This is an amazing story, almost a classic. It’s about an unreasonable abuse of power, a victim of it, and the triumph of good. And yet it leaves me unsatisfied.
It seems that a federal public worker named Lorraine Martin was on holiday in Iceland when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, filling the air all over Europe with huge clouds of ash that grounded planes for several days. She was unable to return to work on the day she was due to come back, and so emailed in, explaining the circumstances. There are provisions in such circumstances for special leave with pay to be granted—but the straw boss was having none of it. “Two days,” said her supervisor, Lisa Jessome. “The rest is on you.” And she proceeded to deduct vacation days.
Martin had rebooked on the first flight out of Iceland, a week after her intended return date. She tried several airlines, and was on a stand-by list, but this, given the circumstances, was all that there was available to her. Too bad, so sad.
Martin grieved this open-and-shut case. What the story-link doesn’t tell you was that there are three steps in the grievance process, the first to the supervisor, then to the next rung of management, and finally to the Deputy Minister. Incredibly, the grievance failed at all three levels. The PSAC took the case to third-party adjudication, and won handily—but the entire process took four years to resolve.
You could almost hear the adjudicator scratching his head over some of the “arguments” presented by the department. It was suggested that Martin should have “hung around the airport” for days, on the off-chance that a plane might get out sooner. The supervisor suggested that Martin might have returned more quickly had she stayed in the cancelled passengers queue. In fact, she had done just that.
So here an ordinary worker wins a case against a clear abuse of power—and yet there’s nothing much to cheer about. Think of the taxpayer dollars squandered by a government department that would not accept the glaringly obvious. Think of the management heavies who refused her grievance despite black-and-white contract language, just to do this woman out of five days of her earned annual leave. Think of the time involved to put this matter right.
From this expensive and time-wasting nonsense we learn a few lessons. Bosses don’t rule the workplace by themselves, but through institutions—or, more properly, those blind, robot-like institutions rule through them. And despite the appealing story of a lone individual triumphing over arbitrary power, they usually don’t. If Martin hadn’t had another institution, her union, which could lend its own personal and material resources to help her, she would very likely have had to grin and bear it.
I wish I could say that this case was an exception, but it’s far from it. The PSAC, like other unions, knows that winning a collective agreement is only the beginning of the work that we have to do. Without determined members like Lorraine Martin, and an equally determined union, a contract is just a document. Together, we give it life—even if, by any measure of reason and common sense, we shouldn’t have to.