(Image: AAP/James Ross)

Damn shame they don’t play movies like The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines on TV any more.

Those comic tales of moustache-twirling villains and hapless well-meaning innocents would serve us well in recognising a schemer from afar.

For example, what can you say about Richard Branson? Here’s this leonine, dazzling-eyed bloke with his striking goatee who arrives somewhere in a balloon — an actual goddamn balloon — asks for a pile of your money, throws it into the basket and takes off again. In his balloon. Over and over and over. How does this keep happening? Does no one hear, as Branson drifts into view, the sinister laugh of Muttley behind him?

Let me emphasise that Branson has done nothing illegal — to the best of my knowledge. But he has benefited a great deal from two complementary aspects of contemporary state and capitalism: states will pay almost anything to get large-scale infrastructure off their books so as not to be one side of industrial action and needing to keep big companies afloat to combat the chronic under-investment in everyday services by a financially deregulated capitalism.

That bubbles on and on until we hit something like now, which is either a one-off virus or the beginning of a “viral period” which will demand the reorganisation of global society.

Virgin Australia is $5 billion in the red from buying up competitors and regional operatives (Tiger and Skywest) and whatever else has been piled on to it.

Anyone who thought it would be any different hasn’t been paying attention to the UK, where Virgin Trains has just departed from the privatised system, even before the system was wholly nationalised in March.

Virgin Trains (half owned by Virgin Group, half by bus company Stagecoach) distributed 600 million pounds in dividends to its two corporate owners while being permitted to charge (as all franchises are) the highest rail prices in Europe — astronomical fares for a walk-up ticket (about 200 pounds for a London to Manchester return).

The Virgin Trains adventure ended last year when Stagecoach was banned from applying for more franchises due to there being a black hole in its pension scheme.

With 300 million pounds in the basket, Branson’s balloon takes off shi-shi-shi-shi-shi (that’s Muttley laughing) and wheeeeeere does it land? Oh Queensland, where the Palaszczuk government is willing to offer $200 million for Virgin to keep its headquarters there. $200 million! For an airline that doesn’t exist!

For god’s sake. Nothing in this crisis has been more pathetic than watching Labor and the unions become Virgin Australia’s rah-rah squad, the equivalent of the poor stewies and ground staff rattling buckets at street corners for Ansett during its last iteration.

Nothing was offered by way of worker equity in what was going to come out of that, and the timid, supine, brain dead union movement of the Kelty era wasn’t going to actually demand worker equity for any saved airline coming out of it. That was a betrayal of Ansett’s workers.

Now Labor and the union movement is selling the workers — both Virgin and all workers — short again by failing to be honest with them and show leadership in tough times.

Save Virgin Australia? There is no Virgin Australia any more. This isn’t a complex factory with layers of skill, plant and embedded knowledge. It’s not an orphanage. This isn’t a Blues Brothers remake.

Virgin Australia is a company logo slapped on to the side of a bunch of leased planes, flying a series of conventional air routes in a conventional fashion, saddling itself with debt, distributing dividends and fat management fees, asking the government to fill the investment gap with an interest-free loan never to be fully repaid.

And just as the Morrison government knocks it back, Labor and the unions come out of the mist to save “the jobs”. It’s not only Muttley who’s laughing at that.

What jobs? This isn’t a full-service airline with adequate demand to survive and a cash flow problem. There’s no demand! There’s no service! It’s flying a single route! We have no idea when anything like full-service flying will resume — or if it ever will. How long would Labor and the unions propose we pay the wages and salaries of 8000 ghost jobs that will go anyway?

They are just lying to their base to score points against the Morrison government. Have the courage to tell these people that their jobs are gone, the company is gone, the practice of frequent high-volume air travel is, for the moment, and possibly a long while, gone.

Fight for a better JobSeeker allowance, and for securing super and entitlements from any liquidation of Virgin Australia. Not that there’s much to liquidate. But I’m sure we can shovel a few hundred million dollars in for a final round of management and ownership payouts, consultancies, administrator fees and the like before this logo-on-a-tail winks out of existence.

The virus not only demonstrates but makes come to pass one of the new conditions of this moment: air travel has left the capitalist realm. Private airlines will survive only as private train and bus companies do — as the shopfront for an essential state service, off the state’s books for political reasons.

We need to not only nationalise domestic air travel but to socialise it so that the new Kanga Air (hop from city to city — you can have that for nix) is run by a series of boards: a workers’ board, a customers’ board, and a citizens’ board, all contributing members to an overarching board which draws on corporate expertise when necessary.

Cap chief executive and other salaries at $500,000 to attract efficient people who want only to run an airline, not another mediocrity from the floating CEO pool. Run the airline by prioritising social objectives: of limiting unnecessary air travel (especially bullshit business travel) and of universal access to air travel when required. Set full and concession fares based on healthcare/seniors’ card. Use worker bonuses for good performance to achieve efficiency and limit the monopoly effect.

Determine a reasonable level of loss and annual government subsidy, and aim to operationally break even or generate reinvestment surplus within that.

In other words, create a stable airline owned by the Australian people, avoiding past mistakes of bureaucratic management and giving something that is worthy of the pride and loyalty that workers give to corporations which do something useful — but which are, in the end, nothing but material abstractions capable of being blown away like a balloon by one bad tailwind of history.

You know what? The way things are going, Morrison could ambush the left, Labor and the unions afresh by doing something of this sort (I doubt the full socialised complement would occur).

Labor and the unions have spent a decade missing their chance to offer brighter ideas for the future and have a real critique and alternative plan to a precarious capitalism. Now the crisis is here and they’ve missed their slot.

With the Wacky Races cartoon squad of Jim Chalmers et al in control of economic policy, little chance they’ll strike out with anything bolder. The socialist left and the industrial left seem too beaten down to make any alternative public proposals.

But we deserve better than the workers’ movement being nothing more than a whining corporate shill, devoid of alternative proposals, a sell-out of both the Virgin Australia workforce and all Australian workers.

Isn’t there anyone in this movement who’d like to do something more than load up Sir Richard’s balloon basket with free money and listen to the laughter as he flies away? Play the theme tune:

Those magnificent men in their bad flying schemes,

The price goes up diddley up, the firm goes down diddley down

Shi-shi-shi-shi-shi-shi. Muttley!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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