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Suspending labour rights risks lives

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

While recently traveling from Halifax to St. John’s, I had an interesting experience.

For only the second third fifth time in my life, I heard my name being called over the intercom.

“Omg,” thought I, “the plane’s fully loaded and they’re waiting for me!” I tossed a $10 bill at the bartender for my glass of house white.

“It’s $10.95,” she proclaimed. My eyes bulged, but my common sense – ‘GET ON BOARD’ – prevailed and I tossed a couple toonies her way, grabbed my bag and charged for the gate.

I arrived on board, greeted with enthusiasm by the staff – the one other passenger called by name didn’t show up for another 20 minutes – and was shown to my seat.

Once there, seated on a small plane near the cockpit, I witnessed an interesting scene. The pilot was in a visibly agitated state, pacing back and forth, talking intermittently on his cell phone and with the cabin crew. Occasionally he turned and stared back over the sea of passengers belted into their seats.

We – the passengers – for our part stared back at him with mildly concealed impatience. Most of the passengers had been on board since Toronto – two stops, and four hours of flying. They wanted to be off and toward St. John’s. They collectively glared at him, wondering why this was all taking so long. He turned back into the cockpit, spoke emphatically once more on his cellphone. Then he turned around, picked up the intercom and spoke to us.

Most of the passengers had been on board since Toronto – two stops, and four hours of flying.

The essence of the situation – gleaned both from his polite, restrained announcement, and comments I overheard while waiting in line by the cockpit to use the washroom – was this. He felt there was an issue with a part of the landing gear. Toronto (never mind that we were in Halifax) felt the issue was not an issue, and he could fly anyhow. He didn’t feel comfortable lifting off; they (command and control in Toronto) wanted him to get on his way, keep the schedule flowing, get us to our destination. The young co-pilot was shrugging with bravado at the cabin staff. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, smirking. The older pilot glared at him for a few seconds, then went back outside to inspect the landing gear again and take photos with his cellphone to email to mission control in Toronto.

To be honest, the passenger complement was split on the issue. Many of us wanted to be on our way, and get to our destination. Others wanted to trust the judgement of the captain, and let him have his way.

Eventually, he did. He convinced command and control in Toronto that the issue was one to be concerned about, and arranged for a technician crew to come and do some work on the landing gear. “Customer service” insisted we stay on board for the half hour it would take. He convinced them it would take at least an hour, and got permission for us to ‘deplane’. We cheered, and headed straight for the bar, for another overpriced glass of wine.

Heavy responsibilities

When we eventually continued on toward our destination, I found myself reflecting on the ongoing Air Canada labour dispute. My flight was not with Air Canada, but it got me thinking about the roles and responsibilities of airline pilots, and of the captain of our flight in particular. What had been going through that captain’s mind as he argued and fought with the technicians in Toronto? All they could see were the gauges and readings being electronically transmitted to them: from their perspective, everything was within normal and acceptable statistical range.

The pilot, on the other hand, was the one sitting in the cockpit. He was the one who’d flown the plane from Toronto; felt it take off and land, and had the hours – years – of flight experience to know what felt right and what didn’t. And he knew something didn’t feel right.

What pressures were going through his head? The passengers were glaring at him and angry from being cooped up; they wanted on their way. The command crew on the ground wanted him on his way; he was gaining no popularity with management by holding up the schedule. Yet there he stood, refusing to take off, garnering the anger of passengers and management alike. And the only thing making him hold steadfast to his decision was his professional experience and the knowledge that no matter what his passengers thought, and no matter what his bosses ordered, the wrong decision could cost hundreds of lives.

I’m sure glad I had that captain.

Turbulent times

Many of us have followed the ongoing Air Canada labour disputes. Those of us who had tickets booked during the fray, more closely than most. In early March – after 18 months of fruitless negotiations – Air Canada management threatened to lockout pilots shortly before a strike deadline. The federal government intervened, suspending the right to a free collective bargaining process and banning either a strike or a lockout. The dispute was sent to an arbitrator (hearings begin this week). Later in March, when dozens of pilots phoned in sick, management complained that an illegal strike was in progress and government threatened fines of up to $1000 a day for pilots who continued to…phone in sick.

When government threatens to fine you for phoning in sick, you know something’s gone slightly unhinged with the society you live in.

What do managers actually do, anyway?

Let’s talk about ‘management’ for a moment. Most of us who work for an employer accept management as an annoying but necessary fact of life. Somebody’s got to run the show; coordinate many workers; make sure the task is accomplished.

But that’s not really what ‘management’ does in this day and age. Those who study labour policy talk about something called ‘surplus value of labour’. This is, basically, the amount of work-value an employer is able to get out of you – above and beyond what they have to pay you for you to continue subsisting as a worker (your labour-value). When times get tough, the only way an employer is able to continue profiting is by increasing that surplus value – in other words, getting more work out of you while paying you the same. That, say many labour scholars, is where management came in: their role was created by employers in part to wring more work out of you for the same cost to the employer. Take the following scenario: a worker at a call centre is able to do an average of ten telephone surveys in an hour. If their manager is able to drive them – by incentives, threats, intimidation, pressure, whatever – to make twelve calls in an hour, that manager has just made an extra profit for the employer.

That’s why they’re such an annoyance…because they’re trying to pressure you to do more than you’re capable and comfortable doing, and all for the benefit of some distant boss who’s getting rich off of you.

And that’s what managers, by and large, are expected to do in this day and age. That’s why they’re such an annoyance – not because they’re telling you what to do, but because they’re trying to pressure you to do more than you’re capable and comfortable doing, and all for the benefit of some distant boss who’s getting rich off of you.

Well, life’s tough. But let’s go back to that airline cockpit. With the Air Canada dispute, what we have are rich managers and executive officers driving around in limousines trying to wring extra profits out of the people flying their airplanes.

And what happens when people reach their cracking point? Well in a call centre, you get fed up, curse out your boss in a dramatic little scene and then quit.

In an airplane, you make a mistake and people die.

The right to strike and the right to safety

There’s a reason our labour relations system lets workers go on strike, even though it means our day-to-day activities and conveniences get disrupted. That’s because it’s better to deal with a minor inconvenience for a short period of time, than the consequences which result when workers are driven beyond what they’re able to handle. Air Canada’s management argues that in a competitive market, they need to be able to wring more profits out of their workers if the company is to stay afloat (airborne?). Air Canada’s pilots argue that their working conditions need to be a priority over company profits, and that their managers and CEO’s should sacrifice first. Well, let them duke it out: if the company goes under, it goes under (and other airlines will pop up to fill the gap). If the company doesn’t go under, then great: everybody wins.

But when the federal government intervenes in the dispute and prevents this struggle from taking its natural course, then it creates a very dangerous situation. Management is able to continue wringing more work out of their pilots. That would be one thing if this was a donut company and the only consequence was smaller, staler donuts. But this is air travel. The consequence is stressed out overworked pilots and dangerous travel conditions for those flying through the skies.

It is not just mean-spirited and anti-democratic for the federal government to intervene in labour disputes…It’s a threat to public safety…

It is not just mean-spirited and anti-democratic for the federal government to intervene in labour disputes like they have with Air Canada. It’s a threat to public safety and endangers the lives of Canadians (not to mention the literally millions of non-Canadians who fly through our skies as well). And a government which risks and endangers the lives of Canadians in order to boost economic growth is not fit to sit in office.

Average workers have big responsibilities

Of course, a similar argument could be made in many fields. Stressed out, overworked teachers might find themselves yawning and not paying attention as that young child climbs precariously high on the school playground. Stressed out, overworked electricians might find themselves not thoroughly checking their wiring and a short could cause an apartment building to burn down. A stressed-out, overworked construction worker might hurry under management pressure and not adequately reinforce the bridge they’re cementing into place. A stressed-out, overworked autoworker might not secure the braking system on the car they’re building, leading to a fatal traffic accident down the road. A stressed-out, overworked nurse could mix up medications; a stressed-out, overworked daycare worker might not check for peanuts in the snacks they provide to children; a stressed-out, overworked meat inspector might skip over that last batch of testing which would have revealed listeriosis in the hot dogs you bought your children for lunch.

The fact is, in today’s society countless numbers of us make decisions which affect the lives and safety of others. No matter what our job, we know how to do it best. And when management tries to pressure us to work harder, faster or more competitively, they place the lives and safety of others a distant second to the desire of a handful of CEO’s for extra profit.

As workers, we know how to do our jobs best. That’s what we were trained for.

As workers, we know how to do our jobs best. That’s what we were trained for. Sure, we might get lazy now and then. Sometimes a supervisor does have to have a chat and tell somebody to buck up or face discipline. Sometimes a bit of incentive to work harder is not a bad thing. But when workers have decided a line needs to be drawn in the sand, and they are willing to give up their salaries and go on strike to demand better working conditions, then our society needs to respect the right of those workers to do that, and trust in their common sense to demand the possible and refuse the impossible.

Due to the poor judgement and misguided priorities of our federal government, our skies are now full of angry, resentful pilots who are stressed out and overworked. They’ve been warned that calling in sick will be deemed an illegal strike and they could face thousands of dollars in fines for doing so. What sort of government allows sick, tired and overworked people to fly thousands of flammable tons of metal over our heads? Air Canada’s pilots are among the best in the industry. But when management puts profits ahead of their pilots, and when government allows them to do so, all of our lives are at risk. When somebody makes split-second decisions every day that affect the lives of hundreds of passengers, you do what they say and you pay them what they ask.

Here’s hoping that despite the pressures, mistreatment and lack of respect management and government are showing those pilots, they will continue to demonstrate the same courage, professionalism and concern for their passengers as the pilot I had last week, who refused to take off in an unsafe plane and risk the lives of hundreds for the sake of profit for a few.

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