The Defenses Of United Airlines’ Behavior Reveal Some Uncomfortable Truths

There are, roughly, two kinds of defenses offered of United Airlines’ behavior–in DraggingGate–that have been offered thus far. First, the ‘abide by the terms of the contract’ defense. Second, the ‘just shut up and obey orders, and everything will be allright’ defense. On closer inspection, of course, these two turn out to be instantiations of the same abstract concept: bow down to authority, legal or penal, and all will be fine. But for the time being, let us take a closer look at them separately.

The first defense, which bids us to ‘quit complaining because you know what you signed up for’ is especially fascinating. This defense demands that we surrender all notions, all norms, of social good-will to the obtuse, deliberately disguised, terms of a contract. With probability one, it can be surmised that the person offering this defense has never read the fine print of the many, many, contracts that regulate his or her life. The libertarian paradise of a world in which the government only exists to enforce contracts entered ‘freely into’ by various contractors seems a rather bizarre one when we realize that most contracts are unreadable by almost anyone lacking a legal education; moreover, many of those contracts contain terms that are ‘unconscionable,’ buried deep in some sub-clause somewhere. As I’ve noted elsewhere, misery needs company: I’m bound by contracts I find incomprehensible, whose terms are ‘forced’ upon me; so everyone else should be; there is no ‘fellowship’ of citizens or consumers here.

The second defense is exceedingly familiar. It is the one trotted out by defenders of the police whenever there is an instance of police misbehavior. Most offensively, it makes an appearance when the police have just performed an execution of a recalcitrant citizen, one who did not raise his hands in time, or perhaps spoke back insolently. If any injury ensues to a citizen–fatal or otherwise–well, too bad. Once a citizen has refused to comply with orders, all force, including its deadly variants can now be exerted to make the citizen bow down. Disobedience is a sin; one worthy of capital punishment if need be.

The recurring appearance of these sophistical arguments in the American polity is revealing. Why are ‘shut up and obey orders’ and ‘you should know enough legalese so that you can negotiate every single transaction you enter into your life’ held up as exemplars in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’? This regulated life–by contractual terms, by penal authority–seems a particularly grim realization of the American dream. DraggingGate reminds us too that the so-called ‘free market’ in aviation works because all airlines offer equally appalling service in a world where airline travel has become indispensable for business and personal affairs. Soon, we will have to fly; and we will find our restricted choices leading us back to United Airlines. (Why not open up the US market to Asian airlines?) Remarkably, not one passenger on the flight stood up to intervene; they all knew the consequences. They would either be thrown off the flight themselves–thus suffering ‘inconvenience’–or they would be arrested. They too, complied. As all those who defend United Airlines would have us do.

Perhaps we are, as Nietzsche worried, desperate to find other forms of authority–now that the religious  has been partially displaced–to rule over us; perhaps those exerting their wills in resistance to the strictures of contract law and the police remind us that we are living lives of subservience ourselves. We are authority’s minions; we do as we are told; so should everyone else.

American Workers to Bosses: You’re Always Right

Rebecca Schuman recently noted the case of an academic job applicant who lost out on a job offer because she dared negotiate:

[A] job candidate identified as “W” recently received an offer for a tenure-track position at Nazareth College… W viewed the original bid as the opening move in a series of negotiations, and thus submitted… [a] counteroffer, after informing the department—with whom she says she had been in friendly contact—that she was about to switch into “negotiation mode”…..However, instead of coming back with a severely tempered counter-counter (“$57k, maternity, and LOL”), or even a “Take it or leave it, bub,” Nazareth allegedly rescinded the entire offer.

So far, so strange. But it gets worse:

[A]s the story spread over the academic Web faster than a case of resurgent measles, it became increasingly clear that not everybody was flabbergasted. According to many outspoken residents of the ivory tower, W’s mildly aggressive email committed so many unforgivable faux pas that she’s lucky she’s not in jail….How dare this “women” think she could attempt to secure a better life for herself and her family? In this market, if a university wants her to wade around in pig crap, her only counteroffer should be: “Should I bring my own snorkel?” Any beginning academic who tries to stand up for herself is lunch for the hordes of traumatized ivory-tower zombies, themselves now irreversibly infected with the obsequious self-devaluation and totalizing cowardice that go by the monikers “collegiality” and “a good fit.”….

[I]n a substantial portion of the academic discussion, she is being eviscerated, all for having the audacity to stick up for herself for the first (and possibly last) time in her career.

Schuman is right, of course. But W‘s case is not just about academics and their craven kowtowing to bosses. Rather, the reaction to W, the anger at her temerity in speaking up for herself, for daring to suggest to those that sought to employ her that she might want to say something about her working conditions, is a symptom of a broader American worker response: the wholesale adoption of the attitude that the Boss is Always Right.

As I’ve noted in my posts on labor unions (here; here;  here; here; here), there is a curious rejection underway–in the strangest of places, workers’ communities–of the notion of that employees and workers should attempt to change their workplace conditions, demand better wages and hours, or just push back in any way at managerial control. The workplace is where good old American enterprise and self-determination is to be denied to the worker; any evidence that the worker seeks to exercise his agency in demand better working conditions can only be interpreted as indications of bad faith on the worker’s part.

The academic workplace is no different: its workers are subjected to the same relentlessly myopic administrative procedures, the same ideological assaults, as other workplaces.   And they have taken on and internalized, rather effortlessly, managerial perspectives and attitudes. Foremost among them: resentment and anger directed at those workers who seek to assert their right to a better life.

Narrowing the American Dream to Exclude the American Worker

My sister-in-law works as a labor organizer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I’m proud of the work she does and remain resolutely convinced that her efforts to facilitate the unionization of workers count among the most important contemporary attempts to reform the American workplace and reduce income inequality. But because she works on behalf of organized labor, she also encounters, on occasion, some of the knee-jerk, reflexive, unthinking hostility toward unions that is so common among American workers and the American middle-class, who seem determined to ignore, marginalize, and sometimes actively work against, the one entity that could do the most to rescue them from their ever-worsening economic decline. Last week or so, on telling someone she worked for the AFSCME, her interlocutor baldly said to her face, ‘That’s like working for organized crime.’

Right. You could call that ‘false consciousness‘ and move on. But what I find most revealing about that kind of remark–and it is not that different from the standard hostile missive sent organized labor’s way–is its straightforward exclusion of the worker-who-wants-to-unionize from any aspiration to a supposedly common ‘dream’, the ‘American’ one. For in that dream, everyone is an entrepreneur, doing the best for himself, scraping out, by any means possible, the best possible configuration of economic and material affairs for themselves and theirs.  Those that succeed at this combination of hustle and hard work, always supposedly achievable by chutzpah and the nose to the wheel, are the American ideals, the success stories to be recounted, and the idols to be built for future generations to venerate and cherish.

Everyone, except, it seems, for the worker. When he does the best for himself, by ensuring a regulated workplace that pays attention to his health and safety, or by monitoring the hours worked, and asking for overtime or compensation pay for hours worked over those contracted for, or by ensuring appropriate pension schemes, health benefits and vacation times, he is castigated and described as a leech singularly responsible for the decline of the American economy. Budgets fail to be balanced and crisis stalks the land. Turns out, everyone can be an entrepreneur and do whatever they can to meet the bottom line, except for those that work for bosses.

So for now, in the grab-bag of tricks and tactics that are allowable to the worker in his effort to play the part of the American hero doing the best for himself, he is to be studiously denied access to worker collectivity. Rather, workers must place themselves at the mercy of the entity that manages and manipulates them, who are then free to give the fullest expression to their entrepreneurial spirit. Praise is theirs alone; the castigation, the calling-out, the vilification are reserved for the unionizing (or unionized) worker.

Note: Linda Greenhouse reminds us of the Supreme Court’s role in marginalizing labor unions. Of course, these decisions are easier to make within a particular social context, one created by the attitudes described above.