Is it ‘deplorable’ to stand up for yourself?

It is job-cutting, wage-freezing British Airways that has behaved deplorably, not its action-taking cabin crew.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Having tried to strike over Christmas, before the High Court in London ruled it illegal, British Airways cabin crew look set for another go, with a seven-day walkout planned for the next few weeks.

Where the New Labour government’s response last December was packed full of ‘bringing both sides to the negotiating table’ rhetoric, this time it has been far less conciliatory. In fact, if transport secretary Lord Adonis’s outburst this weekend is any indication, the government plans to be downright inflammatory. ‘I absolutely deplore the strike’, wailed Adonis. ‘It is not only the damage it is going to do to passengers and the inconvenience it’s going to cause – which is quite disproportionate to the issues at stake – but also the threat it poses to the future of one of our great companies in this country.’ If there ever was any doubt as to whose side the government is on in this long-running dispute, Adonis has dispelled it.

One could argue that Adonis has greater freedom to express his own views. After all, he is not actually a ‘political’ member of government – he is a member of the House of Lords, a life peer (ennobled in 2005) with a distinctly Liberal Democrat history. Unlike ‘political’ members of the government – that is, members of the Labour Party – he is not hamstrung by the knowledge that Unite, the dominant union for cabin crew workers, gives the Labour Party several million pounds a year. But Adonis’s was not a lone voice. In fact, he merely set the party tone. So, when asked for his view on the planned strike, PM Gordon Brown decided not just to agree with Adonis, but to use his very words: ‘It’s the wrong time, it’s unjustified, it’s deplorable, we should not have a strike. It’s not in the company’s interest, it’s not in the workers’ interest, and it’s certainly not in the national interest’, he thundered on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

So there you have it: in the eyes of the government, the decision of those men and women to swap the aisles for the picket line is both ‘unjustifiable’ and ‘deplorable’. These workers are not, it seems, only letting themselves down – they are letting the country down, too.

Yet what exactly are they doing that is so unjustifiable? Is their decision to vote in favour of strike action really so difficult to understand? BA management, headed by the permanently aggressive Willie Walsh, wants to cut cabin crew numbers by something in the region of 1,700, while also implementing a two-year pay freeze. That, apparently, is justifiable. After all there’s a recession on, goes the thinking; cast-iron economic necessity brooks no argument, tolerates no resistance. This at least is Walsh’s recourse: ‘[Unite] refuses to get the message. It prefers to believe the world is flat. It believes nothing changes. That economies go on growing for ever. That competition does not increase. That practices born in the cosy, nationalised industries of 40 years ago must be preserved in the global economic swirl of today.’

That is why the actions of Unite and its members are seen as being unjustifiable: they are refusing to accept what everyone from Walsh to Brown and Adonis argues is inevitable. That people must simply accept the way things are and lose their jobs. For the 15,000 or so cabin crew to think otherwise, to think that they would actually quite like to keep their jobs, is, well, deplorable.

That morality-laden adjective, used by both Adonis and Brown, is telling. Not only is the refusal to bow down before supposed economic necessity unjustifiable, it must also be deplored. These people are, in short, behaving selfishly. In trying to look after themselves, they are neglecting the national, collective interest. After all, we’re all in this together, as shadow chancellor George Osborne was saying no less ominously at last autumn’s Tory Party conference.

This attack on the supposed selfishness of men and women behaving perfectly rationally in attempting to keep their jobs is writ large in the snide suggestion, perpetrated in the main by BA management, that employees are already being paid too much as it is. Compared to other airlines, BA cabin crew are better paid, that is true. But far from this being a justification for telling BA cabin crew to accept their lot in life, it is actually an indictment of the pay of other airline cabin crew. The idea that BA cabin crew are well remunerated needs to be debunked. Seventy per cent of BA cabin crew earn less than £20,000, which is around £4,000 less than the UK national average wage. The starting salaries of main cabin crew are even more startling: just £11,000 (though they can ‘top up’ their wages with around £5,000 in expenses).

Even the most senior of positions – the cabin services director – can expect no more than a maximum of £36,000 after 20 years. That is about half the earnings of a member of parliament, and a smidgin of what Willie Walsh earns for his cost-cutting, job-slashing troubles. It is a grotesque distortion to argue that BA cabin crew are well paid and have nothing to complain about – the really alarming thing is that the cabin crew for other airlines get paid even less than this.

However, the exact figures for BA wages are beside the point. What is really being deplored is not cabin crew earnings specifically, so much as people’s completely reasonable desire not to accept their lot. In the eyes of Adonis, Brown and others, BA cabin crew’s expression of economic self-interest is an act of people not knowing their place and wanting more than they ought to receive. In the name of BA’s interests, the national interest or, more fashionably today, in the name of the anti-consumerist, thrifty ‘age of austerity’, everyone is expected simply to make sacrifices. Yet behind the high-flown, moralising rhetoric of Brown and Adonis, and beyond the isolated perspective of consumers with disrupted travel plans, BA cabin crew are discussing an entirely rational and, yes, justifiable response to the ‘economic swirl of today’.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black wrote in defence of the striking trolley dolleys. He also spent the day with strikers at the Lindsey oil refinery and saw nothing wrong with London Tube workers demanding more. Rob Lyons praised the strikers at Gate Gourmet. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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