UniteLive stories of the year - Gatwick’s back

Unite wins big for Gatwick ground handlers after bold new strategy of coordinated action

Reading time: 10 min

Every day over the Christmas period, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2023. Today, we look back at how Unite has made a comeback at Gatwick Airport, with a number of wins for members at the airport this year thanks to a bold new strategy of coordinated action.

The COVID pandemic may have cast a pall on air travel for over two years, but step into Gatwick Airport today, and you wouldn’t know it.

Capacity at Gatwick Airport is back to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and airlines are raking it in like never before, with researching showing that airlines in Europe have increased their fares by an average of 30 per cent.

But a missing plot point in Gatwick’s comeback story is the workers themselves, thousands of whom lost or left their jobs during the pandemic. Those who were left to pick up the pieces have faced pay freeze after pay freeze, with many forced to work two jobs just to make ends meet amid an unprecedented cost of living crisis.

A shocking survey of Gatwick workers showed just how much they were struggling – nearly 90 per cent said they worked overtime because they needed the money, with 80 per cent saying they feared they wouldn’t be able to afford rent or mortgage payments this year if their pay didn’t increase in line with inflation. 

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they were forced to borrow money to make ends meet, and some even said they’ve had no other choice but skip meals or use food banks to put food on the table.

But thanks to a concerted Unite organising campaign that began in earnest this year, thousands of Gatwick Airport workers – ground handlers, passenger assistance staff and security agents among them – are now part and parcel of the remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the UK’s second largest airport.

In August, Unite resolved its eighth and final pay and conditions dispute with one of the many companies that operate at Gatwick Airport. In all eight of the separate disputes, not a single worker took a day of strike action – and they all received pay rises of up to 24 per cent.  

Different approach

Unite regional officer Dom Rothwell told UniteLive that this stunning success was never a foregone conclusion. It took reps’, members’, and organisers’ tireless work – and a bold new strategy of coordinated action — to make it happen.

“When we first started work on the Gatwick campaign, we had over two thousand members at the airport, but we had lost many experienced reps during and after the pandemic,” he explained. “All their skills and experience had gone.”

At the end of last year, Dom and a team of Unite organisers put together a plan to upskill new reps, with branch and rep development days.

“The idea behind it was that if we were going to rebuild Gatwick, we had to ensure the foundations were sound,” he explained.

Once Gatwick reps were more confident with their newfound skills, they launched a series of pay campaigns to further engage members and increase membership density.

“When we started, membership density was low in several of the companies we were looking at – many around 30 per cent,” Dom noted. “With that level of density, we simply weren’t in a position to make bold pay claims.”

It was then that Dom and his colleagues realised they needed to take a different approach.

“We thought – at a number of these individual ground handling companies, we weren’t very strong individually,” he said. “But what if we brought them all together? What if we synchronised our pay claims and later our industrial action ballots?”

And so lay the path forward. Reps from the eight companies put in their play claims at the same time in two separate phases based on pay anniversary dates. The companies at first didn’t take much notice and put forward below inflation pay offers. Meanwhile, reps and organisers ramped up their pay campaigns, by surveying members on pay and the impact of the cost of living, as well as asking them to sign petitions and other activities that increased engagement. This increased membership density in many of the companies to 60 per cent or more.

Eventually, some of the companies began to shift their position – but their offers were still below inflation. Members at each of the separate companies voted to reject the pay offers. Unite then ran a consultative ballot to ask members if they would take industrial action. Although it was a strong yes vote, the employers still failed to make acceptable offers to their staff.

“They were all pretty obstinate, thinking what’s the worst they’re going to do? Then we hit them all with a notice of industrial action ballot on the same day, then ran those ballots and closed them on the same day,” Dom explained. “We again then served notice of industrial action simultaneously with the same strike dates.”

The mandate for strike action was one that no employer could now ignore – they all voted more than 95 per cent in favour with turnouts exceeding 80 per cent.

Mounting industrial pressure

It was at this moment that the airport really started to take notice and raised their concerns with the airlines and ground handling companies.

“A key part of our strategy was carefully timing press statements to simultaneously serve notice of industrial action,” Dom noted. “To passengers, the individual outsourced companies like Menzies, DHL, GGS, Red Handling and others mean nothing to them. But when we got virtually all the ground handling workers at Gatwick serving the major airlines to agree to strike, it’s something that caught the press’ and public’s attention.”

What’s more, Unite highlighted research in the media showing that there’s been a pay and bonus bonanza going on in the boardrooms of all the major airlines, with CEOs rewarding themselves handsomely, all while passenger air fares are skyrocketing.

“We showed that not only are airlines stitching up the staff, but they’re also stitching up their customers. All this together really captured the public’s attention and prompted the airport to encourage the companies to sort out these disputes,” Dom said.

Faced with mounting industrial pressure, pay talks commenced in earnest with the companies concerned. Once a deal was struck with one of the largest employers, the other companies in phase one of the coordinated action followed suit, with members being offered inflation-busting pay rises of up to 23 per cent.  

In the second phase of planned coordinated strike action with the remaining companies, Unite deployed a similar strategy with equally astonishing success.

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges in each of the negotiations along the way – from union-busting tactics to protracted refusals to budge on pay – but thanks to the determined grit of Unite members emboldened by their coordinated pay campaign, they won.

‘Life-changing’ pay rises

And it wasn’t just significant pay rises that thousands of members at Gatwick achieved either – they’ve also all won sick pay for the first time ever, in an industry where sick pay is unheard of.

Members at some of the companies have benefited from other conditions improvements like ending zero hours contracts and significant increases in overtime and night-time working rates.

Dom emphasised that the pay rises that members received will be for many of them “nothing short of life-changing”.

“Many of our members were on low pay, just barely above the minimum wage during a cost of living crisis,” he explained. “I spoke to one member who said they couldn’t afford to take the bus to work two weeks after pay day, so they’d walk miles to work, even for shifts starting at two in the morning.”

But now the future is looking bright, not just for current Gatwick workers but for future ones as well.

“We’ve collectively shifted the market at Gatwick,” Dom said. “No company will be able to come in and compete unless they’re offering the level of pay rates and conditions we’ve established.”

Unite organiser Jack Bidmead highlighted that since the start of their pay campaign, net membership at Gatwick is up by more than 40 per cent.

“At all of the biggest companies, membership density is now well over 80 per cent – this is a huge achievement in such a short space of time,” he told UniteLive.

Looking forward

Jack reiterated the vital role that coordinated planning and action played in the success Unite has had at Gatwick, and the power it will have in the future.

“In previous years, when we negotiate company by company, one group of workers will hold out to see what another group can get, and sometimes no one ends up winning anything,” he explained. “This really enables employers to set the pace of negotiations. Now that we’ve got coordination, we’ve got the power to think bigger and more proactively.”

Jack said that the latest wins are only the beginning for Unite’s ambitions at Gatwick.

“The strength that we now have as a coordinated site means that we can now look at ideas like a minimum standards agreement, so that no one at Gatwick is paid under a certain amount, no one goes without sick pay or no one is forced to work overtime at a flat rate,” he noted.

In the end, Jack went on to say, the power of coordination is two-fold: “We can now defend against attacks on pay and conditions better, but more importantly, it’s about looking forward – we now have the power to fundamentally change what work is like at Gatwick and elsewhere.”

Dom said that members at Gatwick are “over the moon” about their recent wins, but he emphasised too that this was only the beginning.

“I think many people thought that what they did wouldn’t ever be achievable,” he said. “But we’re now telling members – it was you who did this, you who built your union in your workplace by standing together.  We can’t be fooled for one second into thinking we’ve won, and it’s over now. It took lots of hard work to get where we are now, and we’ve got to maintain and it sustain it to keep on winning.”

By Hajera Blagg