We are appealing for messages of support and financial backing for 24 airport security staff in Belfast who have been sacked for striking against the low pay and poor conditions imposed upon them by the management of ICTS UK Ltd. Notably the workers sacked were prominent union activists, including two key shop stewards. One worker was even told by management that he was being sacked for speaking at a union meeting and taking too strong a line with management! The response of some of the higher up officials in the union - the T&G - and at union HQ has been woefully inadequate, especially when it becomes clear that after initially sanctioning the strike of the airport officers as legal and official, they later turned around and repudiated the action opening the way for management reprisals.
Gordon McNeil, one of the sacked shop stewards, spoke to Socialist Appeal.
Socialist Appeal: Why were you and your workmates sacked?
Gordon McNeil: We were out fighting a trade dispute for extra money, but the management, I believe, have a hidden agenda. They want to get rid of the two shop stewards - i.e. myself and my other colleague Madam Gupta. The others who've been sacked have all been heavily involved in union activity, they have been very strong when in forcefully voicing our opinion to management. I think the underlying agenda here was to remove the strong people from the security of employment. Therefore, the management have embarked on a litany of abuse against the staff. Clearly their aim is to remove the strong people so that they can crush the rest.
SA: What are the issues surrounding the strike and how exactly did it come about?
G McN: The strike came about following a massive 97% majority in a postal ballot for strike action. We had been involved in pay talks with this company since November 1, 2001. We have had problems with our regional officer within the union, Mr Joe McCusker. We had been in touch with Mr McCusker who asked us to suspend our action on Wednesday May 8 until Tuesday May 14 pending discussions via the LRA to resolve the dispute. We entered these talks on the understanding that it was to be a meaningful dialogue with the company - but the company basically laughed in our face; they were not serious about making offers of money. We then sought advice from the union on Monday May 13 to resume our action from Tuesday May 14 because it was the named time and date, and we'd already gone through the full process of serving it on the company. The union told us to just go ahead, we engaged in action on Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday morning we had a repudiation notice served on us by our regional officer, Joe McCusker. We felt very angry that we had been told that we were fully entitled to engage in a strike because it was perfectly lawful and legal, and then for the union to go ahead and repudiate it left us wide open. This is why the company jumped on the back of this repudiation to dismiss us. We have subsequently taken advice on this and the union have now stated that the advice we were given on Monday was indeed that it was official action, and also that on Tuesday afternoon they had even told the company that it was official. But they still seem to be adopting the position, as we speak, that it was an unofficial strike action, even though they now admit the advice they gave at the gates on the Monday.
SA: Are you unhappy then with the role the union has played in both the action to begin with and their response to the sackings?
G McN: Yes I am, I must say I am quite angry. A union is a body of people, and the ordinary members and lay activists on the street are not the ones I am angry at. I am angry at some of the regional organisers, and the director of the legal services of the union, Fergus Whittey. We have had quite poor representation till now, but one thing that has really galled me, and I would like people to reflect on this, is the fact that the management has been able to use this situation to further their own ends, and that they are really very despicable in this whole situation. Take the communication between our National Secretary Tim Lyle, who is the civil aviation officer for the union, on Wednesday of last week with Ben Lewis who is the company secretary of ICTS about the sacking of the 24 officers. Tim Lyle stated that Ben Lewis laughed at him down the phone. Mr Lyle said: "Do you think that's funny that you have sacked 24 workers?" Mr Lewis replied that he thought it was hilarious that he had ruined 24 lives. Naturally there is great anger amongst the staff particularly those who have been sacked, but also among the staff still there in the airport.
SA: What support have you had?
G McN: The support we have had has been outstanding. We are planning on upping our campaign and we just require as much support as possible, even if it is just a signature, it all goes to show that we have support. That the public are not going to stand back and let a company, especially a company that are so adamant that they can rule the workforce, get away with it. Therefore, we think that it is an abuse not only upon ourselves but it is an abuse on all people who dare to speak out in the workplace to further the rights of workers.
SA: Is the mood and morale of the activists is high?
G McN: Very strong, we are obviously very angry, but we are also resolute that we will not be beaten down. I will not have my voice silenced because I am only speaking out for basic rights for these workers. At the end of the day the whole dispute was over a 30p per hour pay rise which would have taken us up to £5.50. We are on £5.20 at the moment, no sickness benefit, and no overtime rate. When we see an airport porter - and I am not being derogatory towards porters here - on a substantially higher wage than ourselves, with full sickness benefit for 6 months a year, and they get overtime on double rates. I think there has to be a correlation brought into the job we do in relation with other workers in the airport, and therefore we will have our say and we will not be beaten down by this management or any management.
SA: What do you see as the way forward specifically for your dispute? What can trade unionists in Britain and Ireland do to help your dispute?
G McN: The first thing would be the monetary aspect, finances. Twenty four officers are now sitting on social security benefits - some of them don't even get that. We would need financial support to pay the bills and to build this campaign which we intend to run against this company. I would ask people in their workplace to raise their concerns with their regional officers, and to write to Mr Morris of the T&GWU.
The headquarters of the company in London are Devonshire House ICTS UK Ltd, I would ask people in London to make representations there and to send letters and demand answers to why these officers here, who do a fantastic job. We protect the lives of the travelling public regardless of their race, colour or creed, have been treated in this despicable manner. It is not particularly nice for a security officer to have to go through peoples personal belongings or get physical with people and search their bodies, but we do it in order to secure passenger safety. We ask the public across Britain to show support for us to organise and demonstrate on our behalf, and not let this company be seen as a successful union buster. The company has behaved disgracefully towards their employees
Thank you to every single person out there who has shown support, and a great thanks for those who will show support in the future. We will do all we can over here to fight our cause. At the end of the day this is an attack on all workers who dare to challenge management on the conditions in their workplace. So this is an attack not just on one sector but an attack on all, because it is me today but it could quite easily be you tomorrow.
Eugene McGlone, sacked Irish T&G official told Socialist Appeal that he had met some of the sacked workers and that "it is disgraceful that nothing has been done about this. Not just words of support but action is needed. The union must stand up for its members, for workers and their families. The campaign for our reinstatement [the campaign to reinstate Mick O'Reilly and Eugene McGlone] gives its 100 percent backing to the sacked airport workers and would appeal to trade unionists everywhere to offer their support."
Protests should be sent to:
ICTS UK Ltd
1 Devonshire Street
London W1W 5DP
Please also raise this matter in your union branch and your workplace. Take up a collection for the strikers and send them your financial and written support.