Mark Steel on the BA strike

Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Here we go. It’s time to blame everything on the unions again. So Gordon Brown calls the planned cabin crews’ strike “deplorable”, but the Tories and most newspapers scream this isn’t enough. Presumably David Cameron will make a statement that starts, “This is much worse than deplorable, Gordon Brown, it’s shit. Absolute shit. And I don’t mean like a cow pat, that can be quite endearing in a rural setting, I mean a great squashy dollop left by an untrained Alsatian. So why doesn’t the Prime Minister go ahead and say so.”

Every news report seems to start with someone explaining their distress about the possible cancellation of their journey, and you expect the reporter to finish by turning to the camera and saying “See what you’ve done, you unions? I covered the war in Bosnia but this beats anything that happened there. I hope you’re pleased with yourselves you bastards. And with that, back to the studio.”

The strange part is that BA cabin crews don’t generally come across as the selfish wrecking thugs they’re now portrayed as. They mostly smile and bring you stuff, so why would 80 per cent of them vote twice for a strike? Perhaps it’s because the company wants to bring in new staff on inferior terms to those offered to current employees, with less security and lower wages than the current basic rate of £18,000.

The most common response to this complaint is the current terms can’t go on, because Easyjet and Ryanair pay their staff much less. And it’s not fair if some people are being treated horribly, so the answer is to treat everyone horribly and then no one feels bad. Maybe charities should work like this. Oxfam could go to Mozambique and say, “So you’re living on a bowl of rice a day are you? Well in Somalia they’re living on half a bowl of rice a day, so we’re taking half your rice away you greedy pigs.”

The anti-union rage takes some splendidly imaginative forms. The Conservatives are demanding that Gordon Brown refuses to take funding from Unite. This seems reasonable, as Unite have never shuffled their assets to Belize, never lied about bringing them back, have open votes about political donations and represent the interests of one-and-a-half-million people instead of one person, so they clearly know nothing about how to run a modern business.

And The Daily Telegraph informed us the strike is part of a plot for the unions to run the country, and as part of the evidence one of the Unite offices is “A few doors down from the old Communist Party HQ”. Even McCarthy, as far as I know, didn’t bellow, “Have you or have you ever been or have you ever lived a few doors down from a communist?”

But that’s because he was too soft. Everyone knows the old trick of living a few doors down from the old headquarters, then you only have to nip back in time and you’re only a few doors from the current headquarters, with a short walk to ask advice on how to turn the country communist in the future by calling a strike of cabin crews. As it’s only a few doors away this means there must be other places, a Boots the chemist perhaps, that are even nearer. Buy a tube of toothpaste from the place and you’re as good as selling the old Soviet Union our nuclear missiles.

The people who foam with rage about the union say, “Now is not the time for a strike” as if they want to offer it strategic advice. But if a management imposes a new set of substantially worse conditions, what is a union supposed to do? Does it wait 20 years for a quiet moment, or maybe only bring out the retired and dead members on strike, so no one will notice, in the hope this will win over public opinion?

The anti-union lobby claim they don’t mind unions as long as they’re responsible, but it’s more accurate to say they don’t mind unions as long as they’re ineffective. They’d be happy if a union was like a church group, and told its members “We’ve all been given a 40 per cent wage cut, so in response we’re going to have some lovely Madeira cake and a game of whist.”

So now we should prepare for the next phase, once the strike’s begun, in which every news report begins by telling us “Heroic passengers on one plane beat the strike by dishing out their own chicken and unidentifiable pudding, and pointing to the emergency exits while no one took any notice themselves. ‘We beat Hitler so we can trounce this lot,’ said one woman, who has now been recommended for the Victoria Cross”.