"All bureaucrats are equal but some are more equal than others"
Sean Smyth's 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.
This 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.
The 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.
This 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.
This 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.
Indymedia 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 Smyth's 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 Smyth's version of events bears very little relation to what actually took place during this dispute.
His 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.
The shop stewards are presented as self seeking individuals out only for themselves, who, in Sean Smyth's fictional script are attributed comments like "Fuck them (the other sacked workers) I am only concerned with myself"
Perhaps the worst insult is the comparison of the role of two of the shop stewards, Gordon McNeill and Chris Boyer, with characters in George Orwell's 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.
We 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 Smyth's 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.
The facts of the dispute
All this is a very far removed from the long and inspiring struggle of the twenty three sacked airport workers. Before answering Sean Smyth's allegations in more detail it is therefore worth recapping what this battle was all about.
The 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 day.
On 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.
This 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.
The 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".
The 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.
The 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.
This 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.
The 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.
As 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?
The 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.
We 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.
The 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 McCusker's repudiation to back this up. If a Tribunal or Court found this to be justified the worker's would have been compelled to take action against the union for negligence as well as against their employers.
Although 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 the company.
In any case Sean's 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……Sean Smyth! 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!
Why Sean Smyth changed his views
Why 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'"?
The 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 O'Reilly, 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 "company" unionism.
When 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.
We 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.
Woodley at least promised to reinstate Mick O'Reilly 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.
We 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. Woodley's position is to defend the link with Blair's 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".
As to Woodley's 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 Morris era.
What actually happened
Sean Smyth's 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.
In 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 Woodley's intervention ICTS did offer to negotiate.
Sean 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.
Initially 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.
But, 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 present.
Sean Smyth's 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.
The union did negotiate and, in Sean Smyth's 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".
The line of argument is clear. The union negotiated a reasonable settlement. The shop stewards refused to accept it because they were sticking to "impossible" demands.
They separated from the other workers, shafting them in the process.
The 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 Smyth's whole argument against the workers hinges on this. Yet, remarkably, nowhere in his article does he explain what the offer entailed.
Hardly 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:
Two 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 we'll end up owing money"!
Six 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.
Acceptance of this deal also meant a final settlement of the dispute and the withdrawal of all legal claims against ICTS and the airport.
Contrary 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 it.
Workers offer to meet Sean Smyth
Was 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.
He 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".
The 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.
Carmel 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."
Sean did not take up this offer. Nonetheless a few weeks later he was prepared to repeat the allegations in his posting on The Blanket.
Who is letting the right wing off the hook?
Even 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".
First 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 decisions.
If 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 Sean Smyth.
In 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.
This 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?
The 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.
All 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.
Because 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 backed them.
The real lessons
There 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.
The 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.
The 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 Sean's 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.
Against 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.
As for Sean Smyth's article surely a better title would be "all bureaucrats are equal but some are more equal than others".
By Peter Hadden
On behalf of the Socialist Party