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Gate Gourmet and other Bad American Stuff
Last uploaded : Saturday 20th Aug 2005 at 22:51
Contributed by : The Editor


I have been criticised from various quarters ( all said quarters in the UK) for ?writing about America? and for filling these pages with anti-British bilge. One amusing aspect of all this is that most irate letter-writers accuse me of being utterly ?ignorant? (when writing about Britain, where I have lived for thirty years) whilst others tell me ?stop writing about America,? about which I think I do have some knowledge. Theoretically, I ought to know more about Britain and Europe than about the United States because I spent only the first twenty-one years of my life in the USA.

So, here is some harsh criticism of the USA.

In recent weeks an American food services company in London has been at the centre of an ugly confrontation at Heathrow Airport that should never have taken place. Gate Gourmet, which provides British Airways with what I regard as delicious meals, has been ripped apart by the firing of 670 members of staff. What the management did not expect was the mass of solidarity that would follow on from this. The vast majority of employees of Gate Gourmet comes from the local Asian community of Southall, a borough with one of the most beautiful temples in the world. Other employees of Heathrow who came out on strike in sympathy included baggage handlers, who come from the same families that have built Heathrow village since the 1950s. Listening to the American boss of the firm on the radio, one cringed at his cold and distant view of an emotional and deeply symbolic labour crisis.

When I was in the USA for an extended period of time this past year, one message seemed to resonate wherever I travelled: there is no room for manoeuvre in an employee-employer confrontation, and loyalty counts for nothing. You are laid off, or fired, and that is it. Although Great Britain has, in recent years, begun to adopt the ruthless labour practices of the USA, there is still a vestige of honourable behaviour in employee-employer relations.

British Airways is said to have lost tens of millions during this crisis. It remains unresolved at this writing. The American company remains unmoved by the catastrophe it will cause if hundreds of local families lose their jobs; they are seeking an injunction to end picketing at the airport but this could escalate the situation. Until yesterday passengers were told to eat before boarding, but it appears doubtful there will be a normal supply from Gate Gourmet any time soon. As Andrew Gilligan reported in ?The Evening Standard? this week in an article about ?Heathrowistan,? the Asian community is deeply embedded in the life of London?s giant airport, even extending to Immigration officers. The American bosses seem to have missed the plot: these Sikhs and Hindus are loyal employees who, despite shameful wages, provide an exceptional service. One wonders if the bosses think the men with turbans and ladies in saris are the local Taliban; after 9/11 many a Sikh was beaten up across America, having been mistaken for (their word, not mine) ?ragheads.?

If the dispute is not settled soon the bitterness in the local community will be in everyone?s bloodstream for a long time. We suggest BA go back to having its own in-house catering and re-employ the 670 good people who have been treated in such a shabby manner.

As this is an effort to show that America and Americans are not all faultless gods, here is more ?bad stuff.? When my train broke down between Philadelphia and Washington, the only place I could find to sit, with great difficulty being somewhat disabled, was the canteen. I tried to position myself on a bench but kept touching the lady next to me. I made a joke to her and she, a 35-ish, rather elegant woman whose luggage tag indicated she lived in fashionable Georgetown, said she had no desire to talk to me and not to talk to her again. This was for me red rag to a bull, so I just continued trying to make smalltalk in my best ?acquired British accent.? This did not help, as she ignored me and as her equally elegant companion sneered. Thankfully, a load of people of all colours and shapes decided they did want to talk to me and the rest of my journey was actually pure delight. To this day I cannot imagine what possessed these two Americans to behave as they did, but perhaps they are related to the Gate Gourmet management. And I was not even wearing a sari!

Then there was the chap who, cellphone in hand, stopped to open the window of his giant SUV in order to tell me to ?stop whackin? my car,lady.? (I had banged my stick against his door by accident.) I told him I could assure him I had not done this on purpose as I am disabled, and he snarled, ?I don?t care what the hell you are, lady, just stop whackin? my car.? It was all I could do to refrain from smashing his windscreen with my cane, missing my train and ending up in jail, but.....Then there was the thoroughly unpleasant senior officer of the Drivers? Licence authority who treated ?folks? like something between a cockroach and serial child molester. I still refer to him, in recounting my polite efforts to apply for a licence, as the Gestapo Guy.

Well, that is about it. Over an aggregate of ten months in numerous American cities, one resort and some rural locations, I found Americans a joy to be with, and 99% of these generous and dynamic people made me feel like a ?mensch? and lifted my spirits as they had not been in many years at home in the UK. What a delight it is to eat a meal and be chatted up by a male couple at the next table, who by the end of the meal insist on paying my bill because they so enjoyed my company. What a treasure it is to be telephoned every day by a core of friends who love to talk about everything and anything and who never, ever, say ?Sorry, can?t stop to talk!? or ?Sorry, making scones for the WI? and who do actually 'phone back. Buttoned-up the chatterbox Yanks will never be.

So, much as I appreciate the supreme irritation of readers who dislike my waxing lyrical about the USA, there is a lot about it that is admirable, despite the rogues of Gate Gourmet, the SUV pig and the miserable ladies of the train carriage. The prize moment of my ten months came at a capacity Washington Nationals game in 90 degree heat when at the end of the long evening, the soap-clean-smelling men in my section neatly lined up their empty beer bottles for the recycling collectors: all seven bottles.

As this article goes to press the superb 'To End All Wars' is being broadcast on the BBC in primetime. It has to be one of the most explicit evocations ever broadcast of the cruelty of the Japanese to British soldiers during World War II. In Hiroshima Week there were the requisite programmes and editorials (AN Wilson, of course, branding the USA as collective war criminals) all of which made the United States look the consummate racist villain of the War. Despite the bad stuff of the title of this piece, where would we all be without the United States?

Just think about it.


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