Friday, 12 August 2005

That's it! We're outta here!

I’m dying to slap someone, but I can’t, so, I’m afraid, a lot of other people are going to get slapped in her place.

Three hundred thousand people have been affected by wildcat strikes at the height of the summer holiday rush. British Airways staff have come out in support of sacked in-flight catering staff, egged on by the unions, of course.

Now, the unions have their uses and I remember defending them to my father (who, as a small employer, had had a brush with them), years ago, when I was an idealistic teenager, but they can also be incredibly pig-headed and devoid of common sense. I’ve had experience of it.

In February 1986, I was on tour in Paris. I was working as a technical interpreter on a National Theatre show at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. I was interpreting for the French and British lighting crews and things were not going very well. The main NT man was a woman hater (you should have seen his face when he realized he’d be working with me) and the French guy was an impatient boor. I was caught in the middle and had to resist translating the curses that those two men (who couldn’t have been more different and had taken an instant dislike to each other) were uttering under their breath while I was speaking. Still, the set was being built and the play wouldn’t be played in the dark.

And then, late one night, the day before the technical rehearsal, it all came to a head: a few minutes before midnight the French oaf said something; I translated it; the NT chauvinist pig then answered and I’d just started to translate when the French union representative stepped forward and ordered me to stop. Stunned, I uttered one more word…. and the French lighting crew walked out. Nothing anyone said could make them resume work: it was past midnight; they wanted to be paid overtime, but had been told earlier that they wouldn’t be. I hadn’t been warned – I would have told the British crew and advised them not to go beyond midnight – and they used me as an excuse to strike. I’d never been in that position. It was horrible.

Time was of the essence, as always on such tours – there’s never enough time to do everything and one has to work all hours (we worked 40 hours non-stop once) – and the union rep used it to blackmail the theatre administration. The way he did it was shameful.

The following day, they had a meeting, which lasted most of the morning and afternoon thereby reducing the possibility of getting things right even more, and they resumed work grudgingly in the evening. By some miracle the lighting was fine on the night and, as far as the critics and audience were concerned, the tour was a success.

By the way, the actors, one of whom was Ian McKellen, remained totally unaware of what had happened.

A slap to the unions and their flagrant disregard of common sense and of people’s needs, except those of their members.


  1. Mr. Campaspe is pro-union as only a Frenchman can be, but I remember that some Paris unions staged a one-day strike on a day the Olympic committee was visiting, even he shook his head and muttered, "Bastards."

  2. That's typical. They never know where to stop. They're like bulldozers.

  3. Oh dear J,

    Take a look at all of the Jews at the Kotel, tonight, in unity before sundown in honor of TIsha B'Av. Photos are posted on this blog: http?

    It is a beautiful picture of unity not division in a fragile country now. I know this is not on topic, but I wanted to cheer you up with an uplifting message.

    Hope you are well.

  4. I for one, am quite grateful for our unions here in the US. My husband works for the railroad, and without the unions it would be a much more dangerous and low paying job. As it is, it's not exactly the easiest work to do. But with Reagan, he totally cut the rail unions off at the knees, and their power to successfully negotiate for the safety/sleep/pay necessities for their members has been decreased to a depressing level. It's just been getting worse since the 80s. So my slap of the day reaches back through time to get a good whack at Reagan for his destructive anti-union initiatives.

  5. K, all workers need some support and the unions are necessary, but there are times when they abuse their powers. A little while ago, tube workers walked out because a train driver had been sacked: he was on long-term sickness leave - he said he'd hurt his neck and couldn't walk or do anything; but he'd been caught on camera playing tennis! He didn't have a leg to stand on (hee hee!), but his colleagues went on strike and the tube didn't work for a couple of days. Madness! More recently, after the bombings, those same tube workers threaten to walk out, unless they got more money, because they said they were afraid. Hello? What about the passengers? They were afraid too and no one was going to pay them to take the tube, were they? However, it's worse in France (every time I travel over there, I get stuck: there are always some workers on strike - it's unbearable.) I hated Margaret Thatcher, but, thanks to her, the country is not held hostage every two minutes by one or several elements of the working force.

    Thanks, B, but, as I've said before, I don't need cheering up: I'm not depressed. This is not the right place for uplifting messages: as it says in my profile, I don't do positive.

    Btw, the URL of that site is: I didn't manage to see the pic you mention: it wasn't downloading properly. I'll try and look at it some other time.

  6. I not pro nor against unions. I am indifferent but I think they serve some positive purposes but I DETEST strikes. I think negotiations are the best way but they often have to resort to strikes. Two years ago we were leaving for Nice from London. We got onto the flight etc. The next day there was a similar BA strike. It was awful. :(

    France is the champion country of union life and people accept strikes amazingly well here. If this was a country I hesitate to mention - government would probably declare a war on them.


  7. PS A friend was going to join us and could not till a few days later. We got lucky!

  8. I have mixed feelings about strikes but I'm with the unions on this one. The path seems to be, as far as I can tell, BA grinds down prices of catering supplier. Catering supplier sacks poorly paid staff in order to use even worse paid ones to cut costs. Remaining staff strike and are sacked. BA staff come out in sympathy (this technically I believe is now illegal though). BA turns nightmare into total disaster by incompetent handling of furious customers, so being to blame at the beginning of the process and the end. Newspapers now full of people swearing they will never fly BA again. My sympathy, as is often the case, is entirely with the workers and the customers, rather than management and shareholders.

  9. I'm sure the sacked staff had good reasons for going on strike, but I query the wisdom of inconveniencing 300,000 people for several days and costing BA £40M. There must be another way, a way that doesn't make one go, "Are they mad, or what?" It's too often the case with the unions.

  10. yes but I would argue that BA inconvenienced 300k passengers and cost themselves £40m. I'd say it's at least 90% their own fault

  11. I think we might have to agree to disagree on this one, GSE. :-)


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