Preface of a book on the dispute at airport catering firm Gate Gourmet in 2005 by German group Flying Picket.
Gate Gourmet: "...got the taste for it" - Prol-Position introduction
We have published various smaller reports on the strike at Gate Gourmet in Düsseldorf, Germany [see http://libcom.org/tags/gate-gourmet]. In winter 2007 the editorial collective 'Flying Pickets' published an amazingly thorough documentation of the long dispute. Amongst other things, the book contains a detailed strike diary written by one of the Gate Gourmet workers, very insightful interviews with several Gate Gourmet workers on the changes of work organisation and the experiences made during the strike and a reflection of the support group on their activities. Given the international character of the aviation industries and its related struggles it would be a great project to translate the documentation (great in terms of quality and quantity; the book has 264 pages). Here is a translation of the preface, just in order for you to 'get the taste for it'. If you want to get in touch with the Flying Picket collective, send an email to: [email protected]
Preface of the book
Winter 2005/2006. A strike at Düsseldorf airport, at the catering company Gate Gourmet. In August 2005 the name of the company became known thanks to the spectacular strike at the London Heathrow airport. There, the workers' opponent is the Texas Pacific Group, a financial investor which took over Gate Gourmet in 2002 in order to restructure it and then sell it. In Düsseldorf the workers are confronted with the consulting company McKinsey. The work organisation is turned inside out - the work pressure is increased to unbearable degrees. For a long time the workers did not manage to counter this process, until finally the anger against work outweighed the fear of becoming unemployed. The official strike aim is a wage increase of 4.5 per cent. There are only two words on the banner at the strike tent: 'Human Dignity'.
Right from the first day the company managed to undermine the strike of the 80 workers by employing temp workers and employees from other branches. What had been planned as a short strike for a wage rise turned into months and months of trench warfare. At the beginning of December 2005, after two months of strike it seems that the management and union's negotiating board had finally come to a compromise that the strikers might have grudgingly accepted. But the compromise was canceled from above. The Texas Pacific Group dictatorially demanded the cut of payroll costs by ten per cent. Confronted with this kind of opponent the union NGG (food, consumable, gastronomy) was helpless and would rather have ended the strike. But the workers were not willing to return to work without having a proper result. The strike continued.
At the beginning the workers try to block the lorries that transport the catering goods to the aeroplanes. The union stop them doing this after having been threatened with demand for compensation by Gate Gourmet. In December groups of supporters turn up and block the strikebreakers on behalf of the workers. Flying Pickets stand in front of the lorries, they create a big fuss and delay departures. People from the left-wing scene, who are normally not interested in workers' struggle, turn up at the airport. They get enthusiastic about this strike against work stress, about the self-confident strikers and about the possibility of putting solidarity into direct action. A relationship of mutual trust develops between strikers and supporters. In the 'strike village' the idea becomes more tangible of what a connection of workers' struggles and social movements could look like.
The strike ends on the 7th of April 2006, after six months sharp. The workers have enforced a new collective contract, which helps to reduce further flexibilisations, but they have to put up with seven per cent 'cost cutting'. Despite the bad material result a lot of strikers see the strike as a personal success: because after years of keeping quiet and accepting deteriorations they have managed to fight back and by doing so they have learnt a lot; they have had important experiences.
This little strike is exemplary in many ways - regarding the self-initiative and 'self-empowerment' of the workers, but also regarding the difficulty of developing workers' power in 'modern capitalism'. After the wildcat strike at Opel/General Motors in Bochum in October 2004 [see prol-position news no. 1/2005 and short text in temp workers' reports in this issue] and after the following strikes in the public sector, at AEG in Nürnberg or at the Bosch-Siemens-Hausgerätewerk in Berlin [see article in this issue] there is hope for revitalisation of a lost strike culture. Serious strikes in which the workers play the main role and take the struggle into their own hands replace rituals of collective contract bargaining, which are not supposed to hurt anyone. At Gate Gourmet an informal mode of organisation existed already before the strike and it played an important role once the dispute was on: the 'underground group'. Without this structure such a close cooperation with the supporters would hardly have been possible and it would have been likely that the strike would have finished earlier and with worse results. At the same time the duration of the strike hints at the weakness of the workers. They did not manage to build up economic pressure. Confronted with the employment of temp workers they were powerless. In conflict with a modern form of capital, a 'private-equity firm' they did not manage to enforce themselves. And unfortunately they are not alone in this situation given that the struggles against lay-offs and plant closures mentioned above also got stuck. They did not put capital under pressure effectively, because they did not succeed in overcoming their isolation. And also because the new attempts of the workers at leading the struggles themselves remained too weak.
During the strike at Gate Gourmet there were many occasions to debate all these questions with the strikers. During long conversations in the strike tent they explained the background of the strike and bit by bit we started to understand how this informal structure worked and what kind of significance it had. Initially the strike activists were surprised by the idea of documenting these important experiences in a book: a whole book about this little strike which hasn't turned out to be a success story after all? Books about workers are not 'fashionable' anymore. Together with the old workers' culture, workers disappeared from the public consciousness. Even up to the point that their numbers are underestimated systematically. Beaud and Pialoux ("The lost future of the workers") have re-traced this process over twenty years, using the example of the Peugeot plant in Sochaux: on one hand there is little left of the pride of being a worker and having power as a class, on the other hand the 'workers' question' is more pressing than ever. On their strike-promoting tours the Gate Gourmet workers had the experience that deteriorating conditions and increasing work stress are not a peculiarity restricted to their company: "We got to know that these problems exist in other companies, as well. It is just that they don't have the courage to fight back. Our people would not have had the guts either, but then they walked out".
The question of how they did this is of importance for other workers. Often these experiences get lost, because no one writes them down and circulates them. A book has been published about the General Motors strike, shedding light on the background of the conflict "Six days of self-empowerment". With the publication of this book on the strike at Gate Gourmet we want to contribute more material for the debate about the future of the workers' movement.
We met with a great readiness amongst the strikers to sit down together for long interviews. These interviews and the many conversations at the gate and during rallies, when the workers explained their aims and anger, were also moments of self-reflection. The workers gained more clarity about the question of what had happened during the recent years, of why they had put up with it for so long and of why they walked out now in such a unity. Through their narration about the unbearableness of the work they re-assured themselves of their will to continue the struggle. Their own analysis of the background became more and more precise in time.
This book is a reading book. You can read the different parts independently from each other. We start with the wildcat strikes at London-Heathrow: Hot Autumn 2005 - containing more info on Gate Gourmet and Texas Pacific Group. A worker who we asked for an interview said that he would rather write something himself. This is how the Strike Diary from Düsseldorf evolved. His describes the strike in a retrospective and reflects on his personal impressions. The Chronicle at the end of the book can be a different introduction to the strike, providing an overview over the most important facts and background information. In the centre of this book is the Production of the Strike - Workers' conversations. It is a collage of interviews and other footage. Thirteen workers reflect on their strike, its prelude and impacts. Part of the prelude is the brutal restructuring which happened with the collaboration of McKinsey. Detlev Hartmann contributes a text on this matter and we have documented a recording from a strike discussion meeting: They are not supposed to be able to hide. After the strike some of the supporters met and debated about their experiences: The last blockade did not happen. A union secretary, who accompanied the strike during the whole time, said in an interview: It was good that we fought. Finally there is a Glossary providing, amongst others things, names and terms typical for the aviation industry which are marked with a * in each chapter.
Many people took part in the production of this book. They all did it for free, for solidarity reasons. The starting point was the discussion process between strikers and supporters, which began during the strike and which still continues today. The different texts were created out of this process. Some of the ex-strikers accompanied the whole production of the book, they answered questions that arose during the process, they gave advice and made suggestions. Those texts that are signed with individual names have also been debated and changed collectively. For all the other texts we take the editorial responsibility. In this sense Flying Picket is not a fixed collective. It represents the diffuse collective cooperation that developed during the strike and it stands for the action form of roaming pickets that the cooperation made possible.
Flying Pickets, November 2006
[Websites (in German):
[prol-position news #8 | 4/2007] www.prol-position.net