Getting on Board

Alex Gourevitch is no stranger to this blog. He was one of my co-authors, along with Chris Bertram, on the Crooked Timber post about workplace coercion. He also has a terrific blog of his own, The Current Moment, which I recommend you check out. Here, in this guest post, he does a double-take on Matt Yglesias’ double-take.

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Prompted by Gary Shteyngart’s op-ed today chronicling a disastrous American Airlines flight, Matthew Yglesias produced a little nugget explaining that AA’s delays are the product of pilot slowdowns. American—well, its executives—are trying to save their hides by using bankruptcy courts to screw the unions. Pilots are fighting back by zealously following all kinds of obscure rules—what Yglesias dubs “overscrupulous maintenance requests”—that slow down or force flight cancellations, or by refusing to do those extra things that patch otherwise troublesome and expensive problems.

Yglesias observes:

What management is discovering right now is that formal contracts can’t fully specify what it is that “doing your job properly” constitutes for an airline pilot. The smooth operation of an airline requires the active cooperation of skilled pilots who are capable of judging when it does and doesn’t make sense to request new parts and who conduct themselves in the spirit of wanting the airline to succeed. By having the judge throw out the pilots’ contract, the airline has totally lost faith with its pilots and has no ability to run the airline properly.

Yglesias is certainly right about what it means to do a job, and it isn’t just true of skilled airline pilots. All contracts are ambiguous; that’s why these bankruptcy schemes and labor counter-actions happen. Every day at the job involves an effort to create and define that job. As Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and I argued a while back:

The problem with most employment contracts, then, is…they are highly and necessarily indeterminate. As economic and legal theorists regularly tell us, all contracts are incomplete, but inside the workplace they are especially so…The promised performance of any job means that every movement and moment, gesture and statement, of the performer’s day (and increasingly night) is up for grabs. The terms of the contract are inevitably indeterminate—especially in a dynamic economy, where technological innovation means that work routines are revolutionized all the time. Itemizing all these ins and outs in advance would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, to borrow a phrase.

This indeterminacy—plus the fact that employers want to squeeze as much work as they can from workers while paying them the least, and the fact that workers want the opposite—means that there is a constant struggle over terms of employment well after any contract is signed. That, in turn, is why things like unions, strikes, and full employment policies, which strengthen the hand of workers, matter. The workplace is a site of struggle and power, not just expertise and contractual performance.

Yglesias didn’t understand or get our argument the first time around. Nice to see he’s on board now. Better late than never. Delays, after all, are better than cancellations.


  1. LFC October 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm | #

    1) Shteyngart’s op-ed implies at the end (see the remark about Delta) that even US airlines not locked in bitter labor struggles with their pilots etc are leaving something to be desired in terms of performance. Maybe some of it goes back to airline deregulation. C. Robin and A. Gourevitch are, given their ages, unlikely to have lots of (or maybe any) memories of what it was like to fly before deregulation.

    2) I’m ok, of course, with the pilots “zealously fighting back,” provided it doesn’t affect passengers’ safety (a question whose answer is not completely clear from S’s op-ed). Of course that particular problem wd be solved if no one bought an AA ticket while the struggle is ongoing.

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