Night Fever for a New Economy: The Struggle over Time and Money on the Cusp of the 1980s

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the cultural ideal of domesticity has shaped dominant understandings of white women’s labor. Framing white women as their husbands’ passive dependents rather than as active economic agents, domesticity has rendered women’s labor invisible. Although it has obscured their contributions to the economy, domesticity has often forced women to work harder than men. In the airline industry, for example, flight attendants earned lower hourly wages, less longevity pay, and fewer retirement benefits than ground crews, pilots, or middle managers. To make up for the difference in compensation, flight attendants worked extra flights, adding more hours to their schedules as they struggled to provide for their families. Additionally, unlike many men who expected to come home from work and enjoy the domestic sphere as a space of leisure and pleasure, most flight attendants came home to the “second shift,” bearing the disproportionate burden for unwaged reproductive and emotional labor within the household.1 In the mid-1970s, flight attendant activists began to win many of the economic resources that the ideology of domesticity had previously taken away. Managers at American, TWA, and United, for example, signed lucrative new contracts with their flight attendant unions in 1976, guaranteeing hourly pay increases that outpaced those granted to pilots and machinists during the same period.

Aiming to build on recent victories at the bargaining table, and invigorated after a decade of feminist and gay liberationist advances, flight attendants confronted the overwork that domesticity had helped produce. The intensifying movement against overwork would center on a particular economic resource that flight attendants at all airlines sought in the late 1970s: work rules. Since pilots, machinists, and ground crews first organized in the 1930s and 1940s, work rules had been the foundation of their economic stability. Work rules provided such stability in two important ways. First, regardless of operational irregularities in a highly volatile industry like the airlines, work rules limited work hours and guaranteed that an employee could return home at a specific time. Second, work rules protected an employees’ pay even when flights were canceled and crews were sent home without flying. Although airline men took ironclad work rules for granted by the 1970s, most flight attendants lacked such protections. Without stringent work rules, flight attendants were subject to vast monthly fluctuations in pay and in time away from home, irregularities that compromised their ability to provide for their families. By 1977, flight attendant activists had identified work rules as center of a new campaign against overwork.

As flight attendants mobilized for more pay and less time on the job, they practiced what historians have called “labor feminism.” According to Dorothy Sue Cobble, labor feminism emerged as a self-conscious political strategy during the Great Depression, when working-class women demanded access to both wage labor and social programs that would help them balance work with family responsibilities. Unlike the middle-class feminist upsurges of the 1910s and the 1960s, which focused on the struggle for equal rights under the law, Cobble argues that generations of workingwomen have made the workplace and the trade union the primary venues for feminist political mobilization.2 Furthermore, rather than assume that labor feminists had limited their agenda to a bid for equal access to men’s jobs, Cobble demonstrates that they aimed to adapt a man’s working world to women’s particular political economic needs.3

Labor feminists’ effort to transform male-centered professions involved changing workers’ experience with time. In a booming post–World War II economy, large, mostly-male industrial unions had pushed for work schedules that included what United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther called “lumps of leisure.”4 Trade unionists like Ruther supported long shifts and access to overtime pay in exchange for extended vacations and early retirement. Overtime would allow workingmen to buy the consumer products that would help them join the burgeoning middle class of the 1950s, while vacations and early retirement would ensure that they could enjoy those products with their families. Labor feminists, however, argued that men’s leisure on vacation and in retirement depended on their wives’ unacknowledged and unpaid domestic labor—toil that was made even harder when the many women who worked for wages did so on the long, inflexible shifts that industrial unions sought. To help women balance their responsibilities in the workplace and at home, labor feminists pushed for shorter workdays, pursuing contractual limitation of hours and federal legislation to reduce work time.5

When they mobilized for strict new work rules, flight attendants adapted labor feminists’ earlier interventions about work time to the cultural landscape of the late 1970s. When, for example, they sought to limit the duration of the workday, flight attendants’ echoed labor feminists’ decades-old insistence that most women had to leave their jobs and report for duty on the second shift at home. But by 1976, the household included an ever more diverse array of kinship networks. After landing, many flight attendants would go home to provide physical, emotional, and financial resources to their husbands and their children. Many others, however, lived alone, were single parents, or were the breadwinners for same-sex partners or cohabitating friends or lovers. Activists thus were demanding new economic resources for both nuclear families and the growing number of people who chose relationships that fell outside the boundaries of traditional heterosexual monogamy and domesticity. Supporting these older- and newer-fashioned kinship networks would require an end to flight attendant overwork: access to more time away from the job and more money for hours spent in the air. As they intensified their political commitment to more resources for all flight attendants, work rules became the central goal of flight attendants’ activism.

The new campaign for work rules inflamed the already deep tensions between rank-and-file flight attendants, their unions, and the airlines in the late 1970s. Since flight attendants were subordinate members of unions in which male higher-ups set the economic agenda, the bargaining process often paired flight attendants’ economic goals to those of their male coworkers. Work rule improvements were thus secondary priorities because pilots, machinists, and ground crews who had already secured their work rules in previous decades tended to focus on hourly pay increases in the 1970s. To bump their own work rules to the top of the list, flight attendants would have to transform themselves into active political agents in their unions, a move that challenged those organizations’ male-dominated leadership structures. Meanwhile, for four decades, the airlines had saved money as they withheld the work rules that would have protected flight attendants’ pay and time off. Managers bristled at the cost of extending those benefits. Perhaps even more importantly, work rules would turn flight attendants into reliable, stable breadwinners for their families, a change that was politically contentious. Since many rank-and-file flight attendant activists had publicly and explicitly challenged heteropatriarchal power relations in the 1970s, providing flight attendants with new economic independence would further undermine a gendered system that had benefited airline managers and union leaders since the 1930s. Given the weight of that history, the campaign for work rules opened a cultural rift that would transform flight attendant union representation and the political economy of the airline industry on the cusp of the 1980s. This chapter chronicles that economic and cultural transformation.

Night Fever at Tiffany’s in Marina del Rey

Although the substantive pay bumps of the spring and summer of 1976 temporarily cooled tensions between flight attendant activists, union leaders, and the airlines, those raises would not cure the institutionalized sexism and heterosexism that were the underlying cause of the dispute. With long-standing tensions looming, conflict reignited soon after the new contracts were ratified. While ties to the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements made flight attendants particularly bold in their demand for control over the day-to-day affairs of their unions, rank-and-file insurgency was by no means confined to the airlines in the late 1970s. Instead, and as Nelson Lichtenstein, Peter Rachleff, and other labor historians have demonstrated, the era saw the rise of a new rank-and-file democracy movement across industries.6 Dissident union activists were rejecting the gradualist, politically blinkered unionism that had been big labor’s status quo since the late 1940s. Amid the fierce anticommunism of the early Cold War, George Meany and other conservative trade unionists abandoned the cross-racial, socialist-influenced, arts-inflected 1930s politics of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), opting instead for a unionism focused on collective bargaining for incremental wage increases. But instead of advocating for a simple return to CIO-style Popular Front politics, participants in the rank-and-file democracy movement took their cues from the social transformation of the 1970s. Coming to the union movement from college campuses and the anti–Vietnam War movement, or after winning access to union jobs through civil rights and feminist activist advances, the new insurgents embraced the principles of those struggles: bottom-up campaign building, participatory democracy, and direct action. As they built those principles into lasting organizations such as “New Directions” in the UAW or the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, rank-and-file democracy activists would become a core of the effort to hold the line against management in the increasingly anti-union climate of the l970s and 1980s.7

In flight attendants’ particular case, the push for rank-and-file democracy stemmed from a 1970s feminist critique of their unions’ mode of political representation. For dissident leaders, flight attendants’ needs would never be met by union men who came of age in conservative Cold War unions, because those men’s power and privilege would prevent them from sympathizing with flight attendants’ political economic demands. These needs would be met when feminists, young women, single mothers, and lesbians and gays actually ran their unions. By 1977, then, flight attendants at Continental, Pan Am, American, TWA, and other carriers were aiming for more than just lucrative new contracts that would close the flight attendant pay gap. They aimed to take control of their political future by severing ties to male-led union bureaucracies.

Opening up her scrapbook at the kitchen table of her suburban Kansas City ranch home, Janet Lhuillier, a veteran of TWA’s New York and Boston international bases, recalled the political and economic foundations of her decision to embrace the rank-and-file democracy movement among flight attendants in 1976. By that time, Lhuillier was no stranger to flight attendant activism, having walked out on strike with her TWA peers in 1970 and then again in 1973. But in both of those cases, strikes were initiated to strengthen the hand of male contract negotiators from the national office of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) who had never been flight attendants. In 1976, Lhuillier was insisting that she and her colleagues—and not union higher-ups—deserved to set bargaining priorities and call strikes.8

Rather than wait for orders from her union to begin her activism, Lhuillier joined the movement on her own terms in July 1976. That summer, flight attendants had threatened to shutter TWA during the New York bicentennial celebration if union leaders and managers failed to improve flight attendants’ work rules (see Chapter 1). Angry about a June settlement offer that included a raise but few work rule enhancements, Lhuillier headed to the TWA hangar at Kennedy Airport, where an all-domicile meeting was under way between flight attendants and TWU staff. According to Lhuillier, the meeting with union higher-ups was even more disappointing than she expected:

The little man the TWU sent looked like a beat-up bird. He had a patch over his eye and his arm in a sling. And he showed up with two huge bodyguards. And we were thinking, “Why does he need two bodyguards for flight attendants?!” So we kept asking him questions about our contract, and he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know anything about our work rules. He didn’t know anything about what we were trying to negotiate. We were going, “How can this guy fight for us?”

Lhuillier’s criticism grew, on the one hand, from a basic 1970s feminist demand for political representation. When over 90 percent of her colleagues were women,9 and when she and many of her colleagues supported the new upsurge of feminist activism, an older man who had never experienced sex discrimination on the job would inevitably fail to advocate for flight attendants’ political and economic interests. Indeed, as Lhuillier described a scenario that sounded like a scene from On the Waterfront, one in which union thugs battled corrupt managers to defend the interests of the workingman, she referenced a labor history that most flight attendants understood to be part of their collective oppression rather than a means to their liberation.

On the other hand, and even more importantly for the flight attendant rank-and-file democracy movement, Lhuillier was making an economic argument. Work rules were a center of the debate between flight attendants and the airlines in the late 1970s. In Lhuillier and other flight attendants’ appraisals, the “beat-up bird” failed to understand how work rules could protect flight attendants’ pay and why work rules were more important to flight attendants than other contractual improvements. Instead, he came to Kennedy Airport that day ready to talk about only percentile increases in hourly pay, the issue normally at the core of contract negotiations involving the other, mostly-male groups in the union. Those increases could be worthless for flight attendants without work rules that guaranteed each flight attendant a minimum number of hours each week and month—work rules that most workingmen already had. Disturbed that top union negotiators failed to understand the basic building blocks of flight attendants’ compensation, Lhuillier walked away from that July 1976 meeting sure that she and her colleagues needed a new union. And she was not alone.

Transport Workers Union staff answered criticism from Lhuillier and her colleagues not with a concerted effort to mentor women into top leadership positions or to refocus collective bargaining on work rules, but with an increasingly vigorous countermobilization against dissent. At TWA, union higher-ups recognized that by the fall of 1976, they were facing a full-fledged, well-organized movement for a new union. That movement had a name—the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants (IFFA)—and rumor had it there were IFFA sympathizers among the elected local leaders of TWU Local 551, the flight attendants’ existing union. While national union staff controlled flight attendants’ economic agenda, elected rank-and-file officers were allowed to run their union on a day-to-day basis, staffing offices, processing paperwork, and filing grievances. Transport Workers Union staff had come to believe that at least some members of Local 551’s leadership team agreed with Janet Lhuillier and her colleagues and were conspiring with a plan to sever the local’s ties to the TWU. In October 1976, national leaders of the TWU called Local 551’s executive board into an emergency meeting. Mary Ellen Miller, who had just finished negotiating the new 1976 contract and was one of the flight attendants summoned to the meeting, sketched out the theatrics that ensued:

They called us all into TWU headquarters . . . and got really belligerent. All these big-name union guys. And they lined us up against this wall. They lined us up and brought out the TWU International Constitution. We were supposed to put our hand on it and swear—like a bible—that we would uphold the constitution of the union. [But instead] we swore on the constitution that we would support the TWA flight attendants and do what they wanted. Then the shit hit the fan big time. [TWU leaders] told us they were going to throw us out.10

Recognizing that their failure to submit to the loyalty oath could lead to their removal from office and ejection from the union, Local 551 activists soon dropped the pretense of support for national union higher-ups and declared their membership in the insurgency. On October 21, TWU Air Transport Division director Ernie Mitchell sent a letter to the officers of Local 551—President Arthur Teolis, Vice President Victoria Frankovich, and Secretary Treasurer Jim Tuller—ordering them to a meeting at the office of TWU International president Matty Guinan on October 26 in New York.11 Rather than respond to Mitchell, President Teolis publicly addressed all TWA flight attendants the next day, declaring his support for IFFA and urging all of his colleagues to join the movement.12 The following day, the Transport Workers Union put Local 551 in trusteeship, removing Teolis, Frankovich, and Tuller from office, charging them with “dual unionism,” revoking all privileges of membership for the officers, and appointing Barney Spera to run the local in place of the dispatched activists.13

Although the cast of characters was different at American Airlines, the situation was equally acrimonious. A year earlier, as front-line flight attendants rejected a series of settlement pacts between TWU higher-ups and American managers, a series of affinity groups had formed to push the TWU toward a more militant stance at the bargaining table. Under banners like “The Committee for a Fair Contract” and, more pointedly, “How Much More Can You Take?” these underground cells funneled information about the negotiations directly to rank-and-file flight attendants while chiding national union leaders for their ineptitude and ineffectiveness.14 Although most affinity groups were short-lived, their orchestrators had begun to coalesce under the banner of APFA—the Association of Professional Flight Attendants—in the summer of 1976.

The surfacing of APFA brought swift sanctions from the Transport Workers Union. On August 27, 1976, national union staff got the attention of all American Airlines flight attendants when they sacked Patt Gibbs, removing her from an elected position in the Dallas base, revoking her membership privileges, and convicting her of dual unionism.15 Gibbs was an outspoken member of the women’s liberation movement, a lesbian feminist, and a leader of the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, the women’s liberationist umbrella group demanding an end to institutionalized sex discrimination in the industry. The move against a highly visible representative of 1970s feminist politics demonstrated the union’s willingness to take aggressive and unpopular steps to curb the flight attendant upsurge. Just as they did at TWA, union staff forced all 107 rank-and-file union representatives at American to take a loyalty oath on February 4, 1977, swearing to “bear true and faithful allegiance to the International and Local union.” Seventy-seven flight attendants took the oath, but thirty refused it, opting to face ejection from the union.16 The most visible activists were hit first: Ardell Callas was suspended from the base chair position in Boston, and Kathy Knoop was removed as Los Angeles vice chair on the day of the loyalty oath.17 Then, on March 7, came a system-wide purge. All rank-and-file leaders in the Buffalo, Nashville, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Diego bases were removed from their positions.18

Transport Workers Union officials were responding with increasing force at American Airlines because they were in the process of being formally removed from TWA. After petitioning the National Mediation Board—the federal agency that interprets and implements labor law for airline and railway workers—for an official change-in-representation election, TWA flight attendants went to the polls on February 8, 1977, to decide whether or not to continue their relationship with the Transport Workers Union. The vote was a draw: 44 percent of voters chose the TWU, 44 percent chose IFFA, and 9 percent wrote in the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA)—another woman-led national flight attendant union that had big shops at United and Braniff, among other carriers.19 Members were clearly divided about how best to move the flight attendant movement forward, about the pros and cons of cutting ties to a relatively wealthy union and the strike fund it controlled, and about whether or not Arthur Teolis, Victoria Frankovich, and other strident activists really represented the worldviews of ordinary TWA flight attendants. But after seven more weeks of campaigning, and after the TWU failed to formally address the issue of work rules that was the centerpiece of IFFA’s campaign, flight attendants for TWA chose to go independent. In a runoff election on March 22, 1977, by a margin of 59 percent to 39 percent, the group made IFFA the union that would take TWA flight attendants into the 1980s.20

IFFA’s upset at TWA left dissident flight attendants at American partying. During the first weekend in April, activists held three simultaneous discos to benefit APFA. Cover charges and bar proceeds from a long night of disco dancing at Faces in Chicago, Truffles in Dallas, and Tiffany’s in Marina del Rey, just north of the runways at Los Angeles International Airport, helped fund the new union’s get-out-the-vote effort.21 The parties quickly paid off. On May 3, 1977, American Airlines flight attendants went to the polls in their own change-of-representation election: 75 percent of flight attendants voted, choosing APFA by a margin of 58 percent to 41 percent.22

The American and TWA elections were part of a political cacophony from flight attendants in the late 1970s. Save for the decertification of the TWU at the small supplemental carrier Seaboard World in 1965, there had never been a rank and file–initiated flight attendant change in representation in the United States before 1970. But by 1976 they were virtually constant. That year, Northwest Airlines flight attendants—who had abandoned the TWU for AFA in 1971—left AFA for the Teamsters; National Airlines flight attendants dropped AFA for the TWU; and Continental Airlines flight attendants went independent, forming the Union of Flight Attendants Local 1. And just five months after the TWA and American elections, Pan Am flight attendants ditched the TWU, also going independent in October 1977.23 Even in places where decertification attempts were not made, such as AFA’s shop at United or the TWU’s at Eastern Airlines and Southern Airways, labor leaders were on notice: a burgeoning rank-and-file democracy movement was under way among flight attendants, one committed to the political agenda of the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements of the decade, and one demanding substantive economic gains through progress on work rules. Unions could either deliver those goods or, as flight attendants would say, collect all of their carry-on items and leave the aircraft.

Carrying the Movement Forward with Work Rules

The new unions at Continental, American, TWA, and other airlines understood their comfortable margin of victory in the change-in-representation elections of the late 1970s as a mandate for change and immediately presented management with a new economic agenda. There was a clear continuity between that agenda and the one that drove the unrest in the summer of 1976. The new leaders were, of course, still focused on winning a breadwinner wage for flight attendants by closing the pay gap between themselves and other airline employees. Doing so would force the industry to provide material resources for the diverse spectrum of domestic arrangements among flight attendants, resources that women’s, gay, and lesbian liberationists were seeking in many workplaces. But when flight attendants sat down at the bargaining table on their own terms and in control of their own finances, activists offered a clear new focus for their effort to winning more time away from work and more money: contractual work rules.

Leaders of the new unions coalesced around work rules because of the highly unusual manner in which flight attendants are paid. As in many other unionized professions, flight attendants earn income by the hour. But instead of making their wage from the moment they arrive at work until the moment they leave—like the factory worker at the punch clock—flight attendants are paid only while the aircraft is en route. On most modern aircraft, a computer sensor attached to the parking brake system triggers flight attendant pay, starting the clock when the brakes come off and ending compensation as soon as the brakes are set on arrival. Flight attendants are not paid until the approximate moment that the purser says, “Flight attendants, prepare the doors for departure”—when the crew engages the airplane’s emergency slides in advance of pushback—and pay stops when the purser says, “Flight attendants, disarm doors for arrival and cross check.” This presents a problem for flight attendants because they earn no income while performing some of the most essential and most difficult elements of their jobs: calming down angry businesspeople during boarding when overhead bin space for their overstuffed rolling suitcases runs out, soothing stranded passengers on airport concourses during thunderstorms and blizzards, or simply watching television alone in hotel rooms night after night, away from family and friends. Worse yet, when flights cancel, flight attendants earn no pay at all—even when cancellations come after flight attendants put on their uniforms, get their kids to child care, arrive at the airport, and assist their passengers with boarding.

Work rules help flight attendants remedy the problem of unpaid labor by shifting the economic risk associated with airline operations back toward management. The following two case studies illuminate the economic foundations of flight attendants’ push for work rules. Both reference the operational experiences that flight attendants described during interviews for this book. The details of the narratives are then placed in the context of specific contractual work rules that flight attendants sought and won in the late 1970s. For the sake of consistent comparison, I assume that each of the flight attendants makes the same wage: $20 per hour, a round number that is a roughly average starting wage for a flight attendant today.

A Tale of “Duty Rigs”

There are far too many work rules to present them comprehensively, since most flight attendant contracts were over three hundred single-spaced pages long in the late 1970s. The following two examples, however, showcase the work rules that have been most effective in transferring risk away from flight attendants and toward the airlines. The first hinges on a concept called “ratios-in-guarantee,” or in industry parlance, “rigs.” Designed to ensure a reasonable wage for each day and each trip that a flight attendant works, rigs build a ratio between the number of hours worked and the number of hours paid. United flight attendants, for example, had a “1-for-2 duty rig” by the mid-1970s, which gave a flight attendant at least one hour of pay for every two hours spent on “duty”24—when she is at the airport or aboard an aircraft but not necessarily flying.

Duty rigs are particularly important in the predictably unpredictable airline industry. Take a given morning, when a Chicago-based flight attendant checks in for a one-day trip to New York. The trip has the flight attendant working the 8:00 A.M. flight from Chicago O’Hare to LaGuardia Airport, and then working another flight back home, which is scheduled to arrive at 2:00 P.M. Unfortunately for the flight attendant, just as she enters the terminal, a passenger distraught from a business deal gone bust bolts backward up the down escalator without clearing security and vanishes into the terminal. Security clamps down, evacuating the entire airport. At her original departure time, the flight attendant is standing in the airport driveway with twelve thousand of her passengers, going nowhere. When she finally gets back to operations around 11:00 A.M., she finds out that her New York flight is canceled. Crew schedulers order her to work a short hop to Cincinnati that finally leaves at 1:00 P.M. and then will turn around and bring her home before dinner.

Things get worse in Cincinnati. Right before departure for the trip home, at four o’clock on a hot afternoon, a thunderstorm deluges O’Hare, shutting down arrivals from all directions. Ten minutes before they are supposed to close the door in Cincinnati, they get the word about the storm and proceed to sit in the suffocating aircraft full of passengers for three hours. As the storm clears Chicago, it bears down on Cincinnati, but luckily the flight attendant’s trip rolls on departure in the tiny window between the sun coming out in Chicago and the squall line coming up the Ohio River valley. Landing finally takes place at 8:30 P.M. Heading to the parking lot, the flight attendant has worked exactly fourteen hours. Here emerges the importance of duty rigs. Under the TWA contract that led to the 1976 standoff, the flight attendant would get paid for only the two one-hour flights to Cincinnati and back. At $20 per hour, her daily wage is $40. But if she were flying under the United contract of 1976, she would be paid under the 1-for-2 duty rig, which, after a fourteen-hour day, guarantees seven hours of pay.25 Her daily wage would be $140, or 3.5 times that of the TWA flight attendant who earns the exact same hourly pay. In this case, duty rigs—rather than an hourly pay increase—would be the most important resource for increasing the flight attendant’s standard of living.

A Tale of “Line Guarantees”

Equaling rigs in their fundamental importance to flight attendant activists are another set of work rules called “line guarantees.” This set of strictures allows flight attendants to count on a baseline monthly wage. Line guarantees stem from the unique way in which flight attendants choose their schedules and, in effect, their wages. In the middle of every month, flight attendants “bid” on schedules for the following month. The days in that month are laid out in a line, with trips that last anywhere from one day to two weeks beginning on given days of that month. Each flight attendant submits requests—or “bids”—for the “line” with patterns of trips matching her favored dates, favored times of day, favored layover cities, and favored aircraft types. That month-long group of trips, or “line of flying,” represents a fixed number of hours if all goes according to plan. Airline work, however, rarely goes according to plan. Storms brew, airplanes break down, and air traffic control delays mount, inevitably canceling some of the trips that the flight attendant originally bid on. The purpose of line guarantees is to lock in the cash value of the line of flying that the flight attendant bid on, setting that value as the particular employee’s minimum monthly wage. Even if flights cancel, the flight attendant will be paid what she bid, with the airline thus assuming the full economic risk of the operation.

To demonstrate the importance of line guarantees, I return to the Chicago-based flight attendant, a single mother with two kids. This time she is headed to O’Hare for an international trip, working the 15.5-hour nonstop to Hong Kong. Between a sister and a neighbor, the flight attendant has access to free child care on the weekends, so she bids trips that check in Friday mornings and return on Mondays. Her sister works nights starting Mondays, so our flight attendant must be home in due time for the sister’s 7:00 P.M. start.

On a given Friday morning, a supervisor joins the Hong Kong crew for briefing in O’Hare operations, mentioning a “minor” problem with the pressurization system of the airplane they are slated to take to Hong Kong. But as the flight attendants walk aboard the Boeing 747, seemingly dozens of mechanics are on ladders undoing what looks like miles of ductwork. “She’s a goner,” the captain barks as he makes his way down the staircase from the upper deck, bags in hand and apparently leaving the aircraft. Shortly thereafter, the jetway phone rings, bringing news that the flight is canceled.

As the trip is scrubbed, line guarantees—those in all United Airlines contracts since the 1970s—kick in to govern the outcome of the situation. Though the flight attendant will now go nowhere near Hong Kong, her pay for the trip is protected. The airline, then, may reassign her to another trip. But contractual work rules also mandate that any replacement trip must return within six hours of the originally scheduled Hong Kong arrival, which in this case would be 9:00 A.M. Monday.26 Crew schedulers immediately recognize that they need flight attendants to cover the following evening’s London flight, but since that trip doesn’t return until Monday at 7:00 P.M.—four hours past the return deadline listed under the line guarantee work rules—they may not assign any of the Hong Kong flight attendants to the London trip. The only open trip available for the flight attendant, it turns out, is a two-day domestic trip with a Philadelphia layover that returns Monday at 1:00 P.M. Thus, she heads home, gaining two unexpected days off to spend with friends, kids, or as she pleases, and then coming back to work to fly the Philadelphia trip on Sunday.

Now imagine her without line guarantees. Once the Hong Kong trip cancels, all of her weekly pay is in jeopardy. Back at crew scheduling, she is informed about the Philadelphia trip and the London trip. The flight attendant immediately recognizes that she cannot afford to work the Philadelphia trip because at ten hours of pay—versus the thirty hours for the Hong Kong trip—two-thirds of her weekly earnings disappear. So she takes the London trip. But its late arrival on Monday snags her child-care plans. At an airline without line guarantees—Continental Airlines after 1983, for example27—she would have to have a child-care backup, since late arrivals would be commonplace without contractual rules to protect against them. She could call a babysitter to pick the kids up at school and stay with them until she gets home. But if she is late coming out of Heathrow, that option will get even more expensive. Either way, the flight attendant without work rules shoulders the risk of the canceled flight to Hong Kong.

Line guarantees dramatically alter this flight attendant’s weekly pay. With the line guarantee, the flight attendant is paid the full, thirty-hour value of the Hong Kong trip, even though she flew only the ten-hour Philadelphia trip. At $20 per hour, her weekly wage is $600, exactly as she planned it the month before. But without line guarantees, she would get paid for only the much shorter London trip, which is worth nineteen hours, or $380. Moreover, that extra babysitter cost $50, so pay after special family expenses drops to $330 for a week. With line guarantees, the flight attendant makes almost twice as much as without them at the exact same wage. This is why flight attendants were so committed to action on work rules in the late 1970s. Even if management was promising some flight attendants a 40 percent raise in hourly pay, as they were at TWA in 1976, without duty rigs, line guarantees, or scores of other work rules that flight attendants sought, the actual cash value of that raise was up in the air.

As they turned their attention to work rules to free themselves from the economic risk of airline work, flight attendants were demanding only what the workingmen who were members of the UAW, the Steelworkers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and other large industrial unions had long expected. Flight attendants wanted to know exactly when they could leave work. They wanted to know the exact value of their monthly wage. Flight attendants, in other words, wanted access to the basic middle-class model of employment that followed the successful union upsurge of the 1930s. Activists in the new flight attendant unions were, however, making those demands for a group of people who were increasingly vocal critics of middle-class values. Indeed, for the single people, the unmarried mothers, the feminists, the gays, and the lesbians, work rules were as likely to allow flight attendants to deviate from middle-class standards as to embrace them. With work rules, in other words, flight attendants would have the economic resources to live how they chose, whether that life revolved around marriage, domesticity, and heterosexuality or not. The push for work rules, then, helped flight attendants carry the liberation movements of the 1970s forward—even if those dense contractual formulas share little with gay or feminist activism at first glance. From the push for work rules, it was turning out, flight attendants had created a strategy to move marginalized people out of marginal work.

The Watershed Economic Advances of the Late 1970s

As they handed managers reams of contract proposals for duty time limitations, trip rigs, and line guarantees, the new flight attendant unions presented the airlines with an ambitious program. Although strategies varied among the airlines, all the new unions displayed a labor feminist commitment to ending overwork and aimed to deliver on that commitment quickly. Pan Am flight attendants, for example, focused their activism on traditional collective bargaining. Three months after flight attendants certified their new union, the Independent Union of Flight Attendants, leaders sent the airline an opening proposal for contract negotiations in December 1977. Consisting of fifty-eight single-spaced pages of detailed, heavily annotated proposals, the opener demanded nothing short of a watershed reworking of flight attendants’ pay, benefits, and working conditions.28 After grinding through seventeen months of back-and-forths with Pan Am managers, and after tensions culminated in a brief strike in April 1979, activists made many of those proposals—and an impressive 45 percent baseline wage increase—a reality.29 Among the coveted work rules in the new agreement was the industry’s strictest international duty time limitation, one that protected flight attendants from fatigue by limiting most workdays to thirteen hours and providing extra staffing to prevent overwork on the few long-haul flights that kept crews on duty for longer periods.30

American Airlines flight attendants, meanwhile, led with a more unorthodox strategy. Fired up after their resounding electoral victory, the new leaders of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants refused to wait for the regular contract negotiations cycle to push for improvements in working conditions. Just weeks after the new union’s certification, APFA sent management official notice of their intent to pursue unprecedented midcontract negotiations in July 1977. The overture included work rule proposals for a new four-tier “reserve” system that would rotate responsibilities for on-call flying to mitigate burnout, low- and high-time flying options that would allow individuals to maximize time off or earning potential, and increased staffing on American’s large fleet of Boeing 727s.31 Predictably, American slammed the door in APFA’s face, blasting Patt Gibbs—the women’s liberation movement organizer who was elected APFA’s first president—for “undermining the labor-management relationship,” for “attempting to coerce the company into adopting APFA’s plan,” and for preparing a document that was “completely unacceptable for serious consideration.”32 Although the rebuke forced activists at American to wait for regular negotiations to advance their agenda, APFA demonstrated that flight attendants were newly and passionately committed to intervening in the workplace. Even more importantly, activists eventually won many of APFA’s 1977 midcontract demands, making multi-tier reserve rotation, low- and high-time scheduling options, and increased cabin staffing standard by the early 1980s.33

While Gibbs and the American Airlines group were combative, TWA flight attendants were calm and calculated, though no less ambitious. Mindful of the infighting and unruliness that had dominated the summer of 1976, TWA flight attendants went into talks for a new contract in the spring of 1978, aiming to innovate not just on what would be in a new contract but on how they would win an accord at the bargaining table. Preparing to approach TWA to open negotiations, activists in the newly formed IFFA began with the premise that the very process of collective bargaining in the airline industry was a root cause of frequently disappointing outcomes for workers. Most troubling about airline negotiations was their unfailingly glacial pace. Such slowness was a consequence of the airline industry’s unique relationship to federal labor law. While most employees work under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a law that was among Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most important New Deal accomplishments, the Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926 covers workers on the railroads and in the airlines. The RLA was ratified at the apex of management power over unions following the “open shop drive” that rolled back craft union power in the early 1920s.34 Though management activism had significantly demobilized the labor movement by mid-decade, small pockets of committed employees—especially railroad engineers, firemen, brakemen, and machinists—could still hobble core industries and disrupt the economy. Taking advantage of the anti-union consensus in Congress, elected officials crafted a new law that would maintain a reform-oriented commitment to labor peace while permanently snuffing out labor radicalism in the nation’s transportation system. Congress accomplished this by making railroad and airline union contracts endless. Instead of expiring, as they do in all other industries, the RLA mandates that collective bargaining agreements become “amendable” at the end of their term. The lack of a formal expiration date means that airline and rail employees have no automatic right to strike. Employees can still resort to a walkout, but only after a federal panel called the National Mediation Board (NMB) authorizes such a strike. That petition process regularly takes months or even years in the airline industry, a status quo that is lucrative for managers as employees continue to earn the outdated wages of the previous contract as they wait for the NMB to set a strike date.35

To counteract the slowness of the RLA process, airline unions—especially the Air Line Employees Association for ground employees at National Airlines and the Association of Flight Attendants units at Alaska and Braniff—designed an expedited negotiations process in the mid-1970s. The new, faster bargaining system was based on a horse trade in which airlines would promise employees total wage increases of at least 5 percent on an annual basis and unions would waive their right to strike in exchange for the automatic raise. Regular pay increases were the quid pro quo for union commitment to labor peace, a trade-off that mirrored the incrementalist unionism that was dominant among the powerful unions of the manufacturing sector.36

TWA flight attendants decided to use expedited negotiations as scaffolding for upcoming talks with management in 1978. But given their generation’s commitment to direct action protest and member mobilization, IFFA leaders such as Victoria Frankovich, Mary Ellen Miller, and Arthur Teolis refused to agree to any framework that would forfeit flight attendants’ right to strike. Since TWA had made a $64 million profit in 1977,37 and because rank-and-file flight attendants understood that profit to be evidence that the airline could afford to provide work rule improvements, Frankovich and the others recognized that signing away flight attendants’ strike threat would have debilitating political consequences for their new union. Thus, IFFA proposed a different horse trade. In March 1978, activists approached TWA with a tight timeline for negotiations. The union and the company would simultaneously submit a bargaining petition limited to twenty-five items. TWA and IFFA would have six weeks to talk over those proposals. If no deal resulted, a federal mediator would be appointed for a month of supervised talks. At the end of that month, parties could either proffer arbitration, a back-and-forth system requiring parties to meet in the middle of their differences, or, presumably, petition the National Mediation Board for a strike release. There would be no IFFA waiver of the right to strike, and TWA would have no responsibility to provide a raise.38

Well aware of flight attendants’ activist vigor and glad to limit the number of items on the table, management accepted the deal, and IFFA and TWA submitted their openers on April 10, 1978. The details of the opening contract proposals paint a telling picture about the balance of power between workers and management amid the flight attendant unionist upsurge of the late 1970s. Management’s opener was detailed and modest, using each of its twenty-five allotments to seek, for example, minor modifications like a reduction in meal budgets for Tel Aviv layovers, elimination of the $2.50 per day en-route laundry compensation, reduction by one day of time off for domicile transfers, and elimination of the pay differential between the Boeing 707 and 747.39 IFFA’s pitch, conversely, was open-ended and expansive. Line items dotted the IFFA dossier, including “revise and increase all elements of pay,” “reduce on-duty time limitations,” “improve sick leave protection,” and “eliminate all discriminatory practices.” Although aggressive proposals like the ones IFFA was making would dominate management’s bargaining position after the anti-union advances of the Reagan years, it was a union that offered this transformative approach in the late 1970s.40

After only twenty months off since the upheaval of the summer of 1976, the IFFA bargaining team—this time Victoria Frankovich, Mary Ellen Miller, Bill Numrich, Arthur Teolis, and Roberto Veitia41—was back in marathon talks with TWA. Though private bargaining broke down on May 26, forcing the dispute into government-supervised mediation, the overall pace of negotiations was remarkably rapid. After only ninety-five days at the table—a sixth the length of the 1976 standoff—IFFA and TWA reached a tentative agreement on July 14, 1978. The new pact greatly increased flight attendants’ take-home compensation by augmenting their work rules: guaranteeing a new $1.25 per hour per diem for entire trips, extending full pay credit for “deadhead” flights where flight attendants ride to work as passengers, an industry-leading 1-for-3.5 trip rig, and a significant improvement in minimum monthly pay for flight attendants with on-call reserve schedules. The accord also included major symbolic improvements, among them crew meal parity with pilots, a standard rooted in the push for gender equality that was unheard-of in the industry before the 1978 deal. Additionally, the contract included a “reopener clause,” giving flight attendants a permanent right to weigh in on the structure and operation of the company in a changing industry by automatically compelling TWA to bargain with IFFA in the event of a corporate merger, route transfer, or change of ownership.42 IFFA certainly fell short of prevailing in a few key areas, as TWA could still monitor flight attendants’ appearance and body size and ground them for missing weight loss targets, for example, and as the union failed to persuade the company to agree to the coveted 1-for-2 duty rig. Nevertheless, the deal was an undeniable victory for IFFA on the grueling terrain of the RLA, the first pact ever reached before the amendable date in the history of flight attendant unionism. IFFA leaders immediately endorsed the contract and sent it to the general membership, which ratified the three-year accord on July 30, 1978.43

Pan Am, American, and TWA flight attendants were still working in an economy stratified around race, gender, and sexuality as they celebrated their lucrative new contracts. Supervisors could stop flight attendants and inspect their hair, fingernails, and makeup at any time and could fire flight attendants for gaining weight. Nevertheless, the new unions had shown that feminized service employees could make economic gains at work. Activists demonstrated that they could build a social movement around that economic oppression and could use the momentum of that movement to outpace their much more privileged peers in the unions of the manufacturing sector. The new flight attendant unions had thus proved that with an ambitious strategy and an effective organization, those doing “women’s work” could win a family wage.

Time, Money, Peripheral Bargaining, and the Night of March 4, 1983

As the ink dried on the robust new contracts at Pan Am, American, and TWA, vast political economic changes swept across the industry that would transform the nature of airline work. In October 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act (see Chapter 3). By eliminating government price controls and removing barriers to entry, the act opened the established carriers to new competition from upstart, non-union firms with far lower labor costs. Amid the shock of regulatory reform and because of the deep recession of 1982, many of the largest airlines posted record economic losses. Trying to stop the hemorrhaging, managers turned to unionized workers for pay and benefit concessions. Unwilling to accept employers’ proposals that would have cut compensation by as much as 50 percent, unionized workers in all trades countermobilized in protest. Long, bitter strikes ensued at United, Continental, and TWA, and by the early 1990s, once-powerful Braniff, Eastern, and Pan Am had collapsed.

As the turmoil of deregulation intensified, flight attendants’ labor feminist program became a focus of the conflict between corporations and workers. Nowhere were these tensions more vivid than at TWA. Although they deeply opposed flight attendants’ goals, managers at TWA and other major carriers had begun to understand the substance of activists’ politics. They recognized that flight attendant unionism was fundamentally different from pilots,’ machinists,’ and ground crews’ strategy at the bargaining table. Whereas men’s unions had pushed a narrow economic program centered on incremental hourly pay increases, flight attendants had broadly challenged the ideology of domesticity, both demanding an end to marriage prohibitions, age restrictions, and other overtly sexist policies and seeking the economic resources to close the flight attendant wage gap. Managers also knew that by the late 1970s, contractual work rules were the primary means through which flight attendants hoped to advance their expansive agenda, because work rules would guarantee flight attendants more money and less time at work.

With the industry in crisis, TWA executives attempted to exploit flight attendants’ political and cultural commitments to strengthen their own position against the labor movement. In 1981, managers insisted that IFFA forfeit many of the work rule gains that they had made in late 1970s. Company negotiators calculated that the bid for work rule concessions would have two possible outcomes, both of which would benefit TWA. Flight attendants would either acquiesce to the givebacks, which would save the company money in a weak economy, or they would strike in protest, which would provide a legal opening for TWA to hire permanent replacement workers and break the union. But because management only partially understood the substance of labor feminism, and because they underestimated the importance of economic resources to the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements, TWA’s strategy backfired.

The new conflict between TWA and IFFA began when the 1978 collective bargaining agreement became open for renegotiation. Hoping to replicate the success of their previous strategy, union activists submitted a proffer for expedited negotiations well in advance of the contract’s amendable date of June 30, 1981. With the company’s finances deteriorating in a deregulated marketplace, and as the economy slid into recession, managers swiftly rejected IFFA’s overture.44 Unwilling to participate in the narrower, faster negotiations that had benefited the union in 1978, management sent flight attendants a deeply concessionary forty-six-item opening proposal for traditional bargaining on April 1, 1981. The opener came with a stern warning from TWA president Ed Meyer. Like all unionized employees, flight attendants would be required to accept an eighteen-month pay freeze. Furthermore, and in a move that would raise the ire of IFFA members and leaders, Meyer insisted that flight attendants be ready to forfeit the work rule gains they had made in 1978. To demonstrate his seriousness, Meyer let flight attendants know that TWA’s top executives would have to sign off on any changes to the flight attendant contract, which was a highly unusual mandate in an industry where company brass usually stayed above the fray of day-to-day negotiations.45

IFFA responded assertively to Meyer’s warning, although in far more measured terms than they would have used at the peak of the flight attendant upsurge of the 1970s. Maintaining their long-standing opposition to differential treatment for flight attendants, activists indicated that they would join all TWA employees in accepting the eighteen-month pay freeze but that they would refuse to entertain demands for work rule givebacks made solely of IFFA. Company negotiators quickly rejected two proposals from flight attendants that would have traded the wage freeze for work rule protections, declining IFFA settlement offers in June and then again in November 1981. After eighteen months of fruitless talks, and in an effort to prove their commitment to defending their work rules, activists conducted a strike vote on September 22, 1982. At the pit of the recession, and regardless of the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, rank-and-file flight attendants overwhelmingly endorsed a walkout if management continued to insist on work rule concessions.46

Despite their members’ militancy, IFFA leaders pursued a compromise with TWA. On January 26, 1983, flight attendants submitted a proffer for arbitration with management, which would have allowed a neutral referee to settle the conflict between the company and IFFA. Opening the door to arbitration was a conciliatory move by the union; the process aimed to split the difference between TWA and IFFA and would allow the company to realize many of its demands for concessions, including those on work rules. But in a move that rattled activists, TWA swiftly rejected IFFA’s olive branch, declining the proffer for arbitration. Absent any progress at the bargaining table, the National Mediation Board declared an impasse between TWA and its flight attendants on February 22, 1983. Thirty days later, the Railway Labor Act would let flight attendants walk out on strike and would allow the airline to implement its demand for a pay freeze plus work rule concessions.47

Soon after the impasse, Ed Meyer’s management team drastically upped the stakes of the standoff. During the last week of February, the company sent a new settlement offer directly to the homes of all fifty-five hundred TWA flight attendants. They did so without notifying core union activists and without offering to negotiate the deal. Meyer’s effort to bypass traditional collective bargaining exemplifies what labor relations scholar Kenneth Jennings calls “peripheral bargaining.” According to Jennings, as employers recognized that the political tide had turned against unions in the 1980s, they were more likely to involve parties external to negotiations to increase their leverage against the labor movement. Rather than focus on direct talks with elected union officials, companies lobbied Congress for new antistrike legislation, created eye-catching media campaigns to sway public opinion, and appealed directly to rank-and-file union members as they strove to build a new national consensus against strikes. By creating distracting spectacles, peripheral bargaining strategies helped managers make contract talks slower, more contentious, and less favorable to workers.48

TWA’s foray into peripheral bargaining shocked IFFA activists. Although the offer that managers sent directly to flight attendants included the work rule cuts that management had sought from IFFA, it came with an hourly pay increase of approximately 30 percent over five years.49 Over twice the amount that TWA was offering at the bargaining table, the pay bump was particularly valuable because the rate of inflation had fallen sharply after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates in 1981. If economists’ forecasts for a long-term reduction in inflation proved correct, Meyer’s offer would vastly improve all flight attendants’ standard of living. TWA seemed to be serious: managers lobbied individual flight attendants to call their union leaders and urge them to accept the agreement that TWA had sent through the mail.

Although managers refused to explain their peripheral bargaining strategy to flight attendants, IFFA activists made an educated guess about the company’s aims. Union leaders speculated that TWA offered the 30 percent raise in an effort to divide rank-and-file flight attendants from the IFFA negotiating committee. Most of Ed Meyer’s leadership team had watched Mary Ellen Miller, Victoria Frankovich, and other young activists come of age in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. They knew that a deep-seated commitment to feminist principles had guided Miller and Frankovich at the bargaining table and within the labor movement. Meyer’s team also knew that work rules were the centerpiece of the next phase of their labor feminist campaign. Though most TWA flight attendants wholly endorsed leaders’ bid to end sex discrimination and to improve working conditions, managers guessed that core activists had a more sophisticated understanding of political and economic issues than ordinary flight attendants. According to activists, because of TWA’s assumption about that difference in sophistication, managers wagered that IFFA leaders would be more committed to protecting work rules than those on the front lines. Managers thus made an offer that coupled work rule givebacks with a large pay increase, a package that they guessed would appeal to the rank and file while remaining unacceptable to union leaders. If IFFA activists rejected the work rule concessions and therefore refused the 30 percent raise, the company hoped that activists like Frankovich and Miller would seem ideological and intransigent to ordinary TWA flight attendants. When the rank and file blamed IFFA and not TWA for scuttling the deal, the union would lose the solidarity necessary for it to negotiate a better contract or to win a strike.

Management’s effort to isolate IFFA activists quickly proved to have been an immense miscalculation. For a decade, flight attendants at TWA and most other airlines had pushed for work rules not because they were intransigent ideologues but because work rules were a surefire way to end the chronic sex discrimination that had been endemic to the labor economics of the airline industry for forty years. Work rules would give flight attendants the time and money that pilots, machinists, ground crews, and managers had always expected. In this particular case, a 30 percent raise in an era of low inflation would do the exact same thing—even if it came with rule givebacks. Flight attendants could use the large pay bump to buy a house or save for a child’s college education, or they could use it reduce their hours in an effort to better balance family and work. A 30 percent raise would, in other words, give TWA flight attendants both the time and the money that they had been demanding since the mid-1970s. Those economic resources would constitute a substantive political victory for a group of mostly-women union members whose trade had always been defined by low pay and overwork. Furthermore, TWA’s offer would help finance the cultural transformation that the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements had championed, because it would provide flight attendants with the material resources to live comfortably outside the boundaries of domesticity, marriage, and heterosexuality if they chose to do so.

Recognizing that they were about to beat management at its own game, the IFFA negotiating committee crafted a response to TWA’s peripheral bargaining offer.50 The union would go back into negotiations with TWA and would attempt to persuade company negotiators to rescind some of the work rule givebacks that they had paired with the 30 percent raise. Activists would push the negotiations as far as possible, but even if the company ceded no ground on work rules, IFFA leaders would accept the contract. The moment they uncapped their pens, the negotiating committee would lock in the largest real-dollar raise in the history of their work group.

TWA flight attendants executed their plan just before midnight on March 4, 1983. During what could have been another long night of circular work rule talks, union activists returned from a short recess and sat down at the bargaining table across from TWA’s team. But instead of resuming negotiations, the flight attendants made an announcement, one that provoked a shouting match between the company, the union, and the federal mediator who had been refereeing talks during the year of turmoil.

“Okay, we’ll take it,” the IFFA team announced.

Mary Ellen Miller, one of the five activists who delivered the news, describes the drama that ensued:

“WHAT?!” company negotiators barked. “No!”

According to Miller and others present, TWA’s team then grabbed the mailed-out offer and ripped it off the table.

As soon as they did so, the mediator took the lead in yelling.

“NO, YOU OFFERED IT. IT’S A DONE DEAL,”51 he shouted, ordering TWA to place the deal back on the bargaining table.

The mediator reminded both parties that since IFFA and TWA had formally agreed to mediation over a year earlier, federal labor law mandates that every settlement offer must remain on the table until the opposite party formally accepts or rejects the offer. Miller and the other IFFA activists had certainly castigated managers for undermining the bargaining process when they sent the offer directly to flight attendants’ homes and had condemned the work rule givebacks in the deal. But they had never rejected it. The union, therefore, could accept the deal at any time.

As the two parties put their pens to the paper, the deal proved that activists Frankovich and Miller were not the ideologues the company had hoped for. The flight attendant union movement was able to adopt a flexible set of strategies to further its core political goal: ending the economic sex discrimination that flight attendants had borne since the 1930s. Management quickly recognized this, but only after it was too late to change its strategy. Company negotiators were furious. TWA’s team was, in Victoria Frankovich’s recollection, “crestfallen” and “visibly shaken.”52 “They yelled at us all the way down the hallway afterward,” Mary Ellen Miller later recalled. “We made them look bad.”53

The managers were chagrined, but the front-line flight attendants were elated when IFFA leaders brought news of “one of the most lucrative economic offers recently negotiated by any group in the airline industry.”54 By the third year of the contract, TWA flight attendants with regular domestic schedules would be starting at a wage of $23.81 per flight hour. Assuming that airline crews fly an average of one thousand hours per year—the number most airline unions use to calculate their members’ annual earnings—new hires would join the industry making just under $24,000 per year in 1984. With inflation figured in, that means a TWA flight attendant could have made up to $54,000 in 2015 dollars during her first year on the job. To put the new wages in context, new hires in UAW-organized General Motors plants were starting at roughly $56,000 inflation-adjusted dollars per year during the same period.55 Though wages in manufacturing were already falling in successive rounds of concessionary bargaining during the anti-union upsurge of the Reagan years, flight attendant pay had matched or exceeded workingmen’s breadwinner wages by the mid-1980s. Indeed, the top wage for international flight attendants with at least twelve years of experience in the 1983 TWA settlement was $42.64 an hour. With inflation figured in, a full-time, senior TWA flight attendant could have pulled in as much as $97,000 a year in 2015 dollars.56

Front-line flight attendants wholeheartedly endorsed the accord in a referendum, validating the contract on April 12, 1983. All TWA flight attendants I interviewed for this book described the 1983 deal as among the most important moments of their careers. Janet Lhuillier beamed as she remembered hearing the news:

The 1983 contract victory was a fabulous psychological story. I remember sitting there on the Champs-Elysées on a Paris layover having a cup of tea, and I am going, “I am richer than shit right now!” It was absolutely phenomenal because all of a sudden we were paid so much for doing our jobs. People were like, “I can buy my own home. I can buy my own car. I can take care of my son. I can put my kids through school.” All of a sudden, flight attendants’ self-esteem rose.57

Here Lhuillier captures the political and cultural significance of the victory. With the advance at the bargaining table, flight attendants proved that one could access middle-class economic resources without necessarily living in middle-class social locations or subscribing to middle-class values. All of a sudden, just like autoworkers, just like machinists, and just like building tradesmen, flight attendants could buy a house, send a child to the university, or take a winter vacation at the beach. But unlike their labor movement peers, 91 percent of TWA flight attendants in the mid-1980s were women.58 And even if a flight attendant was a man, his labor was more likely to be dismissed as feminized and servile than read as a sign of his independence and skill. Therefore, although many flight attendants lived in domesticated, nuclear families, those families became far less traditional after March 1983 because they could count on a feminized service worker to be their breadwinner. With the contract advance, flight attendants could—at least for a moment—live middle-class lifestyles outside the boundaries of traditional family.

Conclusion: The Emerging Struggle over Domesticity and Hard Work

As they cashed paychecks that, when converted to today’s dollars, delivered an annual wage of nearly six figures, flight attendants acted with historical significance. On the one hand, they helped advance the project of labor feminism. For the first time, the flight attendants made enough money to balance both family and work. Unlike most women workers, flight attendants’ first shift provided enough pay to buy more time for the second shift. On the other hand, and even more importantly, as flight attendant unions made these gains for working women, for single people, and for lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers, they made those gains for people who were part of a rapidly growing demographic trend. As scholarly works such as sociologist Judith Stacey’s Unhitched59 or historian Elizabeth Pleck’s Not Just Roommates60 have demonstrated, and as the Pew Research Center’s 2013 analysis of female-headed households has documented, over the past thirty years fewer people have married, those who have done so have married later, and more people have had children outside marriage.61 By the year 2010, 40 percent of households depended on a woman to be the primary breadwinner, a fourfold increase in five decades; 44 percent of those solo mom breadwinners had never been married, ten times as many as in 1960.62 For decades, being a solo mom—or even just being single—had marked a woman for poverty. With flight attendant unions’ advances, and after similar advances from public employee and clerical workers’ unions during the same period, those sexist inequities began to change.

A family wage for flight attendants and for other workingwomen in the late 1970s and early 1980s came on the cusp of a vast economic transformation. As neoliberal reforms became the hegemonic response to the global economic crisis of the 1970s, all workers would face new downward pressures on wages and on working conditions. As union density dropped to levels not seen in a century, and as companies shifted economic risk toward employees and away from corporations, managers in all industries eliminated work rules that had protected people from forced overtime and from unpaid labor. By the year 2000, as real wages continued to fall, the family wage—whether for the traditional husband breadwinner or for a less traditional breadwinner like a flight attendant—was vanishing from the economy. In an age when most new jobs began to offer the pay and benefits of the “women’s work” of previous decades, flight attendant activists would face daunting new pressure to forfeit the resources they had just won.

Although neoliberalization would provide new challenges for all working people, the particular cultural dynamics of flight attendants’ struggle with the airlines in the 1970s would remain central to the process of political economic change in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than a 1970s feminist anachronism or a distraction from the bread-and-butter economic issues of neoliberalization, ideas about family, domesticity, and heteropatriarchy would shape corporations’ demands for wage and benefit cuts and would influence workers’ efforts to resist those cuts. Since the early 1970s, flight attendants had made domesticity and work the keywords of their struggle for fairer labor economics in the airline industry. Contesting the ideology of domesticity, union activists aimed to transform flight attendants from men’s dependents into active political agents. Once they took control of their unions, flight attendants confronted a system of compulsory overwork and demanded more money and more time to balance their jobs with responsibilities to their kin. After 1980, the advocates of neoliberal reforms would focus on a new strategy that ran directly counter to flight attendants’ agenda, one that elevated domesticity and hard work. More domesticity and more work would, in other words, become the organizing principles of the new economy.

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