Serviceair baggage handlers strike, Gatwick Airport, UK, 2004

A first person account of a picket line visit at a Serviceair baggage handlers strike at Gatwick Airport in 2004, with information about the strike.

(25th of September 2004) Serviceair are an airport company doing baggage handling, maintenance, ticket sales etc. There are four baggage handling companies at Gatwick and Serviceair are the second biggest, handling baggage for Continental Airways, British Midland, Ryanair, Easyjet and many others. British Airways are the only company with their own baggage handlers. The average baggage handlers wage is £15,500 per year and many travel a long way to get to work. Most worked there many years, 15 or more.

I went along to the picket line at Gatwick. I arrived at the airport and asked the Serviceair ticket desk if there was a picket line. “You’ll have to talk to the management, I don’t know anything at all. Next please”. I then asked some guys in yellow jackets at a baggage type place. “That’s not us. That’s Serviceair on strike. We don’t know anything”. “Have you noticed any disruption today”? “No. None at all”. So I went to the Gatwick Airport official information desk. “Certainly madam. Go down the stairs, turn right and it is a five minute walk by the roundabout”. Very helpful.

I arrived and there were about 50 men with their yellow Serviceair jackets. They seemed to be in a chatty, up-beat mood. The vibe was good with lots of people beeping as they went past.

They were at the roundabout because they were banned from the airport building, but had three picket lines around the area. If they were all as big as the one I went to, then there must have been hundreds out on the picket line. I arrived at about 2.30 p m and they said there had been a lot more when the strike started at 7.00 a.m.

It is a 24 hour strike with another one day on Thursday about general work conditions, especially the increased workload leading to health and safety problems, and the re-instatement of a suspended TGWU Union convener. There was a spontaneous ten-minute stoppage a while ago about new ‘working practices’ and the union convener came along and told them to go back to work. They did and the management then suspended this guy for inciting industrial action. This was a pretext, as there was some important negotiations coming up and they didn’t want him there. When he was suspended the workers went on a four-hour stoppage. The management then agreed that he could attend the specific negotiations, but not have his job of convenor back. One of their demands it to get him reinstated. They have a lot of trust in him and said he was very sharp and if they didn’t have him they would not have anyone to represent them in the negotiations.

But when I asked about the union in general and how they were handling the strike it was a bit more complex. They did think that a longer strike, e.g. two days, would be more effective, but they dismissed the idea of wildcat strikes as being too risky to their own job security.

“Do you trust the union?”

“Interesting question. No comment” with a laugh.

They all talked about the general situation of the increased workload. Five injuries in one night was one example, because they were ten men short. They are straining their muscles and generally getting overworked. They do not have extra staff during the summer when there is a lot more work. The management use the excuse that it takes up to 12 weeks to security-check new workers. The flip side of this is that it is much harder for them to quickly get scab labour.

During this strike 100 percent of Serviceair baggage handlers and maintenance staff walked out and the work was being done by managers bussed in from around the country, at a high cost.

They said that although all the baggage handlers were facing the same problem, they did not see any chance of the strike spreading. They do chat to the workers of other companies a bit, but the work is quite separate, loading and unloading different companies’ aeroplanes. The issue remains very local and specific. Serviceair baggage handlers at other airports were not on strike either. However, the other baggage handling companies are at least not scabbing, i.e. not doing Serviceair work and some came to picket line to show support. The workers I spoke to did not have any contact with the re-fulers who were on strike at Heathrow the day before.

There was a really good feeling on the picket line. Friendly, open and optimistic. They were really happy to talk to me and were not at all suspicious or paranoid. The mood was determined, but not really that hopeful that the work conditions will change.