Gate Gourmet loses legal battle to stop pickets

The ruling came as the firm - which provides in-flight meals for British Airways - threatened to call in administrators unless BA agreed to a favourable new supply contract.

But, although its legal actionn failed yesterday, the company was granted an injunction limiting the number of pickets allowed immediately outside its gates.

Gate Gourmet's dismissal of more than 600 catering staff prompted a walkout by BA ground staff earlier this month, which led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights and stranded thousands of travellers across the world.

Since then, the sacked workers and the Transport and General Workers' Union have staged daily demonstrations outside the company's Heathrow offices. Emotions have run high. Gate Gourmet claims that staff have been intimidated by the demonstrators, and the police were called in to investigate claims that one employee was head-butted.

In a submission to the judge, the firm's regional director of quality assurance, Patricia Clark, claimed that of the 250 drivers on its staff 10 had resigned last week because of intimidation, 63 were on short-term sick leave and 23 were absent without having given a reason. She said this had caused a "critical" situation.

Mr Justice Fulford refused the company's request to limit the number of protesters on a grassy verge near the building. But he ruled that only six pickets can demonstrate directly outside the gates.

"The rights to peaceful assembly have a long and important history in our democratic system, and a court will be slow to stop any of those who seek within the law to express their opposition to action that has some effect on their lives from doing so," he said.

Speaking after the hearing, Andy Cook, the director of human resources at Gate Gourmet, said he was "delighted" with the ruling. "The judge has agreed with us in the ruling that harassment and intimidation has been occurring against our employees. This gives us an order we need to make sure that behaviour will stop," he said.

He said the company had never wanted to limit the size of the protest, only to stop the "small minority" involved in the intimidation. The company had asked for the injunction to prevent what it described as "assaulting, threatening, intimidating, molesting or otherwise abusing employees".

Under the terms of the injunction, which comes into effect today, the T&G will be legally responsible for the pickets' behaviour.

"We are hoping that the Transport and General Workers' Union will now ask their people to behave sensibly and in accordance with the order," Mr Cook said.

A T&G spokesman, Brendan Gold, said that the ruling made it clear that most of the protesters were picketing legally.

The dispute has put a severe strain on Gate Gourmet's relationship with BA. The company, which is the airline's sole catering supplier, has threatened to put its UK business into administration unless BA agrees to a new supply contract by tomorrow night. BA represents 80 per cent of UK revenue for Gate Gourmet, but the company has been losing £25m a year at Heathrow. Talks to extend the current contract began in April, but BA is understood to be demanding that Gate Gourmet resolve its labour dispute, which was caused by the company's attempts to introduce new working practices.