BY CAROLINE BELLAMY
LONDON - Morale was sky-high as 400 people attended a barbecue and rally at the Skychefs picket line at Heathrow Airport May 3. A few days previous, Lufthansa, the owner of Skychefs, had agreed to hold talks with the strikers' union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). For the past six months, since Lufthansa sacked workers for taking one-day strike action in a dispute over wages and working conditions, the company has refused to have any communication with the union.
"This is a victory," said strike leader Garth King, speaking at an earlier May Day rally. "It is our members' determined stand that has brought results. Most of the strikers are Asian women. The management thought they wouldn't stand up for their rights. They've been proven wrong!"
The strikers have been reaching out to Skychefs workers in other countries. In April, Skychefs workers in France held a one-day strike. "This was because the company wants to introduce the same conditions there that they're trying to do here," Adesh Farmahan, another leader of the strike, reported. "There was also a big element of solidarity with us here at Heathrow in the action." After a group of strikers visited Lufthansa trade unions in Germany, they received a message of support signed by 200 workers. Messages of solidarity and donations have been received from workers all over the world, including Spain, New Zealand, and the United States.
Labour Member of Parliament Kenneth Livingstone attended the picket line in April. Local television news covered the visit.
Piero, a chef who did not give his last name, was determined about the outcome of negotiations. "I go back with the union, not without," he said. "We will only go back if the union accepts the conditions in there. We can see what they're doing at the moment, sacking people whenever they want."
King reported three drivers inside the plant have been sacked for posting notices. The men were supposedly caught on covert cameras, which the company has installed to spy on workers in the factory since the strike. He also said five drivers resigned together because the company is advertising jobs at $575 per week, but telling new hires they will only get $325 per week for the first year once they have started the job.
On May 1, a contingent of 60 Skychefs strikers marched with their banner in the front of a May Day march of 3,000 people in London. "Don't be quiet, fight for your rights!" "Victory to the Skychefs workers!" and "Scabs out, workers in!" Next came the Magnet strikers who fought a long battle for union rights against an employer lockout. They lost their battle, but still meet to fight for pension rights and turn out to support other workers in struggle. Behind them were strikers from Critchley Labels in Wales, where workers have been locked out since February 1997. Women from Magnet and Skychefs exchanged experiences as they marched.
King was the first speaker at the rally following the march, held in Trafalgar Square in central London. "Lufthansa Skychefs is the biggest airline catering company in the world," he said. "For months we were involved in negotiations over company proposals for flexible working hours. Finally they broke down. We had no option but to ballot for industrial action. Seventy-five percent of union members voted in favor in a secret ballot, according to the law. But when we went on strike, the sackings started within hours." King concluded with a call for solidarity.
"The company must be going crazy in there!" said Kishur Kerai at the May 3 picket line barbecue and rally. "These people are having a party outside the factory, with no jobs! This is brilliant!" Kerai is a young militant at the Rosti technical plastics plant in Wembley, northwest London. He and his fellow workers have been fighting for union recognition at the plant for more than two years. Six of them came to the rally.
Terry Coogan, 23, a post office worker from Manchester came down for the day. "I thought they would all be down after six months on strike," he said. "But there's no weakening, they're all smiling and dancing. It's obvious they're not going to give in. These Indian women are showing us what anyone can do. I thought Íd come here to cheer them up, but it's the other way round, they're picking me up!"
Two workers from Los Angeles airport, Laura Anderson and César Guerrero, flew to London to attend the event. They brought a card of solidarity with messages of support from their co-workers and showing photographs of a demonstration at the Los Angeles airport. "A struggle for one working person is a struggle for all working people," wrote Teresa, a member of the International Association of Machinists. "The fight you have taken on is the same fight since the birth of labor. Good luck." Guerrero and Anderson were enthusiastically received by the strikers, who talked with them all afternoon.
Mark Walker, a guard at South West Trains and a National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) member, said, "This has proved to me that you can go on strike and people will stick it out," he said. "It also breaks the myth that Asian workers don't fight." About 85 percent of the Skychefs strikers are immigrants or children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.
Danny Burke, a longtime fighter for Irish freedom, came with Jim Redmond. They are both members of the Connolly Association. "I'm here supporting the working class," said Burke. "If they're in the right and we stick together, we'll win. That's why I've been fighting the Brits all my life."
Redmond, a member of the RMT at London Underground, added, "If they get away with sacking people for a one-day strike, they'll get away with it anywhere."
Others who came included airport workers at British Airways, Aer Lingus, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and a group of musicians from a Kurdish and Turkish youth center, who provided music for the event.
Caroline Bellamy is a RMT member. Jonathan Silberman contributed to this article.
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