Tony Woodley and other senior Unite officials. The shop stewards asked them to recognise the victory that had been won and to take immediate steps to resolve the conflict that had developed between all the sacked airport workers and the union.

They asked that the union agree to pay the £200,000 legal bill that the workers had incurred in pursuing the case. They asked also for a commitment that the union would meet the cost of defending the Tribunal judgement, should ICTS decide to appeal. Finally they asked the union make a payment to compensate the workers for all the hardship that the union’s actions in colluding directly with ICTS to have them sacked had caused.

Assurances were given at this meeting by Tony Woodley and the other officials present that the union would meet these demands. They would pay agreed legal costs and, if necessary, would go to the Taxation Court which adjudicates on such matters, to establish that the costs were fair. They would meet the costs of any appeal and would come back with a figure for compensation.

Following this meeting, and with the threat of protest action by the shop stewards lifted, the union returned to its six year long tactic of prevarication and evasion. It was nothing had been done to fulfill the verbal promises made in London that, at the start of September 07, the shop stewards began a rooftop protest at Transport House in Belfast. This led to a further meeting in London at which more definite assurances were given. Tony Woodley promised that he would come up with a compensation figure and resolve the other issues within seven days.

Seven months on and not the union has not met a single one of these promises.

There has been no offer of compensation. The workers’ legal team have had to issue writs on the union for damages but, because the shop stewards do not want to have to take the union to court and waste members money on legal fees for a matter that could be settled by direct negotiation, these have not yet been served.

The union has unilaterally pulled out of the agreement to go to the Taxation Court to establish whether the legal bill, of more than £200,000 was fair. Rather than attempting to reach an agreement on the bill they made a payment of 100,000 and are refusing to pay more. The union’s refusal to pay the bill means that the workers, who have already paid £38,000 from their own pockets, will not get this money back and face an additional bill of around £70,000.

The have also broken the agreement to cover barrister fees to defend the Tribunal decision against appeal. In November 2007 the shop stewards’ legal team informed them that, because the union were holding back on offering any money, they were withdrawing from the case. The shop stewards had to go to court with a request that they could represent themselves.

The barristers then agreed to stick with the case on the basis of the £100,000 part costs being paid and because the union was offering to agree with them an hourly rate for the costs of the appeal. To date the union have avoided any discussion with the barristers on this. In March 2008 the barristers informed the shop stewards that they were going to return all the documents relating to the case and pull out of the appeal. In effect the victory that was won last August is now in jeopardy because the union have reneged on its commitment to meet the appeal costs. They are handing ICTS a victory on a plate.

Faced with this long saga of betrayal and double dealing by the senior officials of the T&GWU and now Unite, the shop stewards have decided that their only hope of redress is by going on hunger strike and through this making sure that the public, particularly other trade union members, are made aware of what has been going on.

They are demanding that the commitments entered into by the union last August and September be met in full and without any further delay.

They are also demanding a public inquiry into the way the union has handled this dispute from the events that led up to the strike until the present day.

They will end their hunger strike only when they have firm commitments on these issues that the Unite leadership cannot back away from.

Meanwhile the battle against ICTS continues. Senior management figures from ICTS were found, by the Tribunal to have told blatant lies when giving their evidence. Yet this company is in charge of the day to day security of passengers at airports. As well as pressing for the Managing Directors of ICTS to be prosecuted for perjury, the shop stewards are campaigning for airport security to be taken out of private hands and brought back into the public sector.

Throughout this long dispute the actions of the shop stewards have never been anti-union, but have always been pro genuine trade unionism. They are calling on all trade unionists to get involved in their unions in order to end the practice of doing dirty deals with management at the expense of members. They want to see the unions democratised with all Officials elected and paid the same wages as the members they represent.

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