Stand by the airport workers!

The good news is that Gordon McNeill is out of hospital and back into the fray. This marks the latest development in the saga of the sacked airport workers, a slow-burning dispute that’s sparked into life a few times recently.

The background, very briefly, is this. Way back in 2002 twenty-three workers at Belfast International Airport were sacked for taking part in strike action. They filed a claim with the Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal against the employer, ICTS, and further alleged discrimination against four shop stewards on account of their socialist political beliefs. Last year, they won their case and were awarded substantial damages.

The ongoing dispute relates to the workers’ beef with their union, most having belonged to the ATGWU (now part of UNITE). There’s a lot of bad blood dating back to the union’s repudiation of the original strike, and it’s been stoked up further by the union’s performance since. The main thrust of the current dispute is the workers’ demand for the union to pay their legal costs, as well as a promise by Tony Woodley that they would be compensated for mismanagement of the dispute. Hence the barracking of UNITE regional secretary Jimmy Kelly at the Belfast May Day parade, and hence the hunger strike by shop stewards Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, which is aimed at scandalising the union into moving in the workers’ direction.

It’s a dispiriting story all around. Mismanagement of an industrial dispute by the bureaucracy is, of course, nothing new. What’s even more depressing is Mick O’Reilly and Jimmy Kelly, two of Ireland’s most prominent trade union leftists, behaving in no way differently from the bureaucracy as a whole. (Not to mention Jimmy’s erstwhile comrades, who have somehow managed to avoid any public criticism of the UNITE leadership.) And so the struggle goes on.

Anyway, this is a good cause well worth supporting, and readers should feel free to pass on the word. You can get regular updates at the airport workers’ dedicated blog, and it’s also worth paying a visit to the Socialist Party, whose work around the issue has been exemplary. This in-depth article by the SP’s Peter Hadden gives further details.


  1. Mark P said,

    May 21, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Actually the question of Kelly’s membership is one of the many things you can’t get a straight answer out of the SWP about these days. Various members of theirs, including senior ones, have been asked point blank about it and none of them have said that he has left.

  2. Ciarán said,

    May 21, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    This is a very important issue of course; I’d hate to see the real situation sidetracked by a descent into a SWP-SP ‘handbags at dawn’ farce (and it’s already on the downward slope).

  3. ejh said,

    May 21, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    There were a lot of disputes like this in the Nineties, of course – not just the Liverpool dockers by any manner of means – but how on Earth has this got to the point of a hunger strike?

    (And not just the Nineties, of course.)

  4. Mark P said,

    May 21, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    It won’t descend into any such thing. With the (possible) exception of Kelly, the SWP have stayed away from this fight as best they can, keeping their heads down and maintaining an embarrassed silence. That’s, in my view, shameful but it means a couple of things:

    1) They won’t contribute to this discussion.
    2) They aren’t the real enemy in this. The real enemies remains the employers and the parasitic union bureaucracy.

    People who have been trying to portray the whole issue as a squabble between the SP and the SWP have, almost without exception, been anonymous supporters of the bureaucracy. The SWP aren’t a central part of this issue at all. Which doesn’t mean that their behaviour ceases to be interesting for ex-members and others around the far left… Like a lot of the people who read this blog.

  5. Renegade Eye said,

    May 22, 2008 at 3:07 am

    In the US we don’t have caucuses in the unions strong enough to have the luxury of a dispute between two lefty parties.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 22, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    I’m more or less in agreement with Mark P on this, although I would add that, since the SWP’s el Presidente is currently running for union office, his views might be of interest. On the other hand, I think Peter Hadden may have been rash in writing a big broadside when two or three sentences would have covered it.

    To come back on ejh’s point, the hunger strike is a drastic tactic, and I scratched my head a bit when it was announced. But the dispute has been escalating for a little while now. We had the shop stewards mounting a vigil outside Transport House, and then the union calling in the cops to move them. This is just the next phase. Where it goes from now, lord knows.

  7. Dear Koba said,

    May 22, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Of course the SWP are not the only left party with an input in this, as CPB member Andrew Murray has been the one spinning against the hunger strikers as Unite/TGWU press officer.

  8. Neil said,

    May 22, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    The protest was suspended at about 2.30pm to allow the union to make an offer while not ‘under duress’, following contact from Jimmy Kelly. This suspension has no time limitation but if no serious offer to pay is made, then the protest (i.e. the occupation of the transport house roof and the raising of banners) will resume.

  9. chekov said,

    May 22, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    So, how much money do people think the union should pay to them in compensation? What is a serious offer? Do people think that unions should really be financially liable to their members when they don’t represent them properly? It seems like a pretty strange approach to trade unionism to me.

    I’m not saying that they haven’t been wronged, I don’t think anybody denies that, but going on hunger strike to get a settlement out of the union – that’s just not the type of thing I feel comfortable with.

  10. Mark P said,

    May 22, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Chekov – the point here is not that that the union failed to represent them properly. The union actively collaborated with their employers during their strike, resulting in their dismissal. I can see no reason on earth why a union shouldn’t compensate workers it betrayed in such a fashion. Do you see one?

    But compensation isn’t the main issue as far as the workers are concerned. The main issue is their legal bills. After their union collaborated with their employers, resulting in their sacking, and after their strike was defeated as a result, they took legal action against the employers. This would under normal circumstances be paid for by the union – that’s one of the benefits of union membership, backing in unfair dismissal cases. But in this case the new “left” union leadership tried to force them to accept a dismal offer from their employers, and then, when the workers unanimously voted against accepting, washed their hands of the matter.

    So the workers had to take legal action on their own, legal action which the union leaders claimed couldn’t win. So when they did actually win a significant legal decision, which goes some way towards undermining Thatcher’s anti-union laws, instead of celebrating the union leaders were almost as horrified as the employers. In so doing, the workers racked up large legal bills. They want the union to cover those bills. They also want the union to pay the legal costs of defending their decision against an appeal by the employers.

    This is something that the union should have done from the beginning. It is something that the union said it would do repeatedly. It is something that the union still hasn’t done.

    I do believe that the union should compensate the workers it betrayed. But that’s very much a secondary issue. The key issue is that the union should pay for the legal fight. This is so basic a point that it seems to be that it is impossible to mount a reasonable argument against it.

  11. chekov said,

    May 22, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    To be honest, I can think of good reasons why a union might not pay compensation and even why they would justifiably not pay members’ legal fees in various hypothetical situations. I’m not saying that this is one of those situations, because it all depends on the particular details of the case and I don’t know enough about them.

    For example, I don’t think that a union should be obliged to take court action on behalf of members in all circumstances, even if the members have right absolutely on their side. There are situations where it will simply be too expensive and the benefits to the union will be too small to make it a responsible choice by the union decision makers in terms of how they spend their members money.

    I mean, you say that in this case, the new left leadership of the union tried to get them to accept a dismal offer from their employers. If the court victory that they eventually won left them tens of thousands out of pocket, then it would seem to me that the offer, however dismal, would have been better. A court judgement, by itself, is pretty worthless, so what’s the point in spending tens of thousands of members’ funds to get it?

    If I was a union bureaucrat, of the highest integrity possible and with the most pure socialist principles, I wouldn’t be able to wish away the pragmatics of the problem. I mean, if I thought that court action was likely to end up costing lots of money on balance (as it appears to have done). I’d be obliged to recommend taking a settlement and if the members in question ignored my advice, I wouldn’t at all feel compelled to cough up when they went off and employed teams of lawyers.

    Now, I’d like to emphasise again that I’m not at all sticking up for Jimmy Kelly in this particular situation, just that the generics aren’t enough to come down on one side or the other. What are the details? How much are their legal bills? How much was the settlement that they won? How much are they looking for in compensation?

  12. Mark P said,

    May 23, 2008 at 1:01 am

    Chekov, I suggest, with all due respect, that putting forward a whole number of reasons why a union might not want to compensate these activists or even cover their costs, while admitting that you “don’t know enough” about the situation is a less than appropriate attitude to take.

    If you look at the Socialist Party site, you will no doubt be able to find a detailed exposition of the history of the affair. The problem is not that the union initially misjudged the legal situation. The problem is that the union actually provided the employers with a letter repudiating a strike by their members, declaring the strike to be illegal and thus removing from the strikers the legal protection that union backed strikers employ. The employers used that letter to sack all of the strikers. Do you get the significance of that? The union leadership told a set of employers during a strike that the workers weren’t backed by the union and didn’t have legal protection, thus enabling the employers to sack them for illegal striking.

    After that a new union bureaucracy replaced the old union bureaucracy. They claimed that what had been done was a disgrace and that they would back the workers concerned. But then they behaved in a way indistinguishable from the old union bureaucracy. They demanded that the workers accept a truly dismal offer from the employers. This was an offer that would have offered compensation for a handful of the 23 sacked and left the rest screwed and when the workers – unanimously – refused to accept it they abandoned the workers themselves.

    Presumably as an anarchist, Chekov, none of this should exactly come as a surprise to you.

    The workers refused to back down, refused to be sold out and refused to just go home and forget about the whole business. They fought it through court, without the unions help. Eventually they got a decision which effectively ended the existing limits on the amount of compensation that could be paid to someone sacked for trade union activity. This was the most important legal decision given against Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws since those laws were introduced, and defending the decision should be a priority for the entire trade union movement.

    The union has since agreed on a number of occasions to pay the mens legal costs, as it should do. But it has repeatedly reneged on those promises. The protests have centrally been about forcing the bureaucrats to fulfil the promises they have already made.

    This issue is not about the bureaucracy being too conservative, or misjudging some legal issue. It is about a union leadership collaborating with employers to get militant workers sacked and the struggle of those workers since.

  13. neil said,

    May 23, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    PRESS RELEASE – Friday 23rd May
    Airport workers suspend hunger strike to await offer

    Legal bills understood to be paid – Unite promise to make compensation offer

    Decision whether to recommence the hunger strike under review.

    The sacked airport shop stewards, Gordon McNeill and Chris Bowyer, who have been on hunger strike on the balcony outside Transport House suspended their action at 9 am this morning.

    The men have come off the Transport House balcony. Gordon McNeill, who went five days without food and water and a further three days without food, was suffering from chest pains and had to be assisted off. Chris Bowyer has been suffering bowel problems. Both men have now gone for urgent medical assistance.

    The hunger strikers had made clear earlier in the week that they would temporarily suspend the hunger strike if the union made good its promise to pay outstanding legal bills and to cover the costs of legal representation for the Court of Appeal case now pending.

    The shop stewards now understand that the legal bills are now being paid and the terms on which barristers will be engaged to handle the appeal have been agreed. All that remains is the outstanding issue of compensation and the protest has been suspended to allow urgent discussions on this.

    Gordon McNeill today said:

    “We are pleased that Unite now appears to have paid our legal costs and that we can now have a legal team in place for the appeal.

    “We have suspended our action because we said that if Unite showed good faith by paying these bills, we would allow a space for an offer on compensation to be made and negotiated.

    “I expect Unite to act with urgency on this so that I will be able to announce a final settlement of this long running issue. This will depend on them offering an amount of compensation that realistically reflects the six years of hardship and suffering that our families and ourselves have been put through.”

    For more information contact:
    Gordon McNeill – 07934632366
    Chris Bowyer – 07764850945
    Madan Gupta – 07810290938

  14. Martin Wisse said,

    May 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    A similar case in which the SWP has been active, perhaps because it happened to their own people, is the expulsion of Tony Staunton from Unison last year, in which Tony got a small victory this week when the union regulation officer judged in his favour.

  15. chekov said,

    May 23, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Mark: I’ve read everyting that the SP has written about it and posted to Indymedia and the problem is that there simply isn’t enough detail to know what to think. I don’t think that one can take a firm position on the basis of the generics of the situation (bureaucrats versus workers) and, when it comes to the crunch, that’s what the SP’s propaganda is asking us to do. As I said above, the devil is in the details.

    I may be an anarchist, but I think that Irish anarchists generally have a somewhat different position on the trade union bureaucracy than do the trots. We don’t generally consider the union leaders to be sell-outs, or traitors. Their actions are limited not only by their ideology, but more so by the structural limitations that are placed upon them by their situations. And I’m not just talking about the bureaucratic and legal rules that bind them, a much more important limitation is their weakness in terms of their ability to mobilise their members. I used to believe that they were a real problem, holding workers back from struggle. Increasingly, I doubt this – I think they tend to be, if anything, more radical than their members. The various calls that we hear from radicals for them to call general strikes or whatever are often not ignored due to their desires to control the working class’s militancy, but due to the fact that they are well aware that if they called for it, nobody would come.

    “This issue is not about the bureaucracy being too conservative, or misjudging some legal issue. It is about a union leadership collaborating with employers to get militant workers sacked and the struggle of those workers since.”

    I accept that, my problem is with the approach since that leadership was replaced. On the SP site it says the following:

    “These turned out to be empty words. In June 2003, Tony Woodley tried to pressurise the sacked workers to accept a deal he had negotiated with ICTS. This offered a pittance in compensation and accepted the victimisation of the shop stewards and most of the sacked workers.

    Tony Woodley insisted that the workers had no legal case and that this was a “dammed good deal” that they should accept. The sacked workers unanimously decided to ignore his advice and rejected this offer.

    With this, the union effectively washed its hands of the dispute, leaving the workers to fund and fight the legal battle against ICTS on their own. The issue of legal costs only arises today because the union refused to back their action. Meanwhile, the shop stewards continued their campaign for justice from the union, demanding a full explanation of what had happened in 2002.”

    My problem is that I don’t have enough information to evaluate this episode. Not because I haven’t looked, but because nobody is saying. From where I’m looking, it does not seem at all obvious that the bureaucrats were wrong back in June 2003. What exactly were the costs and benefits of pursuing the case in the courts? It’s just impossible to evaluate without that information and nobody’s saying. I also would question the significance of the court-judgement as a blow to Thatcher’s anti-union laws. To my mind, the limitation of compensation for unfair dismissal is not where the big problem lies and I’m never that keen on approaches which see the courts as a real avenue for workers struggle, because, well they aren’t and when they are the ruling class has the easy device of legislation to correct the problem.

  16. Mark P said,

    May 23, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Chekov, much of what you have written above strikes me as vague and rather unconnected to the history of this dispute. Whether for instance you think that the bureaucrats in current circumstances generally act to hold back and undermine working class militancy may well be of interest. But in this particular case, the facts are simple.

    The workers went on strike and the bureaucracy undermined and helped destroy their strike. Whether or not you think this is a general pattern isn’t relevant – it is what happened in this case. The ongoing conflict between the union bureaucrats and the workers concerned stems from precisely this. Now, again given your anarchist background and given what you say about the structural role of the bureaucracy, I’m surprised to see you putting stress on the fact that the old bureaucrats were replaced with newer bureaucrats.

    The “new” bureaucrats have since they took over, played exactly the kind of role that the traditional left view of the bureaucracy would lead us to expect them to play. They have refused to hold an inquiry into the way in which union officials collaborated with employers. They tried to force workers into accepting a deal that would have left them with essentially nothing. They then abandoned the workers when they refused to accept a sell out deal, leaving them to fight on alone.

    I am genuinely baffled that this seems to be something other than an open and shut case for you.

    As for what were the benefits of fighting on: Well, they are straightforward enough.

    1) All of the sacked workers have won compensation from their employer (although they don’t have this money yet as the judgment is under appeal). The “deal” they got through the courts is, if it can be defended, significantly monetarily better than the deal the left bureaucrats tried to force them to take.

    2) If we accept that the anti-union laws matter (and I’m presuming that you aren’t ultra-left enough to claim otherwise) then the way in which those laws operate also matters. The legal judgments so far have been of great significance in this regard. The courts have held that a strike can be postponed and then reinstituted without a new ballot. This means that a whole range of strikes in the UK which would previously have been considered to be wildcats will now fall under the protections which legal strikes get.

    If used cleverly, this particular judgment will allow unions to avoid one of the most onerous requirements of the anti-union laws. On the face of it, the judgment would appear to allow a union to ballot once and then continue postponing the strike indefinitely, without having to reballot when the workers actually do come out. This matters both because workers who take wildcat action can be victimised and sacked entirely legally and because unions which support wildcat action can have their assets seized.

    3) If we accept that employment tribunals do in fact matter to a considerable number of workers each year, and again I don’t think that there is likely to be much of an argument about that, then effectively abolishing the low limit on the compensation a worker can be paid if sacked for trade union or socialist activities is a significant gain.

    The decision to fight on in other words has brought significant financial benefits to the workers concerned and significant legal benefits to the unions and to all workers. If and only if the decision can be defended that is.

    Your remarks about “seeing the courts as a real avenue for workers struggle” are broadly speaking correct. The Socialist Party would always advise workers to rely on their own strength as workers, and to steer clear of the court system unless all other avenues have been exhausted. Too many leftists like to look to legal battles as a substitute for actual struggle (this for instance was a problem with a few elements in the anti-bin tax campaign). But once all other avenues have been exhausted, there is no reason why workers shouldn’t take whatever they can get from the courts.

    (You are wrong about the Trotskyist analysis of the union bureaucracy by the way, but that’s something for a different discussion).

  17. neil said,

    May 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Press Release – Wed 28th May

    Sacked airport workers accuse Unite leadership of issuing “black propaganda and disinformation” to try to discredit them.

    Gordon McNeill remains on hunger strike at Transport House – His protest enters the 14th day.

    “The Unite leadership’s attempt to blacken my name and then to silence me through injunctions and threats of fines and imprisonment will not succeed.” Gordon McNeill.

    Sacked airport shop steward, Gordon McNeill, is now entering the 14th day of his hunger strike at Transport House in Belfast. Gordon and his fellow shop stewards, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, are demanding that the union compensate them for the hardship caused when the union leadership conspired with their employer, ICTS, to get them sacked.

    The shop stewards are also insisting that any offer of compensation must be without strings. In particular they are not prepared to sign up to the gagging clauses sought by the union.

    The Unite leadership have responded, on the one hand, with a court injunction and the threat of fines and imprisonment, and on the other with a campaign of deliberate misinformation to try to discredit the protestors.

    A statement from Unite, with comments from General Secretary, Tony Woodley and Irish Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly (issued on 28/5/08) claims that the reason that Gordon McNeill is on hunger strike is because he is demanding a million pounds compensation. This is completely untrue and the Unite leadership are fully aware that it is not true.

    The shop stewards are not asking for a million pounds, as Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly both know. They are seeking a reasonable level of compensation that takes account the hardship the actions of senior union officials have put them through. And they are insistent that any offer must be without strings.

    Gordon McNeill today commented:

    “I am disgusted that the Unite leadership have once again resorted to black propaganda and misinformation in order to discredit myself and my colleagues. As an ordinary union activist who has been blacklisted and out of work for six years because of the actions of my union leadership, I am outraged that these very well paid union officials should try to blacken my name by portraying my protest as “an unprincipled money grab”

    “Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly well know that the million pound slur sank long ago and their attempt to re-float it just won’t work. The union said they would compensate us and they should.

    “But the compensation must be without strings. Unite want us to sign up to a deal that would prevent us from ever speaking out about the dispute. I want compensation but I also want other trade union members to know the full facts about what happened to us.

    “Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly must realise that they cannot buy my silence and must remove the gagging clause from any future offer. If they refuse to do so the question that every Unite member, and trade unionists in general must ask is, “what are they trying to hide?”

    The Unite statement goes on to attack the role of the Socialist Party. Jimmy Kelly says “the Socialist Party has apparently abandoned all its principles in order to support this circus and is now taking the view that disgruntled union members have a right to demand seven figure sums in compensation from their union and to go on hunger strike when they do not get it. This has nothing to do with socialism as I understand it.”

    Gordon McNeill, who is a member of the Socialist Party, today responded:

    “As a member of the Socialist Party I am proud of the role played by my party colleagues who have stood by us from the very beginning of this struggle. It is Jimmy Kelly who has abandoned all basic trade union, never mind, socialist principles in justifying the way we have been betrayed and mistreated by our union leaders.”

    Socialist Party Northern Ireland Regional Secretary, Peter Hadden, commented:

    “For Jimmy Kelly to try to dismissively describe shop stewards who have struggled for six years for justice from their employer and their union as “disgruntled union members” is insulting in the extreme.

    “These workers performed a service for the entire trade union movement when, despite being refused assistance from their union, they took their employers to court and won a landmark ruling that they were sacked because of their trade union and socialist opinions. They deserve apologies, not insults, from a trade union bureaucracy that turned its back on them.

    “Two of the shop stewards are members of the Socialist Party. Because we are concerned, first and foremost, about their health we have tried to persuade them not to go on hunger strike.

    “However we fully understand why they feel that the actions of the union have left them with no alternative. Now that Gordon McNeill is on hunger strike we will stand behind him all the way and will continue to do everything in our power to expose the mistreatment he and his colleagues have received at the hands of senior Unite officials.

    “As Jimmy Kelly knows this is not about seven figure sums. This is about justice. Jimmy Kelly’s response has been to go to the courts to get an injunction banning the shop stewards from protesting “in or at” Transport House.

    “The question I have for Jimmy Kelly is – what does attempting to buy someone’s silence in order to suppress the facts of an injustice or using the courts and the police to deny workers the right to legitimate peaceful protest have to do with socialism?”

    For more information contact:
    Gordon McNeill – 07934632366
    Chris Bowyer – 07764850945
    Madan Gupta – 07810290938

    For all the information please visit:

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