WHEN it started the Gate Gourmet case at Heathrow airport seemed a relatively small incident, a case of an insensitive American employer firing most of his staff by megaphone in the company carpark and trying to bring in cheaper labour to replace them. It was the sort of case that a competent union official should be able to sort out in a few hours of negotiation in a smoke-free room. But suddenly everything escalated: British Airways had no food for its passengers and because of an illegal sympathy strike by baggage handlers and other staff it could not get its passengers on or off their planes; the knock-on effect meant that 17'000 would-be travellers were stranded at Heathrow and several thousand more at airports around the world; the immediate financial loss was huge, making a dent in BA's encouraging profits announced just a few days earlier, while the long-term cost through loss of goodwill is incalculable; incredibly, it took almost a week before normal services were resumed and, still, not all passengers are getting a hot dinner. Perhaps because most of the staff at Gate Gourmet are Asian women, memories have been stirred of the Grunwick film processor strike in North London in August 1976 where a mainly female Asian staff started a series of events which led to the Winter of Discontent and eventually to the Conservative election victory in 1979. Could Gate Gourmet become the Grunwick of the 2005 and lead to more general labour unrest with electoral consequences for the Labour Party? Although UK trade unions have been relatively quiescent since Labour came to power in 1997, they are beginning to reorganise themselves in ways designed to reverse the decline in membership and to recognise that the old divisions of labour, each with a relevant union, no longer apply. The Transport and General Workers' Union, Amicus and GMB are in talks with a view to a merger and if it takes place it is likely that a vigorous and sustained recruitment campaign for new members will begin. The most fertile field for recruitment is among low paid workers who need the strength of a union to argue their case. The Gate Gourmet case shows that in today's interdependent industrial environment all parts of a company are vulnerable to trouble from its weakest link.


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