Jumping the queue in a class-divided society

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As summer drew to a close, I took my kids for our annual pilgrimage to Toronto's CNE Midway. It was a gorgeous sunny Saturday: the smell of corn dogs in the air, the crowd diverse and gritty.

Then came a shocker. The midway company now has special entrances at each ride for people who pay an extra $20 per person per day (above the cost of the rides). They can then bypass the lineups for their favourite attractions.

Say what? Surely standing in line for a roller coaster is a supreme expression of democracy -- not to mention a chance to catch your breath between rides.

I didn't see anyone actually use a "priority" entrance that day. That may reflect the humble status of the typical midway-goer: For most families, going to the CNE is already a significant expense, and they'd balk at a premium. The better-heeled families who wouldn't blink at an extra $20 were mostly off at their Muskoka cottages anyway.

Nevertheless, I find this new practice disturbing. It reflects an increasingly omnipresent trend in our class-divided society: premium check-in lines at hotels, preferred guest counters at car rental agencies, VIP treatment for gold-card holders at cultural events.

It's reasonable that people can choose to pay more for a higher-quality product: paying more to eat at a nice restaurant, paying more for business-class legroom on a plane, and so on.

But being able to bump your way to the front of a lineup that everyone uses is something different, and much more offensive. First, it directly undermines the experience of those people at the back of the line (the more people who cut in front, the longer is our own wait). That's not the case when a rich person goes to a classy restaurant.

Second, the act of seeing someone jump the queue triggers a natural sense of outrage. Someone saying "my time is more important than yours" is really saying "my life is more important than yours."

The practice that really infuriates me is the privileged treatment first-class air travellers now receive at major airports when they pass through security. The cost of airport security (a public service) is covered by a uniform tax (currently $7.48 per one-way domestic flight) paid to Ottawa when you purchase a ticket. Every passenger (economy to super elite) pays the same fee. So why on earth do first-class passengers get privileged access to a public service we all pay for?

The federal agency that handles airport security told me it's not their business what order travellers are served in; those decisions are made by the airports. That's bizarre -- like a hospital saying it doesn't care who gets treated first, that the decision is made by the parking lot attendant.

As for the airports, they get slush money from airlines to let high fliers jump the queue. But the cost of this policy is shifted to other travellers, who now must wait even longer in an annoying lineup every time an elite traveller darts in front. One airport spokesperson told me that other travellers are unaffected, since business-class travellers have a separate checkpoint.

If you believe that, then you'll also believe that the creation of a parallel private health-care system would have no impact on those who can't afford to use it. In practice, the security lineups are managed so that mere mortals do use the priority lane -- but only when it's empty. That's exactly how it would work in health care, too.

The tiered treatment of airline travellers by our own public security service reflects the same mindless pandering to class privilege that's infecting our whole culture. So I propose a modest act of collective civil disobedience. Everyone should go through the first-class lineup at the security gate. And if some fat cat glares at you for interrupting his privileged access to an important public service, stand tall and say: "I am a first-class Canadian. My time is worth just as much as yours. I paid just as much as you did. Please, sir, step to the back of the line."

Jim Stanford is an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers union. This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Josh Hallett/Flickr

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