Three sacked Airport shop stewards in Belfast, Northern Ireland have resumed their protest to achieve payment of legal costs and hardship money from their union. After being rushed to hospital in a serious condition, one of the workers Gordon McNeil, has signed himself out of hospital and rejoined the protest.
By Kevin Parslow, Socialist Party
The three are all members of Unite in Northern Ireland (no relation to UNITE in Australia). Their request to the union followed their victory in a landmark Employment Tribunal judgment in Belfast last year, which was won on the grounds that they had suffered discrimination on trade union and political grounds.
Gordon McNeill has been on hunger strike since 15 May and Chris Bowyer since 19 May, on the roof of Unite’s offices at Transport House, Belfast. They are fully supported by the third steward, Madan Gupta.
The workers had approached the union to share in their victory, despite a previous official of the union having collaborated with management at their former employer, ICTS, to end their pay strike in 2002 and sack the workers, a fact recognised by the tribunal.
The union leadership has promised four times that they will pay the workers’ legal fees, including their legal fees for any appeal by ICTS (due on 24 June), and to enter negotiations on hardship money. However, the union has only paid Â£106,000 out of the Â£206,000 legal costs incurred so far.
The non-payment of the outstanding bill has meant that Â£40,000 of the workers’ own money, raised by them through loans and re-mortgaging, is not presently being repaid to them by the solicitors. It also means that, without the payment of the outstanding money, the workers’ legal team have threatened to withdraw from the case and ICTS could thus win their appeal by default.
If the outstanding money is paid by the union, that would unblock the logjam and stop the hunger strikes. The solution to this dispute lies with the Unite leadership, with joint leader Tony Woodley in particular.
The workers have received tremendous support from the Belfast public. They have also received messages of support from playwright Jimmy McGovern, actor Ricky Tomlinson and film director Ken Loach.
Gordon McNeill was taken off the roof of Transport House on 19 May by the fire brigade and taken to hospital, but has since resumed his hunger strike. If the worst comes to the worst, Unite’s reputation as a ‘fightback union’ will be severely set back and may not recover for some time.
Socialist Party members and other activists are moving resolutions at union conferences and meetings urging the union to honour its promises. There was also a lobby of the first executive council meeting of Unite on 21 May, at which an open letter was presented to the Unite leadership.
Support has come in from all over the world. Some examples are –
“Remember the way the TGWU betrayed the Liverpool dockers? I bet you thought no union could ever sink so low again. I did too. We were so wrong. The way in which Unite has treated the Belfast Airport workers is a disgrace. Unite’s leaders should hang their heads in shame.” – Jimmy McGovern, playwright.
“I have been on hunger strike myself and can fully sympathise with these workers”. – Ricky Tomlinson, actor.
“What will it take for the Unite leadership to deal fairly with Gordon NcNeill and the Belfast Airport workers? It is a fundamental principle of trade unionism to support workers in struggle. This situation should never have been allowed to develop. Tony Woodley, the general secretary, should intervene now to resolve the situation in favour of Gordon and his comrades.” – Ken Loach, film director.
And from Gordon McNeil currently on hunger strike –
“Tony Woodley and Irish regional secretary, Jimmy Kelly, say they won’t talk if we are on protest. But after they promised to pay our bills last September we didn’t protest. And they would not talk to us or make any move to fulfil their promises. They won’t talk if we protest and they won’t talk if we don’t. It’s a case of heads they win and tails we lose.
“All they have to do is pay the legal fees as they had agreed so that the Â£40,000 we have paid to our solicitor will be given back to us and the protest will be suspended. We would see this as a gesture of good faith and would negotiate on the other issue”.
The Socialist Party in Australia also calls on Tony Woodley and Jimmy Kelly to resolve this dispute immediately. A failure to do so could result in an unnecessary tragedy.
We send our greetings to the workers to let them know that we stand side by side with them their struggle for justice.