Commentary: What to make of JetBlue's sliding Steven Slater?

The Charlotte ObserverAugust 12, 2010 

Steven Slater is a hero. The JetBlue flight attendant acted out the fantasy of millions of working people. He told off the jerk who had cussed him out, then he quit his job in style — grabbed a beer, popped the emergency slide on the plane, and glided off to freedom. Take this job and shove it, I ain't working here no more.

Steven Slater is a jackass. He overreacted to a rude passenger, made it all about himself, got arrested, and is now unemployable anywhere except for reality TV.

Steven Slater is a symbol — a symbol of disgruntled workers, a symbol of our in-your-face society, a symbol of the everyday torture of riding the airlines, or working for one.

To me, Steven Slater is a warning. He did the kind of work most people will end up doing in this country. He wasn't a maker, he was a server. And not everybody is cut out to serve.

You know the score, but here are a couple of details. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Carolinas lost 460,000 manufacturing jobs in the decade that ended in June. Over the same period, we gained more than 93,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality field.

That's a lot fewer people in mills and factories, and a lot more people at customer-service desks.

That's not a knock on service jobs — my mama was a waitress for 20 years. It's just reality. People are doing different kinds of work in different settings that require different attitudes.

Here's the main difference. If you work in a manufacturing plant, you have one or two bosses. You might grumble about them — everybody grumbles about the boss — but you probably learn to deal with it.

In a service job, the real bosses are your customers — in Slater's case, hundreds of them every day. In a group that big, somebody's bound to set you off.

Slater didn't flip out at a supervisor. He flipped out at a passenger who had been involved in a preflight dispute about the overhead bin. There are several versions of the story, but two parts are consistent: Slater took a shot to the head when he tried to intervene, and after the flight landed, when he approached the woman, she four-lettered him.

No doubt it was a bad scene. But lots of service workers put up with worse.

To read the complete column, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.

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