Does the United Airlines incident support Cicero’s point of view regarding wage labor?

United Airlines having a paying passenger violently dragged off the plane by law enforcement officials is still dominating the news and Facebook (see Thanks, United, for making me proud to be a former Delta Airlines employee). Cicero was famous for saying “The cash that comes from selling your labour is vulgar and unacceptable for a gentleman … for wages are effectively the bonds of slavery.”

If we step back from this I think we will discover that it is waged labor that is at the root of most of the unhappiness and suffering that occurred in Chicago. The way that the bumping was set up, passengers would have missed a day of work if they had accepted United’s offer of a travel voucher and a hotel. It seems reasonable to assume that if none of the passengers had a job, at least four would have said “sure, I can hang out near O’Hare airport and play games on my phone for a day.” Certainly the doctor who was beaten up wouldn’t have been so passionate about getting to work if he didn’t have a job.

Probably the flight attendants, gate agents, and police officers were made unhappy by all of this as well. You might argue “Well, they get a fat paycheck so we shouldn’t be sympathetic if they suffer a bit to collect it.” Yet, except possibly the police officers when the value of their pensions are included, none of these folks have as much ability to consume as a non-working American who uses the means-tested government-run economy thoughtfully (e.g., $60,000/year apartment in Cambridge, New York City, or San Francisco, free health insurance via Obamacare, food stamps (SNAP) from USDA, Obamaphone for chatting with friends). Certainly none of them would have the after-tax spending power of a thoughtful child support plaintiff in Massachusetts, California, or one of the other states that offers unlimited child support. (See the Massachusetts chapter for a jobless plaintiff who out-earns her University of Pennsylvania classmates by 3.2X.)

It seems safe to say that many of the people involved in this incident were “stressed-out” at the time and are now unhappy. These bad feelings are not measured very well when looking at life choices of work versus welfare or work versus child support. Some people might try to factor in the suffering that comes from spending 50+ hours/week commuting and sitting at a desk doing tasks that one hasn’t chosen. But I don’t think that I’ve seen an analysis of the outside-of-working-hours suffering of which this United Airlines incident is an example. The incident occurred on a Sunday, theoretically a day of rest for at least most of the passengers, but plainly the stress of having a job that required attendance on Monday morning was a factor for many people.

Readers: What do you think? Given that we’ve built a society where work is option (see Book Review: The Redistribution Recession), are we adequately communicating to young people about just how miserable working is?


6 thoughts on “Does the United Airlines incident support Cicero’s point of view regarding wage labor?

  1. This is pretty silly tangent. The incident says more about modern American society than wage labor in general. We’ve become “TSA: the country.”

  2. Bobby: I would agree with you that it is a tangent if most of my interactions with TSA and TSA-like environments were related to leisure activities. However, I would estimate that more than 95 percent of the times that I must wear a badge, go through security training, show an ID, etc. are related to work. For example, if I visit a museum I don’t have to wait in line to show ID and sign in. If I go to a meeting in a downtown office building, however, I must wait in line and show ID and wait for the security guard to call up to the firm that I am visiting, etc. I didn’t have to show any ID or jump through any security-related hoops to sign up to Comcast cable TV, nor to enter Everglades National Park earlier this month.

  3. Most of the museums I’ve been to in recent years in America had metal detectors and surly guards with guns standing around. I’m sure they’ll beat some poor guy up for dumb reasons soon enough.

    Try canceling comcast TV. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll lie to you and waste your time and continue charging you anyway, with no repercussion. The customers are just misbehaving milk cows to be slapped around. Same with United. This is just more and more the experience in America.

  4. “milk cows” seem to be quite happy “to be slapped around”, that’s what’s really interesting:

    A comment in the Chicago Tribune (

    Passengers should know by now that someone can get through screening and on to a plane and be a terrorist. Whatever the circumstances, post 9/11 protocol requires passengers to comply with requests made by airline employees and security people. Refusing, becoming argumentative or belligerent puts the passenger into ‘suspect’ mode and the people responsible for passenger safety can’t twiddle their thumbs and wonder if the person is a passenger or terrorist. He/she is to be taken off the plane. The passenger is wrong, the security and airline people acted roughly but properly. If passengers don’t like the rules, they shouldn’t travel.

    Interestingly, the United has just admitted that the flight, in fact, was not overbooked. It seems, therefore, that the passenger removal should have been treated under Rule 21 (“refusal of transport”) of their own “contract” of carriage that specifies a limited list of situations when a passenger can be “refused transport”, rather than Rule 25 (denial of boarding). None of the Rule 21 reasons seems applicable to the given case which makes the removal not quite kosher ( A friendly neighborhood lawyer pointed out to me that since “boarding” is not defined in the CoC, the UA lawyers may have some wiggle root, e.g. boarding is completed when the plane leaves the terminal, or something of this nature.

  5. Helaine Olen had an interesting article in the New York Times, suggesting that this incident is just one example of the poor customer service and disrespect that most people receive; companies find it more profitable to provide luxury service to the affluent. She thinks this may be one factor driving the current mood of political anger. United Airlines Is Not Alone.

    In 2017, it often seems that the customer is the least important part of the transaction — unless he or she is paying top, top dollar. Take medical care. While the wealthy can turn to the growing practice of concierge medicine, where for a fee of over a thousand dollars annually, their personal doctor will always return their calls promptly, the rest of us are ever more likely to be relegated to a narrow insurance network.

    This great economic sort is on blatant display when we fly. The airlines are seemingly forever coming up with new and innovative ways to coddle an increasingly small group, while treating the majority of fliers with greater and greater contempt. United Airlines is all too typical. The airline recently debuted fold out beds for business travelers, complete with mood lighting, adjustable lumbar supports and bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue. But United’s coach class travelers are subjected to constant nickel and diming. Extra legroom is now an extra charge. So too, for travelers in the airline’s new “Basic Economy” fare class, is the ability to choose one’s seat when booking a flight or the ability to bring more than one small, personal tote or bag on the plane.

  6. United was trying to reclaim the seats for United’s own use. Not sure how that is covered in CoC. In a sane world, it would be a courteous negotiation and the airline would be prepared to take “no” for an answer and arrange other carriage for its employees, not its customers. If the airplane broke, United would not call a boarding party to commandeer another. Seizing an occupied seat is the same principle except that United has probably covered its ass for that.

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