On the littler guys

You might have noticed recently there are a bunch of protests erupting all over the place. The arguments of the protestors are, to be sure, unfocused and confusing. I have some level of sympathy for these guys as a group, but that’s not really what I’ve been thinking about recently. Instead, I’ve been thinking about the people who are on the other side.

(Warning: Long, unfocused rant.)

The way the world works, in the broad strokes, there are people who’ve got power, and there are people who don’t. The former are vastly outnumbered by the latter, but the former exert an outsized amount of control over the lives of the latter. This is fundamentally what Occupy Wall Street in its various incarnations is really about; income inequality is just one facet of this power dynamic. There is a perception, and there’s quite a bit of validity to it, that the powerful don’t care about the powerless, and that things are getting way out of control in western society — that the majority, the people who don’t have the money and who don’t have the power, are stuck where they are with little hope for change or progress in the future. You have to have been living under a rock this past decade to not notice this. And in all probability, you are on the powerless end of things. You might not, personally, feel particularly powerless or vulnerable, but that’s circumstantial, not structural. You feel that way primarily because in your life, nobody has tried to exert that level of control over you.

This isn’t wholly dissimilar to a particularly cynical view of personal freedom and individual rights — the idea (or fact, if you like) that your freedom exists in the space between what the powerful could do to you, and the odds they’re not likely to care. The further out on the margins you are, the more worried you have to be under this system; the opposite is true, too, and it’s what leads the comfortably mainstream citizens of a theoretically free nation to wonder, aloud, why the innocent would ever have anything to fear from the police. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what an innocent person might have to hide from the authorities, this is you.

I don’t understand what it is that drives a person to knowingly and willingly side with the powerful against the interests of the powerless. I get why Jamie Dimon and Michael Bloomberg have problems with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. It isn’t difficult to imagine why the media hegemons feel compelled to dismiss the protestors as bongo-drum carrying idiots — Zuccotti Park is a direct rebuke to the world JPMorgan and Bloomberg and News Corp. have created, and the protests are a threat. The world is OK as long as nobody looks at it too carefully, and I think the real worry amongst the hedge fund set is that people are starting to look a bit more closely at the way things are set up. It’s less clear to me why random citizens and members of the public would be inclined to oppose the protests, or what a random person would have invested in the aforementioned powerful-created world. You do not, by and large, derive any real benefit from this world, and even if you’re not suffering any specific harm from it, you’re only a few steps away from being squashed like a bug.

Which brings me to Air Canada. As you’ve probably seen, the airline is having a bit of an argument with its flight attendants. This is yet another in a series of labor disputes between Air Canada and its employee groups, and once again I’ve been watching it play out with a sick feeling in my stomach. The problem is that unions are involved, and unions seem to be this fundamentally unhinging subject in contemporary society — people love to hate on them, and they have become convenient scapegoats for all the ills in the world today. (The budgeting problems of most jurisdictions are due to… those overpaid school teachers. Right.) To be clear, I’m not a strongly pro-union person. I’m less than wholly comfortable with a lot of the ideas that underlie trade unionism, and I’m really uneasy with the way in which the more vocal trade unionists enjoy stifling dissent within their ranks. But at the same time, I recognize — now, more than ever before — that unions today are maybe the only institutions that are focused primarily on the powerless, and the only outfits these days that are giving voice to those who would otherwise be at the mercy of the powerful.

Every time the subject of unions in air travel comes up, there are inevitably people out there who venomously denounce their very existence and blame the unions for every last bit of woe and misery involved in travel — from indifferent service to rudeness to the fact you have to pay $25 to check a bag. The argument usually goes something like this: if the unions didn’t protect their inept members, the airline could fire anyone they wanted and we’d have great service. This isn’t even remotely true, but it’s beside the point, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with the issue at hand. The single biggest cost at an airline is fuel. Period, full stop. Salaries — the structure of which, in aviation, is so bizarrely complex it makes my head hurt — are a tiny portion of the operating costs of an airplane. And, unfortunately, it’s all your fault. Yes, you. You demand to be flown from Vancouver to Calgary for $129. I can promise you it doesn’t cost $129 to operate that flight — it costs a lot more. So other people pay more than you do. But under the existing fare structure, it’s entirely possible to be sending planes out fully loaded with passengers, and yet still lose money on the operation.

Sure, WestJet turns a profit, and WestJet doesn’t have unionized employees. But that’s not why WestJet makes money. WestJet has a very different business model from Air Canada (as legacy carriers typically have different models from low-cost carriers) — fleet commonality is one thing; not having to serve as wide a range of international destinations is another; not trying to connect every single point in the country with every other is a third. (Seriously, try getting from Victoria to, say, Hawaii on WJA. Unless you fly on a day where they’re operating that one flight a week, get ready to fly YYJ-YYC-YVR-HNL at a minimum. You could, of course, drive to Vancouver and leave on a non-stop from there, but that introduces its own problems and issues.) Mapleflot is also burdened with the responsibility of sustaining routes operated by its subsidiaries in the deep dark past, and if left to its own devices would probably be quite happy to abandon a lot of thin, low-density routes that on the whole likely cost it money.

If you ran WestJet the way Air Canada is run, serving its destinations on its timetable with its equipment, you’d probably discover that WestJet isn’t profitable either.

Firing the rude employees isn’t going to fix this. It’s true that cutbacks across the board have resulted in less service overall, but you’ll notice the number of cabin crew never really changes — and that’s because the number of crew is determined by federal regulation, and isn’t discretionary. Rest assured that if the airlines could get away with it, they’d replace the FAs with vending machines in a heartbeat and save even more money. But they can’t, so someone has to ride around in the metal tube all day and pour you a can of Coke, and the airline is going to do everything in its power to make sure they pay that person as little as humanly possible. And that person is, quite rightly, going to get a bit upset by that.

On a larger scale, I’m confused about why anyone would have an issue with unions, or with unionized employees trying to get wage and benefit increases. This is a capitalist society (or a reasonable facsimile of one, anyway). Isn’t the whole idea to get the best deal for yourself possible? Collective bargaining is just that — bargaining. Both sides have a position, and they argue about it until someone gives in. Lather, rinse, repeat. I do not grasp why the protections afforded by trade unions are so offensive to so many people: do you like living under the threat of immediate dismissal? Do you like having only the power to quit if you’re unhappy at work? Do you think your employer shouldn’t take an interest in your well-being after your term of employment? Maybe it’s those fat pensions. I know! It’s crazy to think that someone who spent a career, I dunno, lifting heavy people off the floor, staying up nights, and getting thrown up on should be able to retire comfortably without having to worry about how they’re going to manage the wheelchair ramp up to their front door (thanks very much, occupationally herniated disk).

I’d like to say that it’s jealousy driving these issues, but it isn’t. It’s an actual dislike for the fact that people can band together to try and extract concessions from the wealthy. And make no mistake, though Air Canada is perpetually broke, they are still wealthy, and they’re still a damn sight more powerful than 6,500 unionized flight attendants. I tend to think that in any relationship, when there’s tension, independent observers should probably side with the people who have less power — or, at the very least, give them the benefit of the doubt and view all claims made by the powerful skeptically. This isn’t a political position so much as it is a humanitarian one, and it’s something I try to remember in my day-to-day life. (Note this applies regardless of the relative position of both parties to you. In the NBA lockout, for instance, I’m on the players’ side — for the simple reason that, although many players are ridiculously rich, the owners are ridiculously rich and complaining about those goddamn players stealing all the money. Yeeeeah.)

Ultimately, the message of the anti-unionists seems to come down to this: “Be thankful you have a job. Shut up and don’t complain. If you’re unhappy, quit. Or we’ll fire you.” This isn’t that different from the position of a lot of employers today, who have the unfortunate habit of looking at their employees solely as payroll numbers. I cannot fathom why anyone would feel the need to flack for employers on the basis of this kind of thinking — and, let’s be clear, that’s what the anti-union sentiment really comes down to. It’s an implicit decision to cast your lot in with the very powerful and the very rich. And I really don’t get it, because unless you too are an employer, a government, or a major corporation, guess what? You aren’t part of that club. You can act like it, but you aren’t actually. In reality, you’re just like the rest of us — the only difference is that your situation is a bit more benign, right now, than ours is.

As the saying goes, “Just because you’re on their side doesn’t mean they’re on your side.” You might like the banks and the rich and the powerful an awful lot. You might wish them well. You might think they deserve all their success, and more, but they don’t feel that way about you, and if it’s convenient for them, they’ll quite happily kick you to the curb. And then, because this is the world we live in, you’ll whine piously about how unfair it all is. And I won’t care, because poetic justice is the best kind of justice in the world.