Heathrow strikers and Unite's advan Heathrow strikers and Unite's advan. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Thousands of frontline workers at Heathrow Airport have begun strike action against the company’s fire and rehire tactics, reports Yonas Makoni

Workers at Heathrow Airport Ltd, the largest workplace in Europe, have gone on strike, taking to the picket line as the company’s brutal new fire and rehire contracts are set take effect. Despite the fact that the company has billions in cash reserves and is still making substantial pay-outs to shareholders, the management is imposing new permanent contracts on workers with an average 24% pay cut.

There are four days of strikes scheduled in total: two 24-hour strikes on the December 1 and 14, and a 48-hour strike on December 18-19. These include critical parts of the workforce, such as firefighters, baggage operations, campus security and engineers.

At the picket line, there was clear frustration among the workers. The plans have roused anger in the community, with unions and local MPs, including John McDonnell, coming out in solidarity. Unite London and Eastern regional secretary Peter Kavanagh gave a rousing speech, reminding the workers that they, not the senior management or shareholders, are ‘HAL’s most precious asset’.

An ad van with a picture of Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye as the Grinch toured the pickets with the messages ‘Heathrow Grinch CEO is stealing workers’ wages’ and ‘Heathrow’s super-rich shareholders are jetting off with workers’ wages’.

“This is a temporary problem, but they’re giving us a permanent solution”, said one striking worker, expressing the widely held sentiment that the company is taking advantage of the Covid crisis to attack its workforce.

Although Unite has attempted to reach a deal for temporary pay cuts with Heathrow, the airport refused to back down. Predictably, Unite’s suggestion that all employees, including top executives, return their 2019 bonuses and shareholders pay back £100 million in dividends was also rejected.

Striking workers are confident, however, that the workforce supports them and that they are making an impact. Although the airport remains operative, it has had to bring in third-party contractors to keep running.

This raised concerns among workers, who questioned the safety of the airport’s contingency measures. HAL has refused to discuss its contingency plans with Unite, despite the fact that it is demanding that the workers return to work should a ‘major’ or ‘critical’ incident be declared. Amidst previous concerns over staff wellbeing and ill health, this seemed like just another instance of the airport prioritising profits over the safety and wellbeing of staff and passengers.

While HAL’s management see it as unquestionable that the workforce should bear the brunt of the company’s austerity, the workers are well aware that Heathrow would be nothing without them. Their resistance shows that workers cannot be attacked with impunity and needs our full support.

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