Who would have thought back in 2002, that when a group of low paid airport security workers went on strike for a fifty pence an hour pay rise, the action would be the start of a six year battle for justice, not only from their employer, but also from their union? Who would have thought that this struggle would involve not just pickets and demonstrations at the airport, but also protests and even hunger strikes outside their union offices in Belfast and in London?
Certainly not the workers who had voted 100% in favour of the action and certainly not the shop stewards who organised and led them. To them this was a straightforward issue; a struggle against poverty pay. All they were looking for was £6 an hour, to give them parity with the airport porters. They expected, as most workers would, that their union, the T&GWU, having sanctioned the strike would stand by and support them.
There were certainly not prepared for the betrayal that was to follow. Their action had barely begun when it was repudiated by the union. Their own official, Joe McCusker, who had organised the ballot and assured them that the strike was official, secretly colluded with Managing Directors of ICTS to have half of those who went on strike, including all the shop stewards, sacked.
One year later the union leadership negotiated a rotten deal with ICTS, which all the sacked workers rejected. From that time the workers were effectively abandoned by the union. They were left to continue with a legal battle against their employer, which after years of hearings, delays and appeals, they eventually won in June of this year.
Throughout this time they have fought a battle for justice from their union. They have demanded a full explanation of what happened in 2002, when the union leadership handed them up as a sacrifice to their employer. They have also demanded an explanation of why the union leadership then abandoned them and left them to continue the fight against ICTS on their own.
Threats, lies and slanders
Instead of providing answers, the union leadership attempted to ignore their demands. When they have protested in order to highlight their case, they have been vilified and slandered. Union officials have called the police to remove them from Transport House, headquarters of the T&GWU in Belfast. They have been served with an injunction barring them from protesting at Transport House. They have also received paramilitary style death threats.
Evidence that at least one of these threats came from someone in Transport House was passed to the police and also shown to senior officials of the union. They have also been offered money in return for an agreement that they will never again speak in public about the role of any official of the union, past or present, in this dispute.
Most recently the Unite leadership has issued two statements purporting to set out the facts of this dispute. These statements are an attack on the shop stewards and on the Socialist Party, which has consistently supported their struggle going right back to the start of the dispute. In attempting to explain why the shop stewards have kept up their protests, and in trying to justify the role of the current leadership of the union, these statements give a totally distorted picture of how things got to this point.
The Socialist Party produced replies to both these statements in order to set the record straight. Our replies make up the bulk of this pamphlet. This is not a point scoring exercise. The airport workers’ dispute has been an important struggle that is rich in lessons for the labour movement in Ireland, Britain and beyond. To draw these lessons we need to know the facts of what actually happened. We cannot allow the litany of falsehoods that make up the Unite statements to go unchallenged and, by default, pass themselves off as the truth.
Economic crisis – living standards under assault
We are now twelve months into the financial crunch that began with the collapse of the sub prime market in the US, but whose tentacles have spread through the world financial markets into every corner of the globe. Financial markets are still in turmoil, with even the most optimistic pundits predicting that there is still plenty of bad news to come.
With oil and other commodity prices soaring and the major economies teetering on the precipice of what could be a lengthy economic downturn, working class people are already feeling the pinch.
Meanwhile, those who benefited from the years of financial excess, pocketing millions and tens of millions in bonuses, stock options and commissions, are now demanding that the working class shoulder the bill for the crisis. We “privatise the gain”, but “socialise the pain”. That is the current motto of world capitalism.
The neo liberal agenda adopted by virtually every government across the globe has seen an unrelenting assault on public services, pensions and working conditions. Working class people are now being hit by a new offensive on jobs and particularly on wages.
More than ever, in this period of turbulence, instability and upheaval, the working class needs organisations that are prepared to fight to defend its interests.
The airport workers’ dispute is important in that it exposed the weaknesses and deficiencies at the top of the unions. Workers taking strike action today want to know that their union officials are behind them – or, better still, are leading from the front. They do not expect to find them on the other side of the line, conniving with management to get rid of them. No worker wants to experience what the sacked airport workers experienced in 2002.
An all-too cosy relationship existed between management and union officials in Belfast International airport up to 2002. Strikes were unheard of, and not because workers were satisfied with the low pay and poor working conditions. It was because the ICTS shop stewards upset all this that their union official conspired with management to get them sacked.
Today there are a good many right wing trade union leaders who have the same cap in hand approach to industrial relations as existed in Belfast International Airport before 2002. They are still wedded to the notion that the way to solve problems is through “partnership” arrangements, not through struggle: this at a time when the government, alongside the employers, is engaged in an all out offensive on jobs, services and wages. The strikebreaking role played by the GMB during the 2007 Classroom Assistants strike in Northern Ireland and again during the July 2008 two day local government strike is an example.
In other unions, the right wing leadership has responded to the growing calls for action from members by attempting witchhunts against left activists. The Unison leadership is currently threatening to expel a number of Socialist Party members who have been campaigning for union democracy and for a fighting approach to be adopted.
The right wing have been able to maintain a stranglehold at the top of most unions because, for a whole period – going back to the defeats inflicted by the Thatcher government – there has been a downturn in activity and a sapping of the confidence of the working class to struggle. There were fewer activists coming through prepared to challenge the leadership.
All this will change as workers are forced into struggle. A new generation of activists, especially of young workers, entering the union branches and structures, will transform the situation. They will inevitably come into collision with those right wing leaderships that try to carry on as they done over several decades.
Build a genuine left
What happened to the airport workers holds many important lessons for the struggles that will take place to build genuine lefts and to transform the unions. A year after they were sacked, there was a regime change in the T&GWU. Tony Woodley, who was supported by most of the left in the union, won the General Secretary election and took over from Bill Morris.
Apart from a reshuffle of posts among the bureaucracy, very little changed, as the airport workers soon discovered to their cost. After the 2002 betrayal, their case became a cause célèbre among opponents of the Morris leadership. They were invited to, and attended, national meetings of the left.
Then, when Woodley got elected, the mood music abruptly changed. As this pamphlet explains, Woodley’s first act was to try to coerce them into accepting a rotten deal that, among other things, accepted the victimisation of the shop stewards. In terms of their relations with the current union leadership, it has been all downhill from that time.
What emerges clearly from this, is the need for a genuine open and campaigning left capable of mobilising members to change the union.
The left in the T&GWU, as in a number of other unions, has been handicapped by the bad traditions of Stalinism, inherited from Communist Party members. It is neither open, nor campaigning. Nor is it organised around policy differences.
Its main function is to get its people into positions at the top of the union. When the right has control, it operates as little more than an alternative bureaucracy in waiting. In power, it becomes the bureaucracy.
Woodley’s accession altered the career paths of sections of the bureaucracy. But apart from a change of faces, everything else stayed pretty much the same. Officials remained unelected. They got the same large salaries and generous expenses as under Morris.
Instead of following the lead of unions like the RMT and FBU and breaking with New Labour, the union maintained its affiliation and continued to pump millions into this party.
Now, following the merger with Amicus to form Unite, the leadership of the new union is proposing a constitution which removes some of the democratic rights that members of both unions had previously enjoyed. Amicus members, for example, had the right to elect their officials. Under the new rules, this right is removed. The socialist clause that previously had pride of place in the T&GWU constitution, reflecting the past struggles of workers that put it there, has been removed.
As Unite members are increasingly drawn into struggle and into activity in the union, the basis can be laid for the emergence of a new and genuine left that will fight openly for real change in the union. Demands for the election of all officials by the members and for officials to be paid the same salaries as those they represent will get a real echo. So will the call for the union to break the link with Labour and instead begin the process of creating a new party of the working class.
The betrayal at Belfast International Airport took place at a time when activity levels within the unions were at a low level. Very few fresh activists were emerging. The airport shop stewards were an exception to the general rule.
This explains the tactics they have felt it necessary to adopt in their battle with their union leadership. Although two of the shop stewards became members of the Socialist Party, partly in recognition of the solidarity work we had done for them, we always advised against the use of hunger strikes.
Hunger strikes, when they occur, are usually a product of the downturn or defeat of mass movements. Those who undertake them generally do so out of desperation, because, in the absence of mass struggles to achieve their objectives, they do not see any other way.
The hunger strikes by republican prisoners in 1980 and 1981 that led directly to the deaths of ten prisoners, came about because of the failure of the republican movement outside the prisons to build an effective campaign to back the prisoners’ demand for political status.
The prisoners were left with the choice of trying to maintain a no wash protest that was causing unbearable hardship and was showing signs of breaking, or else of bringing things to a head by escalating the protest. With no prospect of mass pressure being applied from those on the outside, the prisoners felt that their only option was a hunger strike.
The airport shop stewards would have preferred to have taken the course we suggested of a campaign within the T&GWU, and in other unions, to force the hand of the leadership, but, with the lack of genuine activists and the low levels of activity, they were not convinced that this would succeed. On the other hand, they were not prepared to back down and let those who were responsible for what had happened to them off the hook. So they resorted to the drastic and desperate tactic of hunger strikes and even of hunger and thirst strikes.
Had there been a powerful left within the union, they would not have felt the need to put their health on the line in this way. They could have linked up with activists throughout the union and challenged the leadership. As it was, the left section of the bureaucracy, which had championed their cause as a stick with which to beat Bill Morris, quickly dropped them when Tony Woodley took over.
Nonetheless the airport workers, with the backing of the Socialist Party, fought on. In David versus Goliath fashion they continued their battle against ICTS, a powerful international security company.
After six years, they won a significant victory. They would have preferred that this had come through industrial means, but the betrayal of their 2002 strike ruled this out. Using the courts, where it is very difficult for workers to get a fair hearing and where justice is priced beyond the means of most individuals, is always a last resort, when industrial means fail. The airport workers were forced down this road and, in winning their case, set a legal precedent that gives an added protection to every trade union member against victimisation.
They also took on a union leadership that had all the resources of the most powerful union in Britain at its disposal. They stood up to the lies and the slander and the intensive, intimidatory pressure to back off. When all else failed, the union leadership tried bribes.
Two of the three shop stewards have signed up to the union’s offer of compensation in return for their silence about the dispute, but Gordon McNeill has made clear that his right to tell Unite members the truth – and their right to know the truth – is not for sale.
Their courage and persistence in taking on a major international company, and in challenging the bureaucracy of a powerful union, should be an inspiration to all trade union members. Their determination has paid off. They have inflicted a defeat on ICTS and have forced the Unite leadership to concede much of what they were demanding. Hopefully, this will encourage others to get active in their unions and fight for change.
This pamphlet has been produced to begin to set the record straight and to allow Unite members, and members of other unions, to begin to draw the lessons of this important dispute. We reprint the two most recent statements by Unite along with a detailed reply to each. Also included are an open letter from Gordon McNeill to Tony Woodley which sets out his terms for bringing this dispute to an end. Some of the key documents referred to in our replies are also appended.
Statement from Gordon McNeill
“I would like to thank the Socialist Party for the invaluable support they have given myself and my colleagues throughout the long and difficult years of our dispute. Without this help we would not have got to get to where we are.
“We have won an important victory against our employer and also against our union leadership, who, instead of backing us, chose to attack us and try to blacken our name.
“My two colleagues, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, felt they had no choice but to sign up to the gagging clause insisted upon by Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly. I cannot sign away my right to free speech. My campaign for justice will continue until the compensation they are prepared to give is offered as a right, not as a bribe.
“Trade unionists need to organise politically as well as industrially. We are each not just fighting one employer, we are fighting all employers and the system they represent. During the dispute I saw even more clearly the need for a political party that represents working class people and fights for socialist change. That’s why I joined the Socialist Party.
“I would encourage all those who supported our struggle and who want to continue the fight for real change to join the Socialist Party and stand with us in our ongoing battle to democratise our unions and to finally get rid of the capitalist system that puts greed before need.”
Setting the Record Straight
Unite statement by Jimmy Kelly, regional secretary
102 High Street,
BELFAST BT1 2DL,
Tel: 028 90 232381,
Fax: 028 90 329904,
REGION 3 IRELAND,
28 May 2008
Setting the Record Straight
Our Union has deliberately stayed out of the publicity surrounding the dispute between the Transport and General Workers Union and Chris Bowyer – Madan Gupta and Gordon McNeill. We took this decision because we wanted to concentrate all of our efforts on having a genuine and sincere attempt at resolving this dispute, a dispute which originated nearly seven years ago and is inherited by this current leadership.
Since first taking up dealing with this dispute the leadership of Tony Woodley as General Secretary and Jimmy Kelly as Irish Regional Secretary has been totally committed to bringing this issue to an honourable resolution. All of the time working towards this goal with the invaluable support of our General Executive Council and the Irish Regional Committee.
The publicity campaign against our Union has at times been relentless through the use of widely circulated Anti Union emails on the Internet. There has been a completely unhelpful and at times sectarian involvement by socialist party members in Belfast with disgraceful Anti Union behaviour, including lies and personalised attacks on Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly. None of their publicity has presented the fact that we are genuinely working towards an acceptable and honourable resolution of this dispute. They have achieved an undermining of our Union and are being cheered on by local Employers who are only too happy to exploit this opportunity.
Unfortunately some genuine and well meaning trade unionists have believed the lies that were spread on the internet.
The Union has also been subjected to threats of hunger strikes and the regional office in Belfast has been taken over through various protests. Using the threat of a hunger strike as a weapon or a tactic in a dispute like this against the Union is just not acceptable.
Banners denigrating the good name of our Union have been erected on the front of the Union office. Our union members particularly those of us living and working in Belfast have been confronted with at times daily attacks on our Union. This is made all the more unacceptable because of the support, including financial support given to the three involved in this dispute by our union members in Belfast.
We were asked by Bowyer/Gupta/McNeill to consider covering their legal costs associated with the Tribunal hearings in their case. We agreed to work towards doing this and as an act of good faith on our part we paid £106,000 up front to their Solicitors, Breslin McCormick in December 2007. We then entered into the normal legal costs process with their Solicitors. Throughout this costs process our Union has been subjected to occupations of the Union offices, further claims by Bowyer/Gupta/McNeill that they were on hunger strike and public accusations that the Union had reneged on their promise to pay all the costs, which was blatantly not true.
It has taken (through no fault of the Union) up to May 22nd 2008 to finally reach an agreement on legal costs. This has meant the Union paying a further £44,000 to Solicitors Breslin McCormick. This has also meant the releasing of £40,000 to Bowyer/Gupta/McNeill, money that was being withheld by their own Solicitors pending settlement of the costs issue.
Tribunal Appeal Costs
We were also asked to consider paying the legal costs that will be incurred through the appeal process now that the Employer has decided to appeal the tribunal decision. With the support of our Finance and General Purposes Committee we have agreed to pay the costs associated with the appeal instigated by the Employer, even though this is an unquantifiable cost at this point. Our Union will get behind this appeal process with our own supportive campaign within the trade union movement in Northern Ireland. It is in the interest of all Trade Unionists that this Tribunal decision is not overturned, this is where anyone genuinely interested in wanting to help in this dispute should be lending their support and energy and not in attacking our Union.
Tribunal Award – Compensation – Hardship Payments and Grants
Our Union has been helping financially from the beginning of this dispute and is something we do in all disputes anyway without making public statements. Because of all the Anti Union statements in this case and in order to put the truth on record we have established documented verification that our hardship payments and grants in this dispute have amounted to £130,728.
The only appeal to our Union following the Tribunal result and Compensation awards to Bowyer/Gupta/McNeill was that we would cover the legal costs. This was requested from the Union on the basis that if their legal costs were met by the Union then the Tribunal awards would not be affected for them as individuals by having to meet the legal costs out of their Compensation awards.
Therefore as can be seen from this summary on their request for legal costs and on our Union’s initiative in covering Tribunal Appeal costs we have fully met our promises and commitments on this matter. These areas will not now cost Bowyer/ Gupta/McNeill a penny.
The third area which Bowyer /Gupta/McNeill have raised is that they want the Union to award personal payments to each of the three.
The Union has been advised that there is no legal foundation on which to base this consideration. The Tribunal has awarded compensation of varying levels totalling £750,000 attaching reasons and headings to each level of compensation. The legal advice to us is that if our Union were to award repeat payments under any of these headings it would result in the Tribunal awards being lost in any subsequent appeal, thereby rendering the three no better off financially and indeed only rewarding the Employer.
Even with this legal advice the Union has explored a possible area of financial assistance with a not insubstantial amount in full and final settlement now being offered to Bowyer/Gupta/McNeill. We have done this so as to clearly demonstrate that on all aspects of this case our Union has now done everything possible in the interests of an honourable resolution of the whole issue.
Our future is dedicated to organising non union workplaces across Northern Ireland and fighting back for workers.
Our Union now considers this dispute totally resolved and the Union has no outstanding matters to answer. We will not be accepting any further interference with our responsibilities and duties as an independent Trade Union organisation.
Our Union offices will not be available as a place or a space for Anti Union activity. We will not be held responsible for the actions or consequences of anyone threatening or taking part in hunger strikes. Those taking part in these activities must now take
responsibility for their own actions. We will now set about undoing the damage done by those behind the Anti Union activity. We will try to get our genuine efforts at resolving this issue communicated as widely as possible.
Reply to Unite statement,
“Setting the true record straight”
The sacked Belfast airport shop stewards have campaigned tirelessly for over six years demanding justice from their former employer, airport security firm ICTS, and from their union, the T&GWU/Unite.
During this time they have become accustomed to slanders and disinformation being spread, mostly behind the scenes, in an attempt to discredit them.
Now we have a new statement on 28 May 2008 from Unite Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly that carries on in the same vein. It is titled, “Setting the record straight”, an absurdly incompatible headline for a statement that does just the opposite.
The statement, as with a press release from Unite issued at the same time, doesn’t stop at denigrating the shop stewards, it goes on to attack the Socialist Party and, by inference, all those trade union activists from many unions who attended the protests at Transport House.
Worse, this statement was then circulated by ICTU to all its Northern Ireland affiliates, thus giving the impression that it represented the official view of the trade union movement. The Socialist Party has written to ICTU to register a protest that this was done without allowing the shop stewards or the Socialist Party any opportunity to respond.
This has left us with no option but to reply to the points raised by Jimmy Kelly and in the Unite press statement and to take steps to make sure that this reply is widely circulated within the trade union movement.
To describe Jimmy Kelly’s depiction of recent events as bordering on fiction would be to understate the case. His opening paragraphs contrast his role, and that of Tony Woodley, with the role played by the shop stewards and the Socialist Party.
Paragraph two opens by declaring that “since first taking up dealing with this dispute the leadership of Tony Woodley as General Secretary and Jimmy Kelly as Irish Regional Secretary has been totally committed to bringing this issue to an honourable conclusion.” The three opening paragraphs of the statement are similarly littered with warm adjectives to describe their role; words like “honourable”, “genuine” and “sincere” keep cropping up.
By contrast “anti union”, “completely unhelpful”, “disgraceful” and “sectarian”, are just some of the adjectives used to describe the intervention of Socialist Party members who it also finds guilty of “lies and personalised attacks”.
Fortunately adjectives and entirely unsubstantiated accusations are no substitute either for facts or arguments, or else it would be game set and match to the Unite leadership. When the true facts are presented it soon becomes clear that the picture drawn by Jimmy Kelly is almost an exact inverse image of the reality.
The only way to demonstrate this is by examining what actually happened, down to some detail. And to give a complete picture it is necessary to deal, not just with what is said in the Unite statements, but to also include some of the key facts that Jimmy Kelly has chosen to leave out. He makes no mention of how the whole thing began; particularly of the fact that the T&GWU official responsible for the airport, Joe McCusker, colluded with ICTS to have 24 workers, including all the shop stewards, sacked. Or that he was helped in this by the then leadership of the union, including General Secretary, Bill Morris, who first of all backed the strike call and then repudiated the action, giving ICTS a green light to sack 24 of the strikers. All the shop stewards and anyone else with a record of union activity were dismissed.
Nor does Jimmy Kelly mention the fact that, in 2003, when Tony Woodley was preparing to replace Bill Morris, he (Woodley) negotiated a rotten deal with ICTS. The sacked workers were to be offered a pittance in compensation out of which they were to be expected to pay back all the strike pay they had received from the union. Six workers were to be reinstated but not one of the shop stewards was to be taken back.
ICTS had set out to get rid of the shop stewards. They were able to achieve this i2002 thanks to active collusion by the local T&GWU official and outright betrayal by Bill Morris.
One year later Tony Woodley negotiated a deal which would have achieved exactly the same thing. Had the workers accepted Tony Woodley’s advice that “this was the best deal they would get” there would have been no Tribunal case and no ruling that the shop stewards had been victimised because of their trade union opinions and socialist beliefs. ICTS would have been off the hook. Fortunately they followed the advice of the shop stewards and unanimously rejected the Woodley deal.
This fact alone explains why we cannot sign up to Jimmy Kelly’s view that the current T&GWU/Unite leadership has been trying to achieve an “honourable resolution” from day one of their involvement. But it is not the only reason. Worse was to follow.
From the moment the workers rejected the Woodley “settlement” the union effectively turned its back on them. Woodley told them they had no chance of winning a discrimination case. Even when they won an initial legal victory, securing a ruling that their strike was legal and confirming this ruling in the Court of Appeal, the union still would not come behind them. They were left to fight the entire battle on their own, relying on their own resources.
As is now well known, the long and tortuous legal process came to a conclusion in the summer of 2007 with the claims of unfair dismissal for the workers, and the additional claim of political discrimination for the shop stewards, upheld. This victory, which Jimmy Kelly accepts “it is in the interests of all trade unionists to defend”, was achieved with no assistance from the union. It left the shop stewards and the sacked workers with crippling legal bills they could not pay.
“Olive branch” offering
Did the T&GWU/Unite leadership really recognise the importance of this legal ruling? On 11 June 2007, just after the Tribunal hearing had ended, but before a judgement had been given, Gordon McNeill wrote to Tony Woodley, Jimmy Kelly and other senior officials offering them an “olive branch” in the form of a meeting to resolve all their differences so that they could jointly use the potential legal victory to help build the union. This offer, which could have avoided all the conflict of the last twelve months, was spurned. Gordon received neither an acknowledgement nor a reply.
(The full text of this letter is on the shop stewards’ blog – belfastairportworkers.wordpress.com)
The entire responsibility for what has happened since then rests with Jimmy Kelly and Tony Woodley, the senior officials who dealt with the matter. Unfortunately for them, the evidence to back up Jimmy Kelly’s claim that they concentrated their efforts “on having a genuine and sincere attempt at resolving this dispute” is just not there.
The facts of what happened over the last year speak for themselves on this. Gordon McNeill’s 11 June letter went unanswered. It took protests in August, and again in September, to get Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly to meet the shop stewards.
At the September meeting, the union agreed to pay the outstanding legal fees, meethe full costs of an appeal and to make an offer of compensation within seven days. Tony Woodley insisted that the discussions on compensation be carried out through solicitors; a position they have held to ever since, thereby – as we shall see – forcing the shop stewards through a new trapdoor of accumulating debt. Also it was the union side who proposed that the legal team who handled the Tribunal case be retained to defend the appeal. It was on the basis of these promises that the shop stewards agreeto suspend further protests.
The subsequent protests, including the recent hunger strikes, have not been over any difference of principle – all that the shop stewards have been asking is that Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly implement the promises they made in September ’07. There were ongoing and repeated protests only because the union continually reneged on these commitments. They did not renege in the sense that they took the promises off the table. Rather they kept making the promises, and kept doing nothing to implement them.
The Unite leadership reneged in the manner of an evasive debtor, with broken promises and missed deadlines. Only when the shop stewards, in complete frustration, resumed their public protests and also resorted to the desperate measure of hunger strikes, was there any movement. Whenever the shop stewards stopped protesting and did nothing except wait, Jimmy Kelly and Tony Woodley likewise did nothing.
Two months after the September agreement the Unite leadership had not implemented a single one of the commitments they had made. The workers, in accordance with what had been agreed in September, had employed their legal team to handle the appeal. With no agreement on their costs and the outstanding legal bill still unpaid, the barristers were threatening to drop the case.
At this point the shop stewards began a new protest at Transport House. It was in response to this that the Unite leaders made the £106,000 part payment of the outstanding legal bill that is cited by Jimmy Kelly as an example of the union’s “good faith”. The barristers returned to the case in the expectation that this meant the union
would agree to pay them.
“Normal legal process”
Jimmy Kelly’s statement claims the union entered into the “normal legal costs process with their solicitors” to sort out the rest of the bill. There is no explanation of what he means by this. In fact both sides agreed at this time that the outstanding portion of the bill would be submitted to the Taxation Court. Unite would then pay the amount the Court deemed fair.
This never happened because the union, in by now characteristic fashion, pulled out of this agreement and would not refer the matter to the Taxation Court. No other “normal legal process” was put in place and there was a stalemate on the issue that was only broken during the most recent hunger strike.
At the start of this year a meeting took place between solicitors representing both parties to discuss compensation and other outstanding issues. Following this meeting, Fintan Canavan, who represented the shop stewards, wrote them a letter outlining what happened. According to this letter the meeting ended with an agreement, confirmed by a telephone call to Tony Woodley, that a special Finance and General Purposes Committee meeting would be called within days to agree an offer. The meeting was never called. (The full text of Fintan Canavan’s letter can be read on the shop stewards’ blog).
At the start of April not a single issue had been resolved. The Appeal case, due to be heard in April, was put back, partly because the union had not agreed the barristers’ fees. Their patience exhausted, the workers began a hunger and thirst strike at Transport House. The union response was, as during the most recent protest, to refuse to meet or discuss with them so long as they continued to protest. This was a Catch 22 situation since, whenever they were not engaged in some form of protest, there were no meetings, no promises and no progress.
The April hunger strike ended when they received, through their solicitors, a commitment to resolve the issue of the legal bills and to make an offer on compensation by the end of the month. That deadline passed with no movement, to be replaced by new deadline of 6 May which was, in turn, ignored.
These delays, plus a new letter from the union solicitors which moved all the goalposts by proposing strings on any future compensation offer and which refused to set any timeframe for progress, were the final straw for the shop stewards.
They began a new hunger strike, determined that it would be the last and that it would not be ended for mere promises. After a week and a half the union finally gave way on the legal bills.
Jimmy Kelly states on this: “It has taken (through no fault of the union) up to May 22nd to finally reach an agreement on legal costs”.
In fact the delay has been entirely the fault of the union. Following the November 2007 agreement they failed to go the Taxation Court. The solicitors who had handled the appeal then lowered their bill. There was now only a small monetary difference between what they were asking and what the union was offering. The stalemate on this amount dragged out for months with no mechanism in place to resolve it, and was only broken by the May protest.
Empty words and empty promises
As for the delay on agreeing the barristers’ costs for the appeal; the difference between what was asked for and what the union was offering has turned out to be a quite paltry sum. In his statement, Jimmy Kelly’s acknowledges the importance of the appeal. If these were anything more than empty words the union would surely have been at pains to ensure that a good legal team was in place long enough in advance to properly prepare the case. After all, the better prepared the legal team, the more chance of winning. And if they won, their legal bill would be zero, as costs would be awarded against ICTS.
In a similar vein, his claim that Unite “will get behind this appeal process with our own supportive campaign in the trade union movement” appears to be nothing more than hollow rhetoric. The appeal was re-set for 24 June. At the time of writing there are less than two weeks to go to this date and there has been not so much as a hint of such a campaign. The idea has not even been raised with the shop stewards who, you would have thought, would have been involved or at least made aware of any such activity.
The attempt by Jimmy Kelly and Tony Woodley to pose as the careful guardians of members’ money from “shyster” solicitors just doesn’t hold up in light of all these facts. What has happened since last September has not been the careful and necessary financial husbandry they would like us to believe; at the very best what they have been doing is spending pounds in a failed attempt to save pennies.
The interminable missed deadlines and delays that followed the September agreement, combined with the union leadership’s insistence that all talks take place between solicitors, have set a new financial clock ticking.
In particular, every obstruction, every fruitless exchange between solicitors, has meant that the financial trap door they had placed under the feet of the shop stewards in September has kept on swinging open. The new legal bill that has been forced on the shop stewards by this prevarication is now greater than the total combined amount of the legal fees and the appeal costs that they were supposedly trying to save!
How much extra all these delays have cost Unite in legal time and expenses is another question – one for Unite members to ask. It took eight months and three protests, including the two recent hunger strikes, to get the Unite leadership to fulfill their commitments to pay the legal fees. But the third commitment – on compensation – remains outstanding.
Most of the venom of the Unite leaders has been reserved for this issue. Jimmy Kelly raises a number of reasons why the union either should not or cannot pay compensation. He argues that Unite has no legal obligation to pay anything and then says that any money given could, in any case, be regarded as a double award and be recoverable by the court. These arguments are all red herrings, as he himself unconsciously acknowledges by going on to state that the union is, nevertheless, prepared to “explore an area of financial assistance”.
Since last September, the issue has not been whether the union could or should offer redress for the hardship it has caused. Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly both agreed at that time to make an offer, well aware that there are umpteen ways to do this without legal hitches. The issue since that time has been their failure to live up to this promise.
Rather than do so the Unite leaders have resorted to a slanderous campaign to try to discredit the shop stewards. Unite’s May press release disgracefully dismisses Gordon McNeill’s hunger strike as “an undignified money grab”.
Jimmy Kelly’s statement reinforces this sordid image. It states that the union has paid out £130,728 in “hardship payments and grants”, mentions the £40,000 held by the solicitors that will now be released “to Bowyer/Gupta/McNeill” and then talks of the £750,000 awarded by the Tribunal.
All in all it would seem from this that the shop stewards have done very nicely indeed! However Jimmy Kelly, in using these figures to create an impression of greed, is being somewhat economical with the facts.
He does not tell us that almost all of what he refers to as “hardship payments and grants” is actually the strike pay which Bill Morris agreed to pay after he was forced, somewhat shamefacedly, to recognise the struggle of the sacked workers for reinstatement as an official dispute. Tony Woodley ended these payments in 2005. For some reason he took this step just at the time the workers won their Appeal Court judgement that the strike was lawful. Jimmy Kelly also leaves out the rather important detail that this money was paid equally to 22 sacked T&GWU members, not to three shop stewards. Nor does he mention the fact that the Tribunal, in deciding the amount of the award, deducted all the money the workers had received from the union, before coming up with a final figure. So – through no fault of the union it is true – the sacked workers ended up not a penny better off from the strike pay.
Similarly with the £40,000 “being withheld by their own solicitors”. This is not extra money; it is merely a refund of the money the workers scraped together over the years to keep the solicitors on the case. Moreover, with the bill settled, it will now be released to all the 22 workers who contributed, not just to the shop stewards.
And the £750,000 Tribunal award? The actual figure is just over £680,000 and, as with the above amounts, this was awarded to the 21 sacked workers who saw the case through, and not only to the shop stewards, as is implied in Jimmy Kelly’s statement.
This deliberately concocted image of a “money grab” is reinforced by the claim made in the recent Unite press statement that the shop stewards are each demanding a million pounds compensation from the union.
Long before Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly issued this press statement the shop stewards had made it clear directly to the union as well as in their public statements that they were not seeking a million pounds. During the April hunger strike, when Unite statements also made this allegation, the shop stewards responded by publicly making clear this was not their demand.
“Make an offer”
They explained that the million pounds figure had only come up because their solicitor, using money paid by the union to two British Airways shop stewards sacked over the Gate Gourmet dispute as a rough and ready reckoner, had put it forward on the shop stewards’ behalf.
When it was rejected, the solicitor’s response was simply, “make me an offer”. The protests in April and May were not over the million pound demand, which, by then had been taken off the table; they were over the ongoing refusal of the union to make any offer, despite repeated promises that they would do so.
On 23 May, more than a week into the latest hunger strike, the shop stewards, through the legal teams, informed the union of the figure they would consider a reasonable settlement. The amount they suggested was neither a million pounds, nor anything approaching it.
The union press release, with its slanderous accusation of a million pound “money grab” was issued three days after this information had been passed to the union.
If, when they released this statement, Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly were not aware of the actual figure put forward by the shop stewards for negotiation, then the lines of communication within the union must have been down and should surely have been reopened before they rushed to print.
If they were aware of the figure, then their statement is a conscious lie issued with only one purpose – to discredit the shop stewards and to throw up a smoke screen of disinformation to disguise their own role.
Jimmy Kelly states that the union has now offered “a not insubstantial amount in full and final settlement of this case.” What he does not say is that this “offer” has come tightly packaged with strings. It includes a gagging clause prohibiting the shop stewards from ever publicising this dispute.
Put in plain language this is not compensation – it is a bribe. Jimmy Kelly and Tony Woodley are offering money in return for complete and permanent silence about the role played by union officials over six years. They are offering this to workers who have run up debts to fight this long battle, including the new legal bill the union has, in reality, run up for them, and are desperately in need of money. It is truly a sad day for trade unionism when senior union officials offer workers who, through no fault of their own, are in a vulnerable financial position what, in effect, amounts to hush money to prevent them from ever telling the true story of what happened to them.
It is also a sad day for trade unionism when union officials use the police and the courts to deny members the right to protest. Jimmy Kelly’s statement talks vaguely about the union offices not being “available as a place or a space for anti union activity” but avoids spelling out what, in practice, he means by this.
Gordon McNeill soon discovered the full meaning of this not so veiled threat. The May hunger strike ended shortly after he was served with a court injunction barring himself, his fellow shop stewards and their supporters, from protesting “in or at” Transport House. The papers seeking this injunction, and, with it, the threat of fines or even imprisonment, had been signed by Jimmy Kelly.
Using the courts and cops
The use of the courts and police to ban workers from protesting casts a different light on Jimmy Kelly’s complaint, directed both at the shop stewards and the Socialist Party, of “anti union activity” that is “cheered on by local employers”. Any discredit that may have attached to the union during this long dispute, and any encouragement employers may have taken from it, is down to the actions of the union leadership, not to the shop stewards or any of their supporters.
After all it has been the union leaders who have aped the tactics of the worst anti union employers – employers like ICTS – in the way they have responded to the demands and protests of the shop stewards.
Whenever the shop stewards have protested at Transport House, the union leaders have done as employers now routinely do during strikes and insisted that there would be no talks and no negotiations unless the protests were suspended. They forget that this whole dispute began in 2002 after ICTS similarly insisted that there would be no talks on a pay rise unless the strike action was suspended.
Employers do not always resort to victimisation and sackings to rid themselves of “troublesome” shop stewards and activists. More often that not they have a dual approach: the velvet glove as well as the iron fist. Inducements that can be offered to bring shop stewards “on board” don’t necessarily have to be in the form of financial backhanders – opening doors to promotion to supervisory, even management roles, can have the same effect. Employers are adept at finding ways to attempt to buy complicity and silence; that is no more than we expect. But we expect better of trade union leaders.
On the other hand, an “iron fist” approach in the form of injunctions and threats of court action is also very much the stock in trade of employers, especially now as workers find themselves bound up in the straightjacket of anti union legislation. There was a local example in 1997 when strikers at Montupet were served with injunctions and threatened with huge fines and imprisonment if they continued to picket and protest at the factory gates. Now we have union leaders making similar use of the courts to deny the airport shop stewards and their supporters their right to protest.
Whatever encouragement, if any, employers will take from this dispute will be from the fact that union leaders have borrowed tactics and methods from the strike breaking manual of the bosses and used them to try to break protests by their members.
If there is now a dark stain on the reputation of the T&GWU/Unite. It has not been the actions of the shop stewards that have put it there. From day one of this struggle they have made it clear that they have no dispute with the membership of Unite. Their battle has been with the top leadership, firstly with Bill Morris and now with Tony Woodley.
Their protests, over more than six years, have never been anti union, but have been in defence of real trade unionism. There was nothing anti union about exposing and then opposing the cosy relationship between their union official, Belfast International Airport and ICTS.
Nor was it anti trade union to demand answers to the question why their union leadership colluded with their employer to have them sacked. Or to demand that the present union leaders implement commitments they had made.
And, when the leadership stabbed them in the back on all of this, it was not anti trade union to protest in order both to put them under pressure and to make the membership fully aware of all that has been going on.
Perhaps most contemptible of all in a statement that substitutes half truth and innuendo for argument are the disgraceful remarks Jimmy Kelly makes about the Socialist Party. Socialist Party members are accused of “lies and personalised attacks” and of “at times sectarian involvement”.
To make such serious allegations, and to do so without so much as a single word, never mind a fact or an argument to back them up, amounts to nothing more than slander. We challenge Jimmy Kelly either to substantiate these allegations with evidence and facts or else publicly withdraw them.
For the record, the Socialist Party has not and does not engage in personalised attacks. We make no apology for exposing, and continuing to expose the role of those trade union officials who have been involved in the six year long mistreatment of the airport workers.
When we have criticised officials it has been for their actions and nothing else. Our criticism of Joe McCusker and Bill Morris, for example, was over what they did six years ago to set this whole dispute off. That is not a personalised attack. Nor are the criticisms we have made of the way Jimmy Kelly and Tony Woodley have dealt with this drawn out and still unconcluded endgame.
If Jimmy Kelly thinks we have told lies, he should go further and tell us what they are. All we have done in helping the shop stewards, two of whom are members of our party, to publicise their case is to set out the facts as we know them.
Worst of all is the accusation of “at times sectarian involvement”. The Socialist Party has a proud and consistent record of opposing sectarianism in all its guises in Northern Ireland. Throughout the Troubles, while most of the left capitulated to one degree or another to the sectarian pressures, the Socialist Party/formerly Militant stood for and fought for the unity of the working class as the only way forward.
Jimmy Kelly is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, one of the groups on the left which did bend politically under the pressure of the sectarian forces. The SWP, through most of the Troubles, dismissed the idea of class unity, arguing that Protestant workers were “privileged”. “reactionary”, even “racist”. Here is a sample of what they said:
“The fact that, from the Protestant worker’s point of view, the privilege is pretty small, matters not at all. When tuppence half-penny is looking down on tuppence, the half-penny difference can assume an importance out of all proportion to its actual size. The same is true for the ‘poor whites’ of the southern states of the US or the skin head racists of the National Front in Britain.” (Socialist Worker, No. 25, April 1986.)
“In this sense Protestant workers can be compared to the poor whites of the Southern states of the USA. Their cheap labour goes hand in hand with their racism.” (Socialist Worker, No. 21, December 1985).
We can’t say that Jimmy Kelly ever shared these views. But he is a longstanding member of an organisation that, for years, if not decades, simply wrote off the Protestant working class. If he never thought it necessary to challenge the leadership of his party over statements such as the above, we can only scratch our heads and wonder what worse things Socialist Party members can have done and said to prompt him to speak out now about our “at times sectarian” intervention.
We think Jimmy Kelly owes us all an explanation on this. In the meantime we are at a loss to understand how any aspect of a campaign to support and defend three shop stewards, one a Catholic, one a Protestant and the other a Hindu, could be construed as sectarian.
“Honourable”, “sincere” etc may not be adjectives to describe the role of the Unite leadership to date in all of this. But there is an honourable way out that would resolve the issue and strengthen the union. First and foremost, the injunction barring protests should be unconditionally lifted. The gagging clause should be removed and the compensation offer made without any strings. There should be an acknowledgement from the Union leadership of its mishandling of this dispute and an honest attempt to learn the lessons.
The shop stewards, for their part, would assist in this. But if the Unite leadership do not give way, other means will have to be found to make sure that Unite and other union members are made aware of the full facts of what has happened and to ensure that the appropriate conclusions are drawn.
There are many rich lessons of this dispute that would become clear from a full, detailed and truthful telling of all that has happened. First and foremost it has shown the need for the unions to break from the all too cosy relationships that have been developed in the Thatcher and post Thatcher years with both employers and governments.
For example, what happened at the beginning of the dispute poses questions that still needs answers about the relationship between Bill Morris and the Labour government in that post 9/11 period when airport security was a central issue and averting strikes by security staff was high up the political agenda.
The relationship between Unite and Labour endures – to the financial benefit of New Labour and the detriment of Unite members. Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly’s concern about how the members’ money is spent could start with the £3.5 million they gave last year to the Labour Party; surely the largest hangman’s tip in history. Or they could look at the salaries and expenses and other perks of top officials.
The courageous actions of three shop stewards, which has drawn such ferocious ire from the upper echelons of their union, can help put the need for fighting democratic unions, with officials elected and on the wage of the members they represent, back centre stage of every union activist’s agenda. It can strengthen the trade union movement, but only if the full facts are known, not suppressed by injunctions, bribes and gagging orders.
Belfast Airport Shop Stewards –
The Truth and Nothing but the Truth
A statement from Unite, 20 Jun 2008
IT WAS not the union’s intention to go public and to get into a war of words concerning the ICTS dispute. In fact, we had hoped to draw a line under the situation regarding the dispute with the former ICTS shop stewards by conducting discussions on a private and confidential basis. However, in the light of Gordon McNeill’s press release dated 18 June 2008, we have no alternative other than to now clarify the facts surrounding ICTS. They are set out below.
A large number of unfounded allegations and downright lies have been made against Unite, its predecessor union the T&G, and against leading officials including Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly personally in statements issued by the three Belfast Airport shop stewards involved in the dispute with security firm ICTS – Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer and their supporters in the Socialist Party. The union has therefore prepared the following straightforward chronology of this dispute (and copies of the appropriate documents as final PDF file at the end): these are the real facts as opposed to the fiction and the bile that has been spouted.
2002 The three shop stewards were originally dismissed, along with eighteen others, by their employer ICTS as a result of industrial action taken at Belfast Airport in 2002.
The union – then the T&G – did not handle this dispute correctly and a full-time officer, who has subsequently left the employment of the union, conducted himself in a way which raised legitimate concerns.
There was therefore justification for the original feelings of anger at the union by the sacked shop stewards.
2003 Tony Woodley, following his election in 2003, reactivated the Belfast Airport dispute. A dispute team was formed led by National Officer, Steve Turner, with resources designed to win a dispute. As a result of picketing the airport and leafleting passengers, ICTS were forced back to the negotiating table. Consequently, 18 of the 21 sacked employees at the time, were offered either their jobs back (with full back-pay) or, if they preferred, cash compensation. Unfortunately, the company were not persuaded to re-employ the three shop stewards.
Having spoken with the three shop stewards first, the union called a mass meeting for all 21 to seek the members’ views on the Company’s proposals. Disappointingly, the three shop stewards failed to attend that meeting. The members did vote however to accept the deal with several members wishing to go back to work.
Unfortunately, a second meeting was convened in a pub nearby with the three shop stewards and unknown outsiders in attendance where members were persuaded that there were mega-bucks in compensation available for everyone, which of course has proved to be nonsense, but the members subsequently reversed their earlier decision to accept the deal.
Had our members accepted the deal, further progress could have been made with the employer in the union’s judgment. Having clearly discriminated against the stewards, the Union would have funded and won at an Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals. However, the three shop stewards preferred to go to their own solicitor, rather than the union’s lawyer, to pursue their case and advised the union
Disappointingly, following the meeting in the Belfast pub, the union was also notified in writing that none of our members wished for the Union to act any longer on their behalf legally.
2004 The three shop stewards leave the T&G in autumn 2004 – only Madan Gupta later rejoins (in 2007). Incidentally, the three shop stewards have received nearly £40,000 in
hardship payments from the union, even though they had left the union.
2007 The shop stewards win their case against ICTS at the Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals.
Following their success at the Tribunal, the three approached the union for help with their costs. Having met the members in London, Unite agreed in September 2007 that it would meet in full the costs of the Tribunal, even though the case had not been taken by one of the union’s own solicitors, once agreement was reached on the scale
of those costs.
The union’s solicitors, EAD, were charged with examining the costs claimed of more than £200,000. Time passed by as the stewards’ solicitors were unable to provide a detailed breakdown of the costs but very quickly we saw that the charges were too high and that in certain respects there was double charging of some costs.
Consequently, £106,000 was paid on account with the remaining amount to be sorted by negotiation with the stewards` costs consultant. At this first meeting in September, the Joint General Secretary also agreed sizeable backdating of hardship payments for the three shop stewards running into thousands of pounds, in spite of the fact that
they were no longer union members.
Furthermore, at a second meeting in September 2007, the three shop stewards, now knowing that a costly appeal could be pending, asked the union to fund such an appeal – Unite immediately committed to meeting the costs associated with defending the employer’s appeal, including any award of costs made against the stewards
2008 Throughout these early meetings, the shop stewards, particularly Gordon McNeill, made the point that their aims and objectives were “honourable” – this was not about attacking the union but about the union meeting their legal costs allowing us all then to pronounce a fantastic victory against ICTS for organised labour.
The union had no problem considering and supporting the reasonable costs in view of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the dispute.
In spite of earlier statements to the contrary, we were not surprised when the three former shop stewards, using yet another firm of solicitors, demanded in writing cash compensation from the union.
In a letter of 5th February 2008 from their solicitors, the compensation level demanded was one million pounds each.
The union took the view from the outset that there was no legal or moral case to pay compensation under these circumstances. Moreover, the stewards and the other claimants had together been awarded around £750,000 compensation by the Tribunal, a record sum if upheld on appeal. Any payment made by the union could have been offset against this compensation by the courts in any case.
To enforce this unprincipled and ludicrous demand for compensation, Gordon McNeill, occasionally supported by one or other of the other two stewards, repeatedly went on hunger strike. He maintained this tactic supported by the Socialist Party even knowing that his demands in relation to legal costs were met.
In May 2008, the union’s solicitors finally reached agreement with solicitors acting for the three shop stewards in relation to legal and appeal costs, after protracted negotiations. The union has now paid a very considerable amount (already £150000), covering the costs of the Tribunal in full (something unprecedented in view of the fact that the stewards were not members of the union nor did they use union solicitors). The dismissed shop stewards will not, as the union had long promised, have to pay a single penny towards the legal costs.
Finally, in order to bring this dispute to an end, Unite made an offer to the three former shop stewards in June 2008. Two – Chris Bowyer and Madan Gupta – have indicated a willingness to resolve the dispute.
Only Gordon McNeill has refused to come to an agreement with the union, despite all our genuine efforts to resolve this issue. He accuses the union in a press release dated 18th June 2008 of “trying to gag him” or “bribe him into submission to buy his silence” – nothing could be further from the truth but the union will not be blackmailed into paying unwarranted compensation. In fact we will not pay any compensation only to find that individuals are not prepared to sign confidentiality clauses in order to take members’ money and run the union down thereafter.
The union has responded positively to ALL of the demands on the three issues that were placed before us –
ALL LEGAL COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH THIS HISTORIC DISPUTE HAVE BEEN PAID BY THE UNION.
ANY FUTURE LEGAL COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH AN APPEAL BY THE EMPLOYER WILL BE PAID IN FULL BY THE UNION.
PERSONAL COMPENSATION: WHILST THERE IS NO LEGAL OR MORAL JUSTIFICATION FOR THIS, THE UNION HAS PUT FORWARD A GENEROUS OFFER.
In viewing the above facts, it would be hard to disagree that the union, particularly since the election of Tony Woodley, has done all in its power to both support members in struggle and indeed to bring this long running dispute to an honourable conclusion.
The only people who will disagree with concluding this six year old dispute on these terms now by signing a standard confidentiality agreement, will be those who do not want this dispute to end, those who want to try and force more money out of our Union and those who have an agenda to continue with further anti union activity and unreasonable demands.
That’s the truth and nothing but the truth.
The truth and nothing like the truth
A reply to Unite statement of 20 June
ON 24 June this year the sacked Belfast airport shop stewards won a victory for all trade unionists. After a brief hearing the Court of Appeal upheld a previous Fair Employment Tribunal decision and found that their employer, airport security company, ICTS, had sacked them because of their trade union and socialist political views.
Their victory opens the way for any trade unionist who is sacked because of union activities to win similar claims of political discrimination.
On the day of the Appeal the court was packed with barristers and senior members of the legal profession who came along because they recognised this as a groundbreaking case with potentially far reaching legal consequences.
But not a single representative of Unite, or of any other union, turned up, either to hear the outcome of the appeal or to show solidarity with the shop stewards. Earlier promises from Unite Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, that he would mount a campaign in the trade union movement to back the shop stewards’ case, turned out to be empty rhetoric.
Not only was there no such campaign; no one from the union even contacted the shop stewards, either before, during or after the appeal, to wish them well or to offer them congratulations on their victory.
Don’t take from this that the Unite leadership was not paying attention to this dispute at the time of the appeal. In fact the two senior officials dealing with the issue, Joint General Secretary, Tony Woodley and Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, were heavily involved with the shop stewards at this time.
The gagging clause
It was just that their energies were not being spent helping these workers win this important case; rather they were busily involved in attacking the shop stewards and in trying to silence them.
A few weeks before the Court of Appeal hearing the shop stewards were asked to come to Transport House for a meeting with Jimmy Kelly and, via video link, with Tony Woodley. The Appeal case was not even on the agenda. Instead the meeting was called to try to persuade the shop stewards to sign up to a deal offering them £40,000 (an increase from a previous offer of £35,000) in return for a commitment that they would never again comment on the dispute.
The relevant clause of the proposed agreement reads as follows:
“For any of your clients accepting the offer they agree individually that only an agreed joint statement will be issued (to be agreed), and no other statement will be made at any time in the future in relation to this dispute with the union (including refernce to the TGWU or any current or former officer of the TGWU or Unite).” (see appendix 1)
The shop stewards were given a week to consider this “offer”. Two of the three, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, decided that the debts they had built up during the dispute left them with no choice but to accept. The only sticking point was the insistence by the union that they also sign up to a statement exonerating Jimmy Kelly and Tony Woodley over their role in the dispute. Accepting the gagging clause was one thing, but then having to put their names to, what for them would be a blatant lie, was a bridge too far. Only when this “fairytale” clause was removed did they eventually settle.
But Gordon McNeill, the third shop steward, has not and will not sign up to this deal. His response to the Woodley/Kelly offer was a public statement affirming that his right to tell Unite members, and the members of other unions, about what had happened during this long drawn out dispute is not for sale; not at any price.
In turn, the Unite leadership responded with yet another attack on the shop stewards – and on the Socialist Party – which was published on the union website on 20 June, just four days before the critical Court of Appeal hearing. This statement purports to give a “straightforward chronology of this dispute” as “opposed to the fiction and the bile that has been spouted.”
It then proceeds to conjure up a fiction of its own, spiced up with not a little bile, but, of course, presented as fact. To describe this statement as a tissue of lies is not mere hyperbole. The statement is not a “straightforward chronology”; it is a mixture of half-truths and downright lies, a straightforward fabrication from start to finish.
If you are going manufacture a version of events in order to whitewash what you have done, you need a suitable title to help augment the deception. So the heading of the Unite 20 June statement boasts that what follows is: “Belfast Airport Shop Stewards – The Truth and Nothing but the Truth”.
While this statement was being drafted the union leaders were continuing their efforts to bribe the three shop stewards into silence. If they succeeded in this, they would be free to publish whatever made up version of events they liked and proclaim it to be “The Truth and Nothing but the Truth”, comfortable in the knowledge that those who could contradict this claim had been gagged.
The statement actually admits the bribery attempt – it could do little else since Gordon McNeill had already made the proposed agreement public – except that it prefers to call it a “standard confidentiality agreement”, rather than a gagging clause.
Call it what you like, it remains what it is. To offer workers £40,000 in return for a legally binding commitment never again to comment on how union officials mishandled their dispute, might be a “standard confidentiality agreement” to Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly; to others who prefer everyday language it is a bribe, plain and simple.
On closer examination the more comforting phrase chosen by the Unite leadership is not so reassuring as it first sounds. A “confidentiality agreement” can only be “standard” if there are others like it. If it is “standard” practice to offer workers money to keep them quiet about the role of union officials, how many more such agreements have there been? How many other groups of workers have they bribed into silence?
2002 – The betrayal
There is a second admission in the Unite statement. It acknowledges that, in 2002 when this conflict began, the then leadership of the T&GWU “did not handle this dispute correctly” and that a full time officer “conducted himself in a way that raised legitimate concerns”.
This is a mastery of understatement given that what this refers to is the fact that the then leadership of the union, including the General Secretary, Bill Morris, repudiated an official strike and that a former T&GWU official, Joe McCusker, actively colluded with the employer in victimising the shop stewards and sacking 19 other workers. Nonetheless this admission is significant in that it is the first public acknowledgement in six years that the union leaders were out of line in what they did in 2002.
Unite members should surely have a right to know the full details of the betrayal that took place at that time, if only to help them ensure that what happened is never repeated. Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly clearly do not think so. Were all the shop stewards to sign up to the gagging clause preventing them from commenting on the actions of any “current or former official of the TGWU or Unite”, the truth about the 2002 sell out would remain buried for all time.
The recent statement makes its muffled admission about what happened in 2002 only because the indefensible can no longer be defended, especially in light of the evidence of management/union collusion that emerged during Tribunal cross examination of ICTS senior managers and of Joe McCusker.
It contrasts what happened then, under the Morris leadership, with what has happened since, all in an attempt to justify its conclusion that “in viewing the above facts, it would be hard to disagree that the union, particularly since the election of Tony Woodley, has done all in its power to both support members in struggle and indeed to bring this long running dispute to an honourable conclusion.”
So, according to the Unite account, Tony Woodley inherited this mess from Bill Morris and did his level best to get it all sorted out. Sadly, the sacked shop stewards have consistently refused to see reason, have been misled by “outsiders”, have misled their members and have unnecessarily dragged the dispute out over years, attacking the union all the way. This is the jist of what the Unite leaders would have us believe.
And, if all we had to go on were the “facts”, as presented in this statement, it would indeed be hard to disagree that the current leadership has done its level best for the airport workers. However, the version of events contained in the statement is just something they have dreamed up to reinforce the image of reasonable leaders having to contend with unreasonable members and “outsiders”.
It is therefore fortunate, for the sake of the truth if nothing else, that Gordon McNeill has refused to be bribed into silence. It is also fortunate that Gordon has meticulously kept all the original documentation relating to this dispute; documentation that proves conclusively that the authors of this statement are lying.
The statement’s account of what happened in 2007 and 2008, when the shop stewards were repeatedly forced to protest to try to get the Unite leaders to stick to their commitment to pay the legal costs and offer compensation, contains nothing new. It merely regurgitates the same accusations that have been contained in previous Unite statements, all of which have already been factually rebutted many times by the shop stewards and by the Socialist Party.
Rather than repeat what has already been said we need only refer here to the numerous statements on the shop steward’s web blog as well as previous material produced by the Socialist Party, which explain in precise detail exactly what happened in the twelve months leading up to the Court of Appeal decision of June this year.
What really happened in 2003
The key section of the 20 June statement are the five paragraphs that purport to describe what happened in 2003. This year is critical because it was when Bill Morris stepped aside and Tony Woodley took charge of the dispute. If the present Unite leaders are to be exonerated they have to show that they did all they could to get a reasonable settlement at that time and that the only reason things have dragged on so long is down to the perverse intransigence of the shop stewards.
If the actual facts don’t bear this out; make up new facts that do. The five paragraphs dealing with 2003 are not just a “sexed up” version of what took place; they are an alternative and entirely invented account. Here is the story they managed to come up with:
“Tony Woodley, following his election in 2003, reactivated the Belfast Airport dispute. A dispute team was formed led by National Officer, Steve Turner, with resources designed to win a dispute. As a result of picketing the airport and leafleting passengers, ICTS were forced back to the negotiating table. Consequently, 18 of the 21 sacked employees at the time, were offered either their jobs back (with full back-pay) or, if they preferred, cash compensation. Unfortunately, the company were not persuaded to re-employ the three shop stewards.
“Having spoken with the three shop stewards first, the union called a mass meeting for all 21 to seek the members’ views on the Company’s proposals. Disappointingly, the three shop stewards failed to attend that meeting. The members did vote however to accept the deal with several members wishing to go back to work.
“Unfortunately, a second meeting was convened in a pub nearby with the three shop stewards and unknown outsiders in attendance where members were persuaded that there were mega-bucks in compensation available for everyone, which of course has proved to be nonsense, but the members subsequently reversed their earlier decision to accept the deal.
“Had our members accepted the deal, further progress could have been made with the employer in the union’s judgment. Having clearly discriminated against the stewards, the Union would have funded and won at an Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals. However, the three shop stewards preferred to go to their own solicitor, rather than the union’s lawyer, to pursue their case and advised the union accordingly.
“Disappointingly, following the meeting in the Belfast pub, the union was also notified in writing that none of our members wished for the Union to act any longer on their behalf legally.”
Not a single sentence of this is true. The first two sentences are exaggerations, the last sentence is a distortion, the rest are downright lies. Yes, it is true that Tony Woodley took charge of the dispute shortly after he was elected. He met the three shop stewards in London on 2 June and promised that union would step up the pressure on ICTS.
The background to this meeting is important given the claims that are now being made about the legal case and about the ICTS offer.
In March and April the shop stewards and some of the sacked workers organised a series of protests at Transport House in Beflast. When they occupied the foyer of the building on 3 April, a senior T&GWU official called the police to have them forcibly removed.
The reason for these protests was the workers’ mounting frustration at the way their dispute was being dealt with. There were two immediate issues of concern.
Firstly, they had been by informed by senior officials of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, that, some time after they were sacked, negotiations took place, without their knowledge, between a senior T&GWU official, Tim Lyle, Belfast International Airport management and ICTS. The outcome of these talks, they were told, was an offer, made late in 2002, some six months after the sackings, to reinstate 18 sacked workers. However it was made clear, both by the airport management and by ICTS, that the shop stewards would never work in the airport again.
In an echo of what happened to the Liverpool dockers at the outset of their historic struggle, the sacked workers were not informed of this offer at the time it was made. Had they been aware that reinstatement for 18 workers was on the table, the shop stewards would have recommended acceptance. When they met with Tony Woodley on 2 June the fact that they had been kept in the dark about a deal that would have given 18 of the sacked workers the opportunity to go back to work was one of the points they put to him.
Conflict of interest
Their second concern was over the union’s handling of their legal case. The union solicitors were preparing a case for unfair dismissal whereas the shop stewards were, by this stage, convinced that theirs was a discrimination case. In any case, before they could win either an unfair dismissal or a discrimination claim, they first had to win on a point of law and show that the strike was legal.
To do this they needed a affidavit from Joe McCusker confirming that he had called them out on official strike. Joe McCusker, at a meeting between the shop stewards and Bill Morris during the union’s 2002 Irish Regional Conference, agreed to provide this affidavit.
His promised statement never arrived. Finally, at a meeting with the shop stewards on 26 February 2003, the union solicitor reported that Joe McCusker had still not submitted it. Instead he had provided ICTS with a statement that the solicitor believed was damaging to their case. In the absence of the affidavit the shop stewards suggested that Bill Morris be asked to testify that Joe McCusker had admitted in his presence that he had called the strike – and later repudiated it – but were told that this was not possible as it would embarrass the union. The solicitor then said that, as things stood, they had virtually no case to go to court with.
It was obvious that, in legal terms, a conflict of interest was emerging. A large part of the workers’ complaint was against the union and the union solicitor was clearly not prepared to open up evidence that might seriously damage the reputation of union officials, including the General Secretary.
These were the reasons the shop stewards decided to dismiss the union solicitors and employ their own legal team to pursue their case. The union was given formal notice of this on 22 April when their solicitors received a request for the release of all the legal papers relating to the shop stewards.
The Woodley “campaign”
So, as Tony Woodley prepared to take over from Bill Morris as General Secretary, he was faced with a group of workers holding regular protests at Transport House demanding that the union set up an inquiry into the mishandling of their dispute from day one. They were also raising broader issues such as the need for all union officials to be elected and fully accountable to those they represent.
He was also faced with the prospect that these workers might end up taking the union to court, with senior officials called to give evidence and facing potentially embarrassing cross examination about their role. This was an inherited problem and not something he wanted to see continue during his watch.
So he took charge of the dispute and set about trying to get it over and done with. No one would fault him for this. The problem is the way he went about it.
According to the Unite statement, the twelve months of dithering under Bill Morris was brought to an abrupt end. Tony Woodley, arriving on the scene in white knight fashion, put the union into fight mode; a dispute team was set up with resources “to win a dispute”, the airport was picketed and ICTS was forced back to the table.
Dramatic and impressive as so presented, but unfortunately not true.
A campaign to bring ICTS to heel, as was promised by Tony Woodley when he met the shop stewards at the start of June, would have required further strike action. One year on from the sackings, the union was effectively broken among the airport security staff in Belfast. Having seen 23 of their colleagues betrayed and then abandoned by union officials, even those who retained their membership were not going to listen to any calls for action on this issue.
The only way any real pressure could have been applied would have been if solidarity action could have been organised among ICTS staff in other airports. To have any chance of carrying this off, the union would have had to mount a massive campaign to build support. Even then it is extremely doubtful if they could have carried a “yes” vote for strike action.
We shall never know because the special team that Tony Woodley put on the case, with “resources designed to win a dispute” never canvassed support for even a token solidarity protest never mind for industrial action. They did not discuss any form of action with the workers still employed in Belfast, let alone those in other airports.
Were ICTS forced to the table?
When Tony Woodley told the shop stewards that he was going to turn the screws on ICTS he was making an empty promise, one that he had neither the intention, nor the capacity, to deliver on. The fighting talk was just for the benefit of the shops stewards and the sacked workers to convince them that the union was finally getting down to business so that they would be more amenable to accepting whatever deal could be worked out behind the scenes with ICTS.
Unite’s statement claims that “as a result of picketing the airport and leafleting passengers ICTS were forced back to the negotiating table”. On 21 July a number of the sacked workers stood outside the main passenger terminal and leafleted passengers for four hours. One local union official was present for part of this activity. This was the sum total of the “campaign” that the specially resourced “dispute team” managed to come up with. And we are supposed to believe that this “campaign”, which did not delay or in any way disrupt a single flight, brought ICTS scampering to the table with an acceptable deal!
That is what the shop stewards and the sacked workers were told at the time. As soon as the 21 July leafleting was finished they were informed that negotiations were to take place in London within a couple of days. The shop stewards were invited to send one representative to this meeting – but on the precondition that they first signed an agreement that they would not take any legal action against the union. They were not prepared to give such a guarantee in advance of the negotiations and were excluded.
According to the union, the meeting with ICTS went ahead on 24 July without them. The result, it is claimed, was the deal which was put to and initially accepted by the sacked workers in August.
In fact the 24 July meeting, if it ever took place, was not the start of the negotiations with ICTS. They were not forced to the table by the four hour protest at the airport. They had been at the table weeks earlier. A letter from Tony Woodley to ICTS top manager, Ben Lewis, sent on 23 June, a month before the July airport protest, refers to a meeting Woodley had with Ben Lewis two weeks earlier on this issue and proposes a further meeting.
The Woodley deal
On the evening of 21 July, just hours after the protest at the airport had ended and three days before the negotiations which supposedly came up with a deal, Tony Woodley phoned Gordon McNeill and outlined the details of an offer he had negotiated with ICTS. This was the deal that was put to the shop stewards and then to the sacked workers in August. It had been negotiated before the airport protest and before the supposed 24 July negotiation in London.
The offer was not reinstatement for 18 as is claimed in the Unite statement. The Woodley deal offered nine jobs but, since only six of the workers other than the three shop stewards, wanted to go back at this stage, and since the shop stewards were excluded from the deal, the offer was, in reality, for six jobs.
For the shop stewards there was an offer of compensation, but only of a token sum. Gordon McNeill and Chris Bowyer would get £9000 each and Madan Gupta would get £4000. The strike pay they had received for more than twelve months would be deducted from this sum and repaid to the union.
The six who were offered jobs had the alternative option of around £1,000 in compensation. Paying back their strike pay would leave them with nothing. The rest of the workers were to walk away empty handed. Just to add insult to injury there was also a pay deal for the Belfast ICTS workforce thrown in for good measure. It was for a miserable 3.5% increase spread out over three years.
The Unite statement claims that, had the deal been accepted, the union would have pursued a legal case on the grounds that ICTS had “clearly discriminated” against the shop stewards. Another naked lie.
Tony Woodley, in his conversation with Gordon McNeill on 21 July, told him that there was no case for discrimination. What he said was in line with advice given by the union solicitors who were only prepared to handle a case for unfair dismissal; a case that, as is mentioned above, they believed had been compromised by lack of co-operation on the part of at least one union official.
In any case, acceptance of the Woodley deal would have closed the door to any further legal action. The Unite statement, in its crude attempt to cover up the truth, is an insult to the intelligence of the reader. The compensation offer from ICTS was made as settlement of their dispute with the shop stewards. Had the workers accepted it that would have been the end of the matter.
Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly are well aware what acceptance of compensation means in legal terms. After all they have just offered their own £40,000 compensation deal to the shop stewards. Clause (l) of this agreement spells it out: “The payment referred to under sub clause (k) will be accepted by each of your clients accepting the offer in full and final settlement of all and any claims which they may have against Unite…” (our emphasis)
Similarly the £9000 minus strike pay offered to Gordon McNeill and Chris Bowyer and the £4000 offered to Madan Gupta would have been in “full and final” settlement of their dispute with ICTS.
Had they known about it, the shop stewards would have advised the workers to accept the earlier Morris deal offering reinstatement for the 18 who were still sacked and in dispute as the best that could have been achieved at that stage. Because there was nothing on offer for the shop stewards, the rest of the workers could have accepted it leaving the shop stewards to continue with their legal case. In fact, the implementation of this agreement would, if anything, have strengthened their case of political discrimination.
The Woodley deal was worse by far; had it been accepted, there would have been no discrimination case and the legal precedent set by the shop stewards would never have been achieved. ICTS would have got what they had been after all along – the permanent victimisation of the shop stewards – and they would have got it on the cheap, with a three year pay deal thrown in for good measure.
Phantom meetings and phantom votes
Yet supposedly the workers did accept this deal – or so the Unite statement would have us believe. It states that a mass meeting of all 21 sacked workers was called, which “disappointingly” the shop stewards failed to attend, but at which the workers voted to accept the offer. Then, apparently, a second “meeting” was called in a pub nearby attended by the shop stewards and “unknown outsiders”. At this “meeting” the workers, lured by the scent of “megabucks”, reversed their earlier decision. The union was then notified that the workers no longer wanted it to represent them in their legal claim against ICTS.
This is another piece of pure fiction – and a particularly shallow and unconvincing one at that! The shop stewards who had led the occupations and protests at Transport House are hardly shrinking violets who would shirk from openly challenging any union official who tried to sell them a bad deal. Why would they refuse to attend a mass meeting and debate the issue? Why would they wait outside to ambush their members into attending another “meeting” which, we presume from the Unite statement, took place immediately after?
As for the union, how do they know what took place at this second “meeting” to which, again we presume, they were not invited? Were they notified of its decisions in writing? If so we challenge them to produce the correspondence. They will not do so because there was no such meeting and consequently no such correspondence exists.
If the meeting that had been convened by the union voted to accept the offer why were ICTS not notified of this decision and why were those who wanted to go back to work not reinstated? Are we to believe that the union, rather than act on the basis of a properly constituted meeting they had called, instead acted on the basis of an informal gathering that took place in a pub sometime after?
Fortunately we do not have to rely on conjecture to unearth what really happened. On 27 August the then Irish Regional Secretary, Brendan Hodgers, wrote to Bill Morris reporting on the most recent developments in this dispute. (see appendix 2) His report was copied to Tony Woodley, and to other officials.
Brendan Hodgers’ report explains how the union went about the consultation with the sacked workers on the offer. He states: “We convened a meeting with the ICTS Union representatives and separately met with the rest of the members in dispute of which there are 20.”
In other words the union convened two meetings; one for the shop stewards and one for the rest of the workers. On 4 August Steve Turner and Brendan Hodgers met with Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer. As is mentioned in the report, Gordon McNeill sent apologies. He could not attend because one of his children was taken to hospital that day.
The meeting for the rest of the members took place on 12 August. The shop stewards did not refuse to go. They were not invited and were not permitted to attend. Clearly the union leadership was attempting to go over their heads in order to convince the other sacked workers to accept the deal. That way Gordon McNeill who had made his opposition to the deal clear to Tony Woodley on 21 July, and the other two shop stewards, could be isolated.
What the recent Unite statement claims to have been the outcome of the meeting is what they wish had happened, not what actually did. Five years on, Unite tells us that the workers accepted the deal. The contemporary account by the then Regional Secretary tells a different story. Brendan Hodgers’ report explains that the sixteen workers who attended the meeting unceremoniously threw out the offer.
He reports: “The proposals were rejected as derisory and the Union committed to continue our efforts to extract a reasonable settlement through negotiations.” The tone of the meeting can be surmised from his comment that “members made no secret at their frustration at the protracted nature of the dispute.”
Strike pay cut
The rejection of the deal was, in fact, unanimous, as was the sense of anger and betrayal at what had been done and what was being proposed. Although Brendan Hodgers reports that Steve Turner “committed to continue our efforts to extract a reasonable settlement through negotiations” this meeting, in effect, marked the end of any active attempt by the union to get a resolution. As the report puts it “the communication link” with ICTS was to be kept open. Keeping open a line of communication with ICTS is a long way from an active campaign by a well resourced disputes team “to force them back to the negotiating table”.
One concrete step the union did decide on at this time was to stop paying out strike pay; in effect a declaration that, from their point of view, the dispute was at an end. As far as they were concerned, the special disputes team had done its business, all that remained was to continue with a legal case for unfair dismissal.
The workers were promptly notified that the strike pay would be stopped from the end of the month. (Strike pay was subsequently reinstated and paid for a further period to six of the workers, including the shop stewards, but only after they threatened legal action against the union over this.)
Feeling that the union had effectively washed its hands of them by trying to pressure them to accept a rotten deal and then cutting their strike pay, the sacked workers followed the lead of the shop stewards and decided to fund their own legal case against ICTS. But it was nearly a month after the August meeting before they took this decision – the letter notifying the union of this was sent on 9 September.
Once again the million pound “money grab”
The real story of what happened in 2003 has nothing to do with the made up version published by the Unite leadership. Nor does what they have to say about subsequent events right up to the present bear any relation to the reality.
This elaborate web of deceit is necessary because how else can they justify their conclusion that the union leadership have acted in an honourable and reasonable manner since Tony Woodley took charge and that the shop stewards – Gordon McNeill in particular – are on an “undignified money grab”. Since the shop stewards can have no legitimate cause to gripe about anything that has been done since 2003, the only explanation for the ongoing protests and other “anti union activity” is their determination to screw “megabucks” out of the union.
This conclusion is as far from the truth as the supposedly “straightforward chronology” on which it is based. The only justification Unite’s leaders can come up with for this slur is the by now, well worn, accusation that Gordon McNeill is insisting that Unite pay him one million pounds in compensation.
As we have explained in other public material, the million pounds figure only ever emerged because the solicitor representing the shop stewards came up with it using the figure paid out to the British Airway shop stewards sacked over the Gate Gourmet dispute as a benchmark. It was raised in one piece of correspondence and then withdrawn.
In April of this year, the shop stewards began a series of protests demanding that the union honour its commitments to pay outstanding legal fees, fund the costs of the appeal and make them a compensation offer as promised months earlier. Every time there was a protest, Unite’s leaders responded with the million pounds mantra. And every time they did the shop stewards made clear both in public statements and directly to the Union that they were not asking for compensation of this order or anything like it. All they were asking was that the union fulfill its promise and make them an offer. From April it took several months and two hunger strikes to get them to come up with a figure.
In even raising this issue again and implying that Gordon McNeill is seeking compensation of this order, the Unite leadership really is tilting at windmills. By the time this latest statement was published, Chris Bowyer and Madan Gupta had already agreed to accept the amount the union was offering – £40,000. The statement acknowledges as much when it says: “Two – Chris Bowyer and Madan Gupta – have indicated a willingness to resolve the dispute.” The only remaining sticking point at this stage was the “fairytale” exoneration clause.
Does the Unite leadership really expect us to believe that, after his two colleagues had accepted £40,000, Gordon McNeill was holding out for one million! In the “Life of Brian” maybe, but in real life, never.
Time to bring out the truth
If Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly do not give way and remove the gagging clause, Gordon McNeill has indicated that he will resume his campaign of public protests. In case the million pounds red herring is once again thrown in to try to discredit him and distract from what he is saying, he is making it clear in advance that he will accept compensation broadly in line with what has been given to Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer. The thing that stands in the way of a settlement is not the amount, it is the gagging clause.
Gordon McNeill has no wish to have to continue his public campaign for justice from his union. But so long as the union leadership responds to his reasonable demands with injunctions, attempts to blacken his name and bribes to try to silence him he has no option.
His intent is not to “take members money and run the union down thereafter.” He is simply asking that the compensation to which Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly, by paying it to his colleagues, have accepted he is entitled, be given to him as a right and without strings.
He also wants an open inquiry into the union’s handling of this dispute from day one so that all conflicting accounts can be examined and the truth about what happened established. Gordon McNeill’s only concern is that the truth comes out. That is why he is not prepared to be silenced. That is why he is determined that the full story of more than six difficult years of struggle be told.
The only people who will equate bringing out the truth with “running down the union” are those who have something to hide, those whose actions were damaging to Unite and to trade unionism in general.
The airport shop stewards’ only crime was to defend the principles of genuine trade unionism. They challenged and then shattered the snug relationship that had developed between union officials and the management of Belfast International Airport. That is why they were sacked.
They then fought a long battle for justice against their employer and against the leadership of their union. Today, as governments and employers link up to try to force working class people to pay for the crisis of capitalism, the labour movement, more than ever, needs fighters like these.
That is why the lies, abuse and slander that Unite’s leaders are continuing to heap upon them cannot go unanswered. That is why the true story about what happened to them needs to be told and the lessons learned. n
Open Letter to Tony Woodley, General Secretary & Jimmy Kelly, Irish Regional Secretary, Unite
Sacked Belfast Airport Shop Steward
Dear Mr Woodley and Mr Kelly,
I am writing to respond to your offer to pay £40,000 each to myself, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer in return for a legally binding commitment that we never again make any statement or comment on our lengthy dispute with the leadership of the T&GWU/Unite. Your offer also included a promise to pay the, now quite substantial, legal costs we incurred as a consequence of your insistence that negotiation on all outstanding issues between us be conducted through solicitors.
Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer have accepted your terms, seeing this as the only way they can pay the most recent legal bill and settle the debts they built up as a result of this dispute.
For my part, I cannot accept what, to my mind, is an inducement offered only to buy my silence. My right to tell the truth about all that has happened over more than six years is not for sale.
As senior officers of Unite I would have expected that you would have defended my basic democratic right to free speech. Instead you have offered to pay £120,000 plus legal costs to myself and my colleagues in return for the surrender of this basic right.
I would also have expected that you would have defended, in all circumstances, my democratic right to peacefully protest. Instead you have served me with an injunction barring me, or any of my supporters, from engaging in any activity connected with this dispute at Transport House and have threatened me with fines and/or imprisonment if I defy this ban.
I also consider it a responsibility of the leadership of any union to ensure that members of that union are fully and accurately informed of the full facts of a dispute such as this. Your attempt to buy our silence contravenes the democratic right of every Unite member to know the facts so that they can scrutinise, and criticise if necessary, the actions of their leadership.
Rather than present Unite members with the facts, you have published a series of statements on this dispute on your website that are defamatory of myself and my colleagues and are also wholly inaccurate.
I take no pleasure in making the accusation that you, as the Unite officials responsible for this dispute, have published lies about what happened and in particular about your role in it. Nor do I make this accusation lightly. I can and will provide unanswerable evidence to prove that the version of events published in your recent statements is totally and knowingly false.
For the moment I give just one example. The statement dated 20.06.08 headed, “The Truth and Nothing but The Truth”, which is still posted on the union website, purports to record what happened in 2003 when the current leadership of the union took charge of our dispute and negotiated a deal with ICTS.
The statement claims that the sacked workers initially accepted this deal at a meeting which the shop stewards refused to attend but were then persuaded by the shop stewards and others to oppose the deal.
Not a word of this is true. I have published on our blog (www.belfastairportworkers.wordpress.com) a letter from Unite official, Brendan Hodgers to Bill Morris, dated 27.08.03, which must be in your possession. This letter is a report of what actually took place in 2003. It completely contradicts your recent account. It, for example, makes clear that the shop stewards were not invited to the meeting you claim they refused to attend. In fact they were refused the right to attend. It also explains that the 16 sacked workers who attended that meeting rejected the deal you claim they accepted. They did so unanimously.
As you are aware, we recently won our court battle with ICTS and, in doing so, secured an important legal victory that strengthens the hands of all trade unionists. On 24 July the Court of Appeal upheld our claim that ICTS sacked us because of our trade union and socialist beliefs.
I find it frustrating that your actions to date have prevented me from resolving my dispute with the Unite leadership. I would much prefer to settle this issue so that we can all concentrate on our battles with employers and the government.
However it is not possible to arrive at a settlement on the terms that you have proposed. I therefore set out below a number of steps that, were they taken, would allow me to bring my campaign of public protest on this to an end.
These steps are as follows;
– Withdraw the injunction and restore my right to protest
– Remove the slanderous and inaccurate statements dealing with this dispute from the union website.
– Set up an independent and open inquiry into the union’s handling of our dispute from 2002 to the present in order to establish the full truth about what took place.
– Withdraw the confidentiality/gagging clause from the compensation offer.
My health has suffered as a result of the hunger and thirst strikes that I undertook recently at Transport House. This requires me to undergo surgery followed by a period of recuperation. I would much prefer that, at the end of this period, I did not have to resume my public campaign for justice but could concentrate my efforts on
supporting other workers in struggle.
I appeal to yourselves and to the Unite Executive to agree to the four modest proposals above so that this can happen.
Irish Regional Secretary, Brendan Hodgers’ report of what happened in August 2003
Amalgamated T&G, Ireland
Regional Secretary BRENDAN HODGERS
27th August 2003
Mr W Morris
Dear Bro Morris
Re: ICTS Dispute – Belfast International Airport
From my last report of 11 July 2003, there were a number of developments that has fundamentally changed the nature of this dispute.
Bro Steve Turner at the request of Bro Woodley, is fronting up the negotiations with the company in an effort to secure reasonable compensation for our dismissed members. The Company has tabled proposals, which would entail re-instatement for a number of members who wish to return and a compensatory award, which is not sufficient.
Resulting from Bro Maurice Cunningham’s, Regional Industrial Organiser report regarding his work as the Officer responsible for co-ordinating the Union’s activities in the Region on behalf of the dismissed members, we convened a meeting with the ICTS Union representatives and separately met with the rest of the members in dispute of which there are 20.
Two of the three representatives attended a meeting with Bros Turner, Cunningham, and myself. They apologised for their colleague and confirmed that the views expressed by them was also that of their absent colleague.
Bro Turner outlined the Company’s proposals to update them of events and advised that the proposal for re-instatement did not apply to them at the Company’s insistence but that compensation for their loss was a live issue. They in turn advised that they were retaining independent Legal Representation to pursue a number of issues, personal injury claims for two of them and Unfair Dismissal claims for the three of them. We were also informed that their legal advisors had advised that they should consider taking legal action against the Union for negligence.
In the negligence claim one had instructed his legal representatives to initiate such a claim and the other two were actively considering likewise. The meeting concluded on the basis that the 3 Union representatives were pursuing their own issues and accepted that the Union’s endeavours to achieve a negotiated settlement could not satisfy their expectations in terms of adequate compensation. We also established that they would not be participating in any dispute activity at Belfast International Airport. (Letters to the 3 reps enclosed).
We subsequently convened a meeting on 12 August 2003 of the 20 members. Again Bro Turner explained in detail what the Company’s proposals were. The proposals were rejected as derisory and the Union committed to continue our efforts to extract a reasonable settlement through negotiations.
The 3 representatives’ position was outlined to the meeting and members made no secret at their frustration at the protracted duration of the dispute.
There was a consensus that it was no longer practical to engage in any protest activity at the airport. Quite frankly, many of the members involved are gainfully employed and not available for such activity. Others were of the view that the activity had achieved its purpose in getting the company to the negotiating table.
All possible eventualities were discussed with the 16 members in attendance. Brother Turner outlined the position if negotiations were not successful in the Union Solicitors in Region 3 are pursuing these Unfair Dismissal cases through the Industrial Tribunal on their behalf.
Members were advised that the hardship payments made by the Union would be factored with any other monies received from earnings or benefits during the disputed duration if a tribunal awarded in their favour. (Letters to all ICTS members enclosed).
Consequently, the £46.00 hardship payment made by the Union is no longer appropriate in the circumstances. In this regard I have advised that the payment will cease from 1 September 2003.
Bro Turner continues to keep the communication link open with the company to try and secure a negotiated settlement and we are committed to keep the members informed of any developments in this regard.
I will keep you appraised of our efforts and will report to you any further developments that may arise in this matter.