The HR director at embattled airline caterer Gate Gourmet has spoken out about being at the centre of what he called “the most media-intensive industrial dispute of the past five years”.
In an exclusive interview with Personnel Today, Andy Cook, who only joined Gate Gourmet 10 weeks ago, said the row between the company and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) had been like “walking into a storm of brown stuff”.
The dispute broke out on 10 August when Gate Gourmet sacked 670 staff after they illegally walked out in protest at the firm’s restructuring plans.
Cook admitted the situation had arisen because of the company’s outdated working practices, but he said the union had to take responsibility for it escalating.
He has also publicly apologised for mistakenly sending dismissal letters to employees off sick, on holiday or on rest days on the day of the unofficial action.
“Everything we have done we have had to do. We have been forced into this situation by the union,” he told Personnel Today. “If there have been mistakes, it is only as a consequence of it being new territory for everyone involved.”
Cook’s involvement extended to a weekend visit to the High Court in an attempt to get an injunction to stop people picketing the firm’s offices, and then facing the cameras outside.
“It has been incredibly difficult both personally and professionally being in the media spotlight,” he said. “Gate Gourmet has been portrayed as a ‘hard-assed’ US union-busting organisation, and that is wrong. But I don’t regret the decisions we made, as the company can’t be held to ransom.”
Cook, a former trade unionist, said he still believed unions had a valid part to play in the workplace, despite this experience. He also praised the “helpful” contribution of TUC general secretary Brendan Barber in negotiations.
Two sides to every story
– Andy Cook joined Gate Gourmet from Transport for London in June, just before a union vote on changes to working practices and job losses, designed to save the company about £14m.
He said union management had guaranteed the firm a ‘yes’ vote but then went back on that agreement. This left the company “in a state of limbo”, he said.
On 10 August, the firm brought in 28 seasonal workers to cope with staff holidays and increased demand from its customers, including British Airways.
In protest, staff gathered in the canteen while managers pleaded with them to return to work. Cook said he had meetings with local shop stewards and senior union officials over the course of the morning. “We advised them that if staff didn’t go back to work, we would have to start the dismissal procedure,” he said.
“We used the internal PA system to make announcements as well as passing round memos. We used a megaphone in the car park to communicate with staff as it was the best method of talking to 500-plus people.”
Cook, who was in charge of HR at the British Library in 2002 when there was a staff dispute over pay, denied there were any pre-meditated plans to provoke confrontation with the union and its members. However, he admitted there were “plans in place in case of industrial action”.
– A Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) spokesperson said: “It is factually incorrect to state that the T&G reneged on an agreement to change working practices and reduce headcount. We recommended to members a rescue package, yet Gate Gourmet management responded to our demand that managers, as well as the workforce, bear the pain of cuts by reclassifying 147 shopfloor workers and making them redundant.
“Gate Gourmet then brought in 130 temporary workers, even though the T&G had said we found this unacceptable while staff were being threatened with redundancy. We believe this move was pre-meditated, with the purpose of provoking a confrontation with staff. T&G members were summarily sacked while waiting for reps to return from a meeting with management, and others were sacked by megaphone in the car park. Gate Gourmet’s actions have at times been aggressive, bullying, pre-meditated and counter-productive.”