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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)


Flying into the two-tier wage world Add to ...

Being a flight attendant for Air Canada isn’t my idea of fun. The layovers are short and the passengers are cranky. You’ve got to put a lot of time in on the Toronto-Sudbury run before you rack up enough seniority to fly to Paris. The pay is lousy too – only $46,400, max. “It’s brutal,” says my friend Virginia, who once flew with Lufthansa in the good old days. “You couldn’t pay me to do it today.”

The airline business is brutal, too. Air Canada is being bled to death by low-cost competition. Customers can shop for the cheapest fares on the Internet, and fly from U.S. border cities. Personally, I avoid Air Canada when I can. It’s more convenient to fly Porter. You get free Internet and cappuccino. And the flight attendants are a lot more cheery.

Right now, the flight attendants at Air Canada can’t decide who they detest the most – the Harper government, which has effectively legislated them back to work, or their own union leadership, which, in their view, has caved in to the predatory demands of management. They’re angry because they think the airline will make it even harder for them to hang on to what they already have. Air Canada will launch a new low-cost carrier next year. The starting salary for a flight attendant there will be just $18,000 – with a top rate of $34,500. Do you know anyone who can live on $18,000 a year? Me neither.

But, sometimes, reality isn’t very pleasant. And the reality is, we have entered a two-tier wage world where the power of the unions to protect their workers – especially new ones – is in steep decline. In the U.S., the United Auto Workers and GM have just negotiated an entry-level wage of $16 an hour. That’s even less than flight attendants make.

Flight attendants have relatively low-skilled jobs and are ridiculously easy to replace. Air Canada says it has dozens of applicants for every job opening. And even though the flying public is somewhat sympathetic to the flight attendants’ plight, it won’t shell out an extra nickel in airfares to boost their wages. Nor is the public particularly outraged at the high-handedness of the Harper government (even though editorial writers are). Flying is already miserable enough. The last thing people want is a strike that makes it even worse.

Union membership across North America is both declining and aging. And public attitudes to organized labour and to unions are more negative than at any time in recent history. One reason is that the culture gap between unionized and non-unionized work has grown into a chasm. Unionized work is highly structured, regulated, rule-bound and hierarchical. Pay depends on seniority, rather than initiative and merit. The longer you stick around, the more benefits you stand to reap at the end of the line.

But most of the world no longer operates this way, especially the world in which younger people work. This world thrives on flexibility and mobility, not job descriptions. It operates on accountability and pay-for-performance. The days when people were rewarded merely for incumbency are disappearing fast.

The waning of union power has very little to do with the ascendancy of the right. It’s much broader than that. The unions can no longer shelter their workers from the tsunamis and earthquakes that are battering the economy. Entire industries are being brutally transformed by new technology and tougher competition. (The auto industry is simply the most visible.) And now government budgets everywhere are under severe stress.

In the United States, anti-union movements have spread far beyond Republican states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. In staunchly Democratic Chicago, the new mayor, Rahm Emanuel (Barack Obama’s former right-hand man) has tangled with the garbage union, the teachers’ union and any other union he can find. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, usually a strong supporter of union rights, has demanded major pension givebacks from municipal workers.

Increasingly, union members believe their leadership is failing them. Air Canada pilots were so upset by the tentative deal their union negotiated this spring that they rejected the deal and booted out several top officials. It works the other way, too. In Chicago, the mayor has vowed to extend the length of the school day, a measure parents overwhelmingly support. When the teachers’ union wouldn’t play, he went straight to the teachers themselves, offering bonus pay if they’d agree to waive the union contract rules and keep the kids in school for an extra 90 minutes. Many teachers have defied their union and signed on. “It’s a nightmare,” Karen Lewis, the teachers’ union president, told The New York Times. “You expect this stuff out of Republicans.”

How can the unions get their mojo back? Even the experts are at a loss. One labour expert suggested they should make more use of social media, to communicate with the young. But I suspect it’s going to take a lot more than mastery of Twitter to revive their fortunes.

As for the flight attendants, maybe a few episodes of Pan Am might cheer them up. Back in the olden days, the airline business was ridiculously sexist. (Remember “Fly Me”?) The stewardesses had to wear girdles and pass weight checks, and they were fired when they got too old. If it’s any consolation, not everything has gotten worse.

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