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Last Updated: Friday, 9 September 2005, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
T&G attacks Gate Gourmet 'lunatics'
By Ben Davies
BBC News political reporter

It has been a tough job getting hold of Tony Woodley this summer.

First the Transport and General Workers' Union chief was involved with the aftermath of the collapse of Rover and then the Gate Gourmet crisis blew up.

The catering company, which has a contract with British Airways, sacked hundreds of workers who they say were in engaged in illegal industrial action.

Tony Woodley
Woodley has led the T&G since 2003
The ensuing dispute hit the headlines because 700 BA flights were cancelled as baggage handlers walked out in support of their colleagues.

It takes several months of trying to find a few spare minutes in his exceedingly busy schedule before we speak - and it is just in the nick of time ahead of the start of this year's TUC conference in Brighton.

His opening remark is: "I've got all me Gate Gourmet stewards in here so I'll have to be reasonably quick."

He goes on to say that there is little progress to report on the dispute before branding the company's management as "lunatics".

'Super union'?

"We are trying to find an appropriate way forward and clearly British Airways not signing their new agreement with them is very helpful at the moment," he says.

"But we are in active discussions, we are talking, and we are trying to make progress but with these people having switched a gear on so many occasions I wouldn't like to get my hopes up".

The one-day wonders in the south east and the south-west have drifted away
"So it doesn't make economic sense to bring these people back in the eyes of these lunatics who are running Gate Gourmet."

Earlier this month the head of the company, David Siegel, said he was willing to reinstate up to 400 of the sacked in-flight caterers.

But he insisted the business would fail if he reinstated everyone.

Meanwhile the dispute at Gate Gourmet coupled with Rover has given Woodley a fair degree of prominence in recent months and many tip him to become the leader of the new 'super union' that is expected to be created out of an amalgamation of the T&G, Amicus and possibly the GMB.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has warned the three unions not to turn their back on their umbrella organisation.

Eye on the future?

Woodley says Barber has nothing to fear from the "historic" creation of a super union that would account for 60% of all TUC-affiliated members and have a subscription approaching 5m each year.

"What they've got to do is continue what we're asking them to do, sorry, we want to advise them to do, what our members advise us to do which is to be more relevant to the members," he says.

TUC boss Brendan Barber
Barber has expressed fear over 'super union' enthusiasm for the TUC
He adds: "If the TUC hadn't been invented you would have to invent one today. Its relevance tomorrow, like unions, will be proven by what they do from today not what they've done in history. They've got to campaign to be relevant."

Woodley says Barber's nervousness comes about in part because several US unions have split with the American equivalent of the TUC - and that only happened because the ALFCIO had "not listened".

So is Barber the right person to lead the TUC, is he a good enough communicator? Woodley says he is heartened the general secretary had called for "legal solidarity action" based on the struggle with Gate Gourmet.

Blair succession

Somewhat enigmatically he adds: "All of us have smelt the coffee in recent times.

The sooner [Tony Blair] steps aside and allows this process to take place he would agree that's the right thing to do now
"It's also important that the British Government smells the coffee - they've seen their heartlands of traditional working class Labour voters turn out in great numbers and return them to power whilst the one-day wonders in the south east and the south-west have drifted away.

"If it wasn't for the trade unions and for those traditional voters they could very well have lost their majority with just another 1% swing against them in marginals."

Which brings us neatly on to the vexed question of the succession. When should Tony Blair go and who ought to take over?

Woodley is striking a rather more conciliatory note than he did two years ago at his first TUC conference as T&G general secretary when he said the prime minister should quit there and then over Iraq. Now he merely says the sooner he goes the better.

Free market worries

"Mr Blair has made history and no one's more pleased than me that we've got a Labour prime minister in for a third term. No-one's more pleased than me. We put our money, and our people and our efforts, where our mouth is. We've done that as a whole trade union movement not just the T&G," Woodley says.

It is now time for whoever the new leader is to put forward a vision for the next five to 10 years, he argues.

"Of course Mr Blair for all his past leadership isn't going to be the man to do that.

Sacked Gate Gourmet workers
The Gate Gourmet dispute has yet to be resolved
"So the sooner he steps aside and allows this process to take place he would agree that's the right thing to do now."

And should Gordon Brown take over?

Woodley won't say outright what he thinks describing himself as "but one voter in the Labour Party".

"Whoever the Labour leader is in the future - in the near future - I hope he's got traditional Labour values and understands that trade unions are a force for good in society and the wider world and we're not the enemy within."

Listening?

Woodley reveals the chancellor is going to meet Gate Gourmet workers when he comes down to the TUC conference in Brighton and he says he is delighted about that.

We've been too close to the gaffer, too close to the government
But there are many other issues he wants to raise with Mr Brown including manufacturing, pensions, democracy in the Labour Party and equal pay in the public sector. He also has concerns about the chancellor's enthusiasm for the free market.

"There are many big issues and hopefully people like him who aspire to be the next leader of the Labour Party don't just listen - it's what you do that counts.

"As I would say to Mr Brown, some of the free marketeering approach that is problematic to workers is pushed by our chancellor so they say."

Membership problems

And there is an additional problem for people like Woodley. The decline in the UK's manufacturing base has, he estimates, cost four million jobs in recent years - a major area of union membership has ebbed away and it simply isn't being replaced.

So why haven't people been joining trade unions?

"Because we seem in their eyes we've been too close to the gaffer, too close to the government and that's one of the reasons other than the changes in where people work," he says.




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