From The Socialist, No. 37, Sept 2008.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
In June, Gordon McNeill and his two fellow sacked Belfast Airport shop stewards won an important victory for all trade unionists. A Court of Appeal judgement found that their former employer, airport security firm, ICTS, had sacked them because of their socialist political beliefs as committed trade unionists. This makes it more difficult – and potentially more costly – for employers to victimise trade union activists.
At the start of September, Gordon McNeill won a second victory for all trade unionists. He successfully defended his right, as a trade union activist, to protest. But this time his battle was not against his employer.
The people who were trying remove his right to protest, and to imprison him, for daring to defend this right were – incredibly – the leaders of his trade union, Unite. In April, when the three shop stewards were protesting at Transport House demanding that the union fulfil earlier promises to pay their legal fees and compensate them for the union’s part in getting them sacked, Unite Regional Secretary, Jimmy Kelly, went to the courts to get an injunction to remove them.
This injunction was served on Gordon McNeill during a later hunger and thirst strike in May and police were called to have him removed from the building. At this point the Unite leadership paid £40,000 each to Cordon’s two fellow shop stewards, Chris Bowyer and Madan Gupta, in return for a commitment that they would never again criticise any trade union official for the role they played in this dispute.
Gordon refused to accept this bribe, making clear that his right to tell Unite and other trade union members the truth about the role played by their officials was not for sale.
Union officials should be accountable to the members they represent. In order to make them accountable the members must have the right to know what they are doing. The bribe and gagging clause insisted upon by Jimmy Kelly and Unite General Secretary Tony Woodley, would deny members that right. This is why Gordon McNeill has refused to accept it.
Since May Gordon has campaigned for Unite’s leaders to restore his right to free speech by removing the gagging order and also to restore his right to protest by lifting the injunction.
His campaign has involved further protests at Transport House. On Friday 29 August matters came to a head. While sitting outside Transport House Gordon was issued with a summons to appear in court to face committal proceedings for breaking the injunction. Gordon made clear that he would go to prison rather than surrender his right to peacefully protest. At the court case on 3 September his stand was vindicated. The union’s attempt to saddle him with all the costs of the case was thrown out. The terms of the injunction were defined so as to allow him to return to the spot at the building where the summons had been served and protest there legally.
Obviously stung by the fierce reaction to his scandalous attempt to imprison a trade union activist, and by the collapse of his attempt to intimidate Gordon McNeill away from Transport House, Jimmy Kelly then issued a statement saying that the union had not wanted to imprison him but only to have the court “explain the powers attached to the injunction”. But, since the “powers attached to the injunction” are of imprisonment, this is a meaningless statement.
Jimmy Kelly went on to say that he upholds the right to protest peacefully “but not at the expense of other union members”. This is a dangerous and arbitrary limitation of democratic rights that should not go unchallenged. For example, there is a long tradition within the trade union movement of rank and file trade unionists lobbying and protesting at their union offices.
Remember the sacked Liverpool Dockers who organised a mass protest at Transport House in London, much to the annoyance of then General Secretary, Bill Morris who complained of the disruption to the union. Under Jimmy Kelly’s limitation of democratic rights they would have had no right to be there. Perhaps what he really means is that he upholds the right to protest – but not against him!
Unite’s leaders have dug themselves into a hole on this issue. Their caricature of the airport workers’ campaign as “anti trade union” simply won’t wash. Gordon McNeill is not attacking the union; he is opposing bad practices within the union leadership so that these can be corrected.
Similarly Unite’s leaders are not defending the union. They are defending themselves by offering £120,000 to three shop stewards to keep them from criticising any union official. The way to end the protest campaign is not through bribes and injunctions. It is by paying Gordon McNeill the same level of compensation that was given to his colleagues, but without the gagging clause.
Last updated: 28.7.2012