Opinion: The revenge of the service-industry worker

Opinion: The revenge of the service-industry worker

In June, Statistics Canada reported that almost half of all businesses in the accommodation and food services sector would continue to struggle with recruitment.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

On a recent flight from Toronto, I got to witness the joys of being a flight attendant.

The woman sitting on the aisle of my row was having a meltdown. Her screen wasn’t working and she demanded it be fixed, immediately. The flight attendants were in the middle of meal service. To her, it didn’t matter.

“We’ll deal with it as soon as we’re finished, promise,” one exasperated attendant told the woman.

With the service completed, the same young attendant came to inform the woman that they tried to reset her monitor but were having no luck. She apologized profusely. This wasn’t good enough. My aisle mate demanded to know how Air Canada was going to “make it right.”

The attendant returned to say the airline was offering her free WiFi for the flight. She brought the woman a card that explained how to get connected. That wasn’t good enough either. The woman wanted her to do it with her. And so, for the next 20 minutes, the flight attendant bent down at the entitled woman’s side and walked her through it, having to squeeze aside every few minutes to let someone by on the packed flight.

I almost lost my mind.

How anyone could be a flight attendant these days, I’ll never know. And the scene I describe is but a mild example of the kind of nonsense they have to put up with. More serious are the obnoxious morons who insist on flouting masking rules. Or the ones getting inebriated.

When I touched down in Vancouver and was waiting for my bags, my attention was captured by a ruckus at the Air Canada counter, where some guy was laying into an exhausted worker. It seems there’s no reprieve for workers at either end of an air travel journey, based on the number of hostile travellers I’ve seen yelling at airport-security workers in the screening queue.

Most jobs serving the public are awful. And more people in these jobs are asking themselves: Why would I want to do that? Why would I subject myself to such treatment?

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Don’t even get me started on the restaurant business. Over the years, servers have regaled me with stories of mind-blowing behaviour by customers. There have been tales that would turn your stomach, including grotesque scenes left behind in washrooms. And it’s mostly young people doing these jobs who have to go in there and fix the problem. I’ve heard people talk to their servers like they’re their personal butlers.

Well, you know what? Times are changing. These screening agents, baggage handlers, restaurant servers and the millions of people in these positions are having their moment. They have leverage now. There are many people in low-paying, underappreciated jobs who have said enough is enough. In June, Statistics Canada reported that nearly half of all businesses in the accommodation and food services sector would continue to struggle with recruitment, citing “mismatches” between the hourly wage being offered, and what workers would expect to be paid for that work.

There is a reason so many restaurants still can’t find staff. Sure, we have a population that is aging out of the work force. But when it comes to the service sector, more and more people are saying: Who needs this? There are a lot of other jobs out there. Why would I endure such abuse for $16 an hour, plus tips?

Want to talk about inflation? We’re going to see wages go up – in some cases, way up. Inflation is a factor, but it’s also because employees in so many different sectors, particularly service-based industries, are demanding fairness.

Earlier this week, 143 airport security officers in Vancouver called in sick to protest their working conditions. Throughout the summer, officers had been paid an extra $8 an hour to make up for severe staff shortages that reportedly led to workers barely being able to take bathroom breaks. In August, the bonus ended without any improvements to conditions, according to the workers’ unions, which are currently in negotiations with the federal government and fighting for an increase to the workers’ $22-an-hour pay rate (the unions say the average federal worker receives nearly $29 an hour).

You don’t want to pay security staff at airports more than $22 an hour? Okay, then you’ll get work slowdowns. You’ll get people phoning in sick. You’ll have more chaos at our airports. Then you’ll have more people complaining about how Canada’s largest airport is among the worst in the world.

I’m reminded of that pivotal scene in Network, in which anchorman Howard Beale, sickened by events he believes are threatening society, implores his viewers to rise up and get angry.

“You’ve got to get mad,” he beseeches. “You’ve got to say I’m a human being, goddamn it! My life has value … Go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.’”

Maybe that’s what we’re seeing now. Workers who have been abused and underappreciated for too long, saying: Enough. And it’s a beautiful thing.

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