Smyths article all
animals are equal but some are more equal than others
(18.11.03) dealing with the airport workers
dispute well illustrates why the Socialist Party pays
scant regard, and generally does not reply, to postings
on internet sites.
article is an attack on the Socialist Party, especially
on me, as the person who intervened on behalf of our
party from the outset of this dispute. It is also
a vicious attack on the sacked airport workers, especially
the shop stewards who have had to endure a torrent
of abuse from the company, from the right wing bureaucracy
in the T&GWU and now from people like Sean Smyth
on the left of the union. His article is really a
defence of the left bureaucracy who, unfortunately,
have behaved in a manner little different from those
right wing bureaucrats who were responsible for the
original sell out of these workers.
problem with internet postings is that any individual,
armed only with a computer and a vivid imagination,
can pour out a steady stream of misinformation, distortion
and abuse which would not hold up for a second in
the real world, yet can have this circulated through
cyberspace as though it had some substance.
is a particular difficulty with left sites like Indymedia.
Here an assortment of former left activists, political
lost souls and those who have a fascination with examining
the theoretical entrails of obscure sects, can inflate
their own sense of self importance and pronounce in
the most abusive manner on those who are engaged in
struggle in the real world.
is a pity because there is no doubt that sites like
this could be a valuable resource to help coordinate
the activities of the left and to promote real debate.
But this cannot happen so long as the serious postings
by genuine activists are engulfed by such an avalanche
of sectarian abuse that it is necessary to dive through
a bucket full of political vomit to reach them.
and sites like The Blanket could make a big contribution
if they were to stick to the best traditions of the
broad labour movement which are of comradely debate,
free from distortion and from personal invective.
Sean Smyths article is, unfortunately, not of
this character. The response by the airport workers
not just the shop stewards, but all the sacked
workers which is being posted alongside this
article, shows that Sean Smyths version of events
bears very little relation to what actually took place
during this dispute.
is a distortion heavily layered with personal abuse
aimed at myself and at the shop stewards in particular.
Thus I am variously referred to as a so-called
socialist, that idiot from the so-called
socialist party, a cretin member of one
of the socialist parties in Ireland and a well
intentioned idiot. The airport workers are condescendingly
dismissed as gullible naïve workers
who have been shafted by their shop stewards
and by me.
shop stewards are presented as self seeking individuals
out only for themselves, who, in Sean Smyths
fictional script are attributed comments like Fuck
them (the other sacked workers) I am only concerned
the worst insult is the comparison of the role of
two of the shop stewards, Gordon McNeill and Chris
Boyer, with characters in George Orwells Animal
Farm which was written as a caricature of Stalinism
during the period of show trials and purges. Whether
fully intended or not there is an implication that
there is something in common with the role played
by Gordon and Chris and the gangster methods of the
Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia at that time.
have nothing but contempt for the role of the right
wing officials in Transport House but, even in relation
to them, we prefer reasoned argument to hysterical
abuse. Sean Smyths method of firing a scatter
gun of insults as at the end of his article
when he manages to describe the right wing as scum,
scumbag scabs and scum bureaucrats
and careerists all in the space of one sentence!
only serves to lower the debate and obscure
the real issues.
facts of the dispute
this is a very far removed from the long and inspiring
struggle of the twenty three sacked airport workers.
Before answering Sean Smyths allegations in
more detail it is therefore worth recapping what this
battle was all about.
strike was over pay the poverty pay paid by
security firm ICTS and endorsed by Belfast International
Airport who had handed the security contract to this
company. There had been a ballot and overwhelming
support for the strike days that were named. The first
days of this action were suspended to allow for negotiations,
but when the negotiations broke down the workers decided
to go ahead with a strike on the next named strike
the eve of the strike they checked with their full
time official, Joe McCusker and were assured that
the action was both legal and official. Yet after
a few hours on strike they discovered that Joe McCusker
had repudiated the action, and that they no longer
had the official backing of the union.
gave ICTS a green light to sack 23 of the workers
who were on strike. They picked out the shop stewards
and others who for one reason or another the
reasons are now the subject of court cases
they wanted rid of.
union officials responsible then tried to wash their
hands of the sacked workers. The pay dispute was resolved
by the officials who accepted a pittance of a rise
and then put this to a ballot that excluded the 23
sacked workers. As Sean Smyth correctly points out,
the shop stewards were not advised to complete LD1
forms which would have meant that their legal case
for unfair dismissal would have been heard very quickly.
Initially they did not receive strike pay since Joe
McCusker had declared that their action was unofficial.
workers were left with no option but to fight a battle
on two fronts. They had to fight the airport and ICTS,
demanding reinstatement of the 23 who had been victimised.
At the same time they had to take the fight into the
T&GWU, demanding an explanation of the actions
of their full time official and campaigning to have
their ongoing struggle for reinstatement made official.
Socialist Party was involved in the dispute from an
early stage, not as Sean Smyth claims because he
put us in touch with the sacked workers, but
because we independently decided to intervene and
offer what advice and assistance we could.
mainly meant trying to publicise the dispute and help
mobilise support for the pickets and protests that
were organised at the airport. We also took the issue
up in the T&GWU, introducing the shop stewards
to left activists and helping them organise a challenge
to the right wing officials who, in our view, had
unceremoniously sold them out.
question of legal action was not something we pushed
up the agenda. The main concern of the airport workers,
then and now, was to get their jobs back and clear
their name by establishing the facts of what really
happened. The best way to do this was to apply pressure
on the airport through pickets, protests and, if possible,
through solidarity action.
for the union, our view was that the officials responsible
for the sell out should answer to the membership,
not primarily to the courts. There were and are many
unanswered questions arising out of what happened.
Why did Joe McCusker act with such indecent haste
to repudiate the strike? Was this just incompetence?
Or is it the case, as some of the sacked workers allege,
that he has too close connections with the airport?
workers correctly raised the call for a T&GWU
inquiry, made up of rank and file members, in order
to get to the bottom of these and other currently
unanswered questions. They saw this as the best way
to resolve the issue.
do not view legal action as the first means of redress
for workers. As we know the Tribunals and Courts are
heavily weighted towards the employers. However, as
with any workers who are victimised in this way, we
think the airport workers were absolutely right to
submit claims for unfair dismissal. If they could
not win by industrial means they at least would have
a chance of exposing ICTS and the airport in court
and possible winning compensation.
possibility of legal action against the union only
arose because ICTS could defend an unfair dismissal
claim by arguing that the strike was illegal and unofficial
and citing Joe McCuskers repudiation to back
this up. If a Tribunal or Court found this to be justified
the workers would have been compelled to take
action against the union for negligence as well as
against their employers.
this was never likely to be the finding of the court,
it was a possibility that could be discounted. Sean
Smyth echoes the arguments of the current T&GWU
leadership that they should drop any possible legal
action against the union. But because such legal action
could arise as a by product of their case against
ICTS, the only way they could guarantee no action
against the union would be by dropping the case against
any case Seans new found indignation about these
workers suing the union rings a little hollow given
the revelation made by the workers that the first
person to suggest to them that they should take a
case against the union was
As they point out, Sean Smyth, along with a current
T&GWU official, even arranged an appointment with
a solicitor to discuss initiating such action!
Sean Smyth changed his views
the sudden change of heart? If Sean Smyth viewed legal
action as correct then, why does the workers
refusal to drop all their legal action (not just the
possibility of a case against the union) now mean
that they have been shafted by shop stewards
and that idiot, from the so-called socialist party?
answer lies in the change that took place in the T&GWU
during the course of this protracted dispute. When
it began the right wing regime of Sir Bill Morris
was firmly in charge. The union leadership was in
the pocket of Blair and New Labour. Irish regional
secretary, Mick OReilly, and regional organiser,
Eugene McGlone, had been sacked on trumped up charges
as part of a general clampdown on internal democracy
and the rights of members. The sell out at the airport
was part and parcel of the general drift towards tame
elections were held for the Deputy General Secretary
and then the General Secretary positions, the Socialist
Party, alongside most of the left in the union, advocated
a vote for Tony Woodley. We did so because he was
the more left candidate and because his
victory would encourage the left and could lead to
an opening up of the union.
supported Woodley, but not uncritically. After all,
in the previous General Secretary election, Bill Morris
had been the more left candidate standing
against Jack Dromey who was seen as even deeper in
the pocket of Tony Blair. Yet Bill Morris tenure
was characterised by the betrayal of the Liverpool
Dockers and more recently of the airport workers.
at least promised to reinstate Mick OReilly
and Eugene McGlone. He pledged to stop the wholesale
sell off of union offices begun by Morris and to keep
the T&GWU in the High Street. He also had met
with the airport shop stewards and promised them that
the weight of the union would be put behind their
battle to bring the airport to heel.
have many differences with Tony Woodley. He would
not agree with our view that all union officials should
be elected, not appointed. Nor would he endorse our
call for the wages of officials general secretaries
included to be limited to the level of the
members they represent. We believe that the time has
come for the unions to break with New Labour and begin
the process of building a new party to represent the
working class. Woodleys position is to defend
the link with Blairs party. In a campaign meeting
in Belfast he even argued that the T&GWU should
pay more money to New Labour on the grounds that more
money would mean more influence.
to Woodleys promises, it is early in his term
and the jury is still out. It is possible that on
the basis of an upsurge of struggle he could get pushed
to the left. But the signs are not auspicious. Transport
House in Belfast, which for many years has been an
- underutilised asset for trade unionists and
workers in struggle is apparently to be sold. And
if the treatment meted out to the airport workers
is a measure of the support workers who take industrial
action can expect then not much has changed from the
Smyths account of what happened after Tony Woodley
won the General Secretary election in June of last
year is long on accusation but sparse indeed when
it comes to facts. His account of the negotiations
and the eventual offer made by ICTS bears absolutely
no relation to the reality of what took place.
August the union backed the workers in putting pickets
on the airport. There was much talk from the officials
involved of bringing the airport to a halt
and of forcing ICTS to come up with serious
money. After Woodleys intervention ICTS
did offer to negotiate.
Smyth says because of unwarranted interference
from that well intentioned idiot from
the Socialist Party (myself) the shop stewards refused
to send any representatives to the talks. For
the record I had no discussions with the shop stewards
as to whether or not they should attend. They took
their own decisions or rather a decision was
forced upon them.
the union offered to take the three shop stewards
across to London. Then for cost reasons they said
they would only pay for one of the three to go. The
shop stewards agreed and decided to send Chris Boyer.
before he was allowed to board the plane, Chris was
presented with a document to be signed stating that
the three shop stewards give an undertaking that they
would not take any legal action against the union.
Chris refused to accept this precondition which would
have meant withdrawing legal action, not only against
the union but against ICTS and the airport. The union
then refused to pay his way to London and the talks
went ahead with no representative of the sacked workers
Smyths version of what then happened is that
the shop stewards began to make impossible demands
which made it impossible for the union to negotiate.
In fact the demands of the shop stewards and the sacked
workers for reinstatement or compensation and for
the truth about their sacking to come out had not
changed from the early part of the dispute when Sean
Smyth was supporting them. The only thing that was
different was that a new leadership was now in charge
of the T&GWU.
union did negotiate and, in Sean Smyths words,
ICTS made an offer to settle the dispute.
The three shop stewards, he claims, rejected the offer
and in so doing decided to separate from the
other workers and sue the union, the company and the
airport. Then as agreement could have
been reached the dispute was wound up and is now set
to go to tribunal.
line of argument is clear. The union negotiated a
reasonable settlement. The shop stewards refused to
accept it because they were sticking to impossible
They separated from the other workers, shafting them
in the process.
crux of the whole question is, of course, what were
the terms of the reasonable offer which
the shop stewards so unreasonably turned down. Sean
Smyths whole argument against the workers hinges
on this. Yet, remarkably, nowhere in his article does
he explain what the offer entailed.
surprising since what ICTS came up with was a miserly
deal, or to put in plainer terms, a sell out. The
terms of this deal, as recommended by Tony Woodley
to Gordon McNeill, were as follows:
of the shop stewards, Chris and Gordon, were to get
a once off compensation payment of around £9,000.
Out of this they were to pay back benefits they had
received from the union, leaving them with about £4,000
- £5,000. Madan Gupta, the third shop steward,
was to be offered £4,000 less benefits, leaving
him with around £2,000. The rest of the sacked
workers were to get token payments of £1,000
- £1500 and some were to get nothing. As one
of them quipped, when the offer was reported to them,
If we have to pay back our benefits this means
well end up owing money!
of the twenty three were to be offered jobs back in
the airport but part of the deal was an acceptance
that none of the shop stewards would ever be re-employed.
of this deal also meant a final settlement of the
dispute and the withdrawal of all legal claims against
ICTS and the airport.
to what Sean Smyth implies, this rotten deal was not
just rejected by the shop stewards; it was unanimously
rejected by all of the twenty three sacked workers.
The shop stewards did not shaft the workers
by refusing this deal, but they would most certainly
have shafted them if they had endorsed
offer to meet Sean Smyth
Sean Smyth aware of the details of the offer? If he
was he should have spelt out in his article just what
he was advocating the workers accept. If not, he should
have acquainted himself with the facts before firing
his public salvos of abuse and denunciation.
had the opportunity to hear both sides of this argument
but chose not to listen to the airport workers
case. As he points out, in September of last year,
when he began making his allegations he was contacted
by a member of the Socialist Party who claimed
that the airport workers were denying my version and
claiming that the union was shafting them.
Socialist Party member concerned was Carmel Gates,
now also the President of NIPSA. Carmel spoke to the
shop stewards who offered a meeting with Sean Smyth
to clear things up. They even offered to let him meet
the other sacked workers with no shop steward present
so that there could be no ambiguity as to their real
views on the offer, on the role of the union officials,
on the role of the shop stewards or on any other matter
he wanted to raise.
then communicated this offer by email (15th Sept)
to Sean: They would like to meet with you to
discuss the issue. They are happy for you to bring
whoever you want to that meeting. The shop stewards
are happy to arrange the meeting and have also agreed
not to be in attendance so that you can hear from
the workers themselves.
did not take up this offer. Nonetheless a few weeks
later he was prepared to repeat the allegations in
his posting on The Blanket.
is letting the right wing off the hook?
more ridiculous than the suggestion that the shop
stewards have shafted the other workers
is the claim, at the end of his article, that my interference,
misleading workers who were unable to make rational
decisions because they were so full of hatred and
disgust!! has led to the bureaucrats and
careerists behind the plight of the airport workers
getting off the hook.
of all let me repeat, the workers are not the gullible
fools Sean Smyth so patronisingly makes them out to
be. For nearly two years they have shown their mettle
as determined and committed trade unionists. During
this time they have listened to advice from myself
and many other people, but have come to their own
the right wing officials responsible for the initial
sell out at the airport and the subsequent shoddy
treatment of these workers do get off the hook
it will not be because the sacked workers refused
to accept the deal recommended by Tony Woodley and
fact, had they accepted this deal, these officials,
together with the management at ICTS and Belfast International
Airport, would have heaved a collective sigh of relief.
The demand of the airport workers all along has been
for justice, not just for compensation. They want
the truth about what happened brought out.
is why they have demanded that the union conduct an
inquiry into the way in which their dispute was handled.
If Sean Smyth is concerned about officials getting
off the hook why point the finger of responsibility
at the airport workers or, more ludicrously still,
at the Socialist Party? Why not pose the real question
what is stopping the Woodley leadership from
setting up an inquiry and making sure that the facts
are brought out?
airport workers also want the role of the airport
and ICTS exposed. They want to show that employers
cannot trample on the rights of workers and get away
with it. Had they accepted the Woodley offer it would
have meant a final closure of the dispute.
pending legal action against the Company would have
been dropped the T&GWU would have quietly
buried the issue as well. There could have been no
further publicity or exposure of the steps the airport
took to try to break this dispute. The victimisation
of shop stewards would have been accepted.
they did not receive proper backing from the union
the workers have been unable to use industrial means
to force the airport to back down. Their demand for
an internal T&GWU inquiry has been refused. Their
only option, apart from selling their principles for
the few shillings offered by ICTS to shut them up,
is now to take the case to court and, win or lose,
to try to make sure that enough of the truth comes
out to clear their names of the poisonous allegations
that have been levelled against them by the former
employers, by the right wing T&GWU and now by
those on the left of the union who initially
are many lessons from all of this, but the key lesson
is the need to build a genuine left in the T&GWU
as in other unions. This means a left which will not
abandon its ideas or turn its back on workers in struggle
just because a different wing of the bureaucracy has
taken charge, and at the behest of this new leadership.
airport dispute has highlighted the need to put the
membership back in charge of the union, to have officials
elected, not appointed and to cancel the perks and
privileges they enjoy by putting them on the wages
of the people they represent.
airport workers themselves have learned many lessons.
They have seen the rotten role played by full time
officials. Their confidence in officials from the
left of the union who initially gave them full support
but who ended up carrying on where the right officials
left off, has been sorely shaken. They have also seen
through fair-weather friends- like Sean Smyth and
like those SWP members like Davy Carlin who responded
to Seans article by placing a posting on Indymedia
(Nov.19) recommending it as an interesting account
of the airport strike and its outcome. In the
last analysis their attitude has been determined by
which wing of the bureaucracy is in charge of the
T&GWU, not by the rights and wrongs of the issue.
all this the airport workers have received massive
and ongoing support from rank and file members of
the T&GWU and of other unions. When the dust finally
settles on the dispute the members will be the judge
of whether they were right to continue their fight.
for Sean Smyths article surely a better title
would be all bureaucrats are equal but some
are more equal than others.
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