I have been fired from every job I ever loved. Each time my life took a turn for the better. Sometimes a swift kick in the ass, is a good thing.
This blog is about an early fork in my Road2Reinvention. Graduated from High School in 1972, and didn’t want to go to college. Alaska offered lots of opportunity, and introduced me to unions and later public service. A Flash Back, on the road forward.
In 1976, I was working for Alaska Airlines loading and off-loading food service equipment, and cleaning the
aircraft over-nighting in Anchorage for early morning flights. Passengers were still allowed to smoke in planes in the 70’s, so the interior of airplanes were gross. The walls were covered with a thin smoke film and the ashtrays were full of cigarette butts, and sometimes chew. I never smoked but, my Dad was a chain smoker of Camel unfiltered. I have always thought smoking is disgusting and support any and every ban on smoking.
Our small cadre of 20 workers, stocked liquor cabinets with those cute little bottles, we checked out the food (airlines provided free meals back in the 70s). First class passengers were served meals on ceramic plates, with flatware and beverages in real glasses, NO plastic in first class. We also loaded one-pint cartons of milk, one carton for every three passengers. Have you ever seen anyone order milk on a plane? We loaded the milk and other beverage service equipment on flights going north to Fairbanks (no food). Ninety minutes later the plane returned, and we pulled all the milk, refrigerated with dry-ice, and threw it in the garbage. Well, we were supposed to throw it in the garbage, but mostly the employees took the milk. It was perfectly good kept cold, if not refrigerated… We also took lots of the un-eaten meals and other perishables. NOT the liquor, that was carefully accounted for.
I worked the swing shift, beginning at 5:00 p.m. and clocking out at 1:00 a.m. Our crew was called Fleet Service and we were all woman, with one exception, our token guy we named “Fuzzy”. He was a skinny guy who took horrible ribbing from the ramp-rats (real men) that loaded the baggage, but he was a very nice guy and hard worker. We treated him like our puppy.
I had been working for Alaska Airlines Fleet Service for a couple of years. It was a very good union job, great pay and benefits, including non-revenue flight benefits. I could fly to Seattle for $25 round trip, if there was an empty seat. I was in my 20s, graduated from High School, but really had no interest in going to college. Fleet service might have become golden handcuffs, a great job with benefits and no need for a college education. But, thankfully one summer evening when I left the facility at 1:00 a.m. in the morning there was an airport police cruiser sitting nearby. Remember this is Anchorage, Alaska in July which means 1:00 a.m. is full day light, the Land of the Midnight Sun. I was carrying a small box containing cartons of milk taken from the returning flight from Fairbanks. I put the box in the bed of my Toyota pick-up and drove toward the airport property gate going home. The police cruiser followed me. I really didn’t think anything of it. Not much going on at 1:00 a.m. on a beautiful bright Alaskan, night full of day light.
As I neared the property gate, the cruiser turned on his lights and siren. I pulled over. Let me first say this “airport cop” was a DICK. He really had an attitude. Here is how I recall the conversation:
Cop: Give me your license and registration.
Me: Of Course.
Cop: Where are you going?
Cop: Where are you coming from?
Cop: Who do you work for?
Me: Alaska Airlines.
Cop: What is in the box?
Cop: Where is the milk from?
Me: Alaska Airlines garbage.
Cop: Come with me.
Cop: I want you to follow me to the station.
I will make the events that followed brief. We went to the station, the cop spoke to my boss, and let me drive away without a charge and the milk still in the bed of my truck.
The next day, however, when I clocked into work, there was an envelope in my time-card slot paraphrased: “you are fired for theft of company property”. My replacement, apparently a friend of the boss was already there and suited up to do my job.
Thankfully, I was a union employee, in fact I was a shop steward. Under the collective bargaining agreement an employee terminated for cause, was entitled to a post-termination hearing within 3 days.
The union representative was incompetent and a drunk. We met for 5 minutes before the hearing and all he said was, “don’t say anything, let me do all the talking”.
The hearing was worthless. When I walked out of the hearing with my union representative I asked, “can I say something now?” He said yes, and I said, “you are fired”. He said, “no you don’t understand, you can’t fire me, I am the union representative.” I said, “watch me”.
I will skip forward here. I did fire the union and hired a family friend who was a management attorney. One of my rules to live by: If you are firing your union and fighting an employer always hire a management attorney. But because I fired the union, I signed an agreement that I was responsible for all costs of the grievance procedure and holding the union harmless.
Six months later Peter my kick ass management attorney and I entered an arbitration hearing seeking my reinstatement. It was the most fun I had ever had, (remember I was in my early 20s).
Under the International Association of Machinist (IAM), arbitration was the last step of the grievance procedure. There was an independent arbitrator selected by both parties – the employer and the union. Also, a union and management official official sat with the arbitrator comprising a three-judge panel. However, I remember the arbitrator saying at the beginning of the hearing, he was in charge and would be making the final decision. Fine by me.
The employer has the burden of proof to demonstrate they fired me for “Just Cause” (not just cause). The employer thought “theft of company property” was a firing offense, you would have thought I stole a 727 aircraft, not garbage milk.
The employer called my boss and other witnesses, I don’t really remember who. But the star witness was Cecilia, a German woman who had worked at Alaska Airlines Fleet Service longer than I had been alive. I loved working with Cecilia. She was about as round as she was tall, and when we were waiting for our plane to land in the snow and darkness of winter, Cecilia would tell me about growing up in Hitler’s Germany and stealing bread for her family.
There was Cecilia on the witness stand sworn-in, to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
Company Attorney: How long have you worked for Alaska Airlines?
Cecilia: 30 something years (I really don’t remember how long she had worked there).
Company Attorney: Have you ever taken Alaska Airlines milk?
Cecilia: I raised 3 kids on Alaska Airlines milk, I haven’t bought milk since I went to work for this company 30+ years ago.
I laughed so hard I thought I might cry!
There is a rule in testimony, never ask a question you don’t know the answer. I really felt bad for the company attorney, he was very young, and it may have been his first arbitration, possibly his last.
Sure, there was a company policy that employees aren’t to take Alaska Airlines milk but throw it in the garbage. But, if the company has a policy and doesn’t consistently enforce the policy — forget policy. Companies have to enforce policy in a consistent manner. The employer can’t one day decide to enforce a policy it has ignored for years. Fair and consistent application of policies is the key.
The company called a recess and asked to speak to the arbitrator, a few minutes later we were called back into the hearing room. The company wanted to put me back to work immediately, pay my back pay and all arbitration costs. Good news!
There was just one remaining issue, “back pay”. I was fired and had not worked since my termination 8 months earlier. Employers can reduce back-pay awards from wages earned during the disputed termination.
The arbitrator put me on the stand and swore me in.
Company attorney: Have you been actively seeking employment since your termination?
Company attorney: Why do you think you were unable to find alternative employment?
Me: On every application I submitted there was a question “Why did you leave your last job?” I completed the question, “Theft of company property”.
I was reinstated with FULL BACK PAY, with no reduction. Because, I fired the union, my attorney got 90% of my back pay, but it was worth every penny.
I walked back into the Alaska Airlines Fleet Service and worked for another 4 months and quit to go to college. No surprise the BOSS that fired me, wasn’t there anymore. There is justice in the world.
Years later I would represent state employees unjustly disciplined or fired by arrogant bosses — like the guy who “TRIED” to fire me. I would train union stewards and represent workers in the workplace. Ironically that same airport cop that pulled me over that night was an ASEA union member, I worked for in the 1990s. He needed representation, and I represented him and got the whole thing thrown out. I remembered him, but he didn’t remember me.
As a union representative, workers would often tell me they wanted to hire an attorney. I would give them my business card and tell them, “have your attorney call me”. They never did, there aren’t lots of attorneys looking to represent workers, there isn’t any money in back-pay awards, and no punitive damages. They got quality representation for their monthly union dues. I loved doing arbitrations and beating the employer. I learned how to do it watching my attorney, being quick, having a good case, and mostly a passion to kick the employer in the ass. If the worker deserved to get fired, I would cut a deal with the employer to allow the worker to resign, and get on with their life. No one wants to work with a bad employee. But if the company fires someone unjustly, I loved beating the employer represented by their attorney. I am not an attorney, but loved beating them.
I am forever grateful to Alaska Airlines for firing me, it set me on my Road2Reinvention. I still fly Alaska Airlines whenever possible, and chuckle.