United Airlines Is for Lovers: The Politics of Domesticity and Partnership in the 1990s

The political economic reforms of the 1980s presented vast new challenges for flight attendants at work and at home. After managers forced union activists to forfeit many of the work rules they had won in the late 1970s, flight attendants spent more hours in the air and had fewer days off. Crew schedulers cut layover times on domestic and international trips, which made it more difficult for flight attendants to adjust to jet lag and to decompress from the emotional intensity of the job. More takeoffs, landings, boardings, and beverage services did not, however, bring larger paychecks. Instead, flight attendants’ earnings declined sharply as hourly wage rates fell in the second half of the 1980s. To compensate for shrinking incomes, flight attendants worked overtime, took second jobs on the ground, and leaned on spouses, partners, and children for a greater share of the family income. Upping their hours, cutting their expenses, and pooling resources with their loved ones, flight attendants turned the household into a space to perform the economic balancing act that declining real wages required.

Flight attendants were by no means alone as they struggled to adjust to a leaner economy. In an age when a well-funded, tightly organized pro-business activist movement had built a public policy consensus around pro-work cultural values, the labor movement was in free fall. Trade unions lost half their members in the 1980s,1 and people who remained organized faced intensifying pressures for pay and benefit concessions as non-union wages became standard. A mere decade after the flight attendant union movement had won access to the family wage, one in which a worker could be a breadwinner for her or his entire family, the family wage was vanishing in all sectors of the economy.

Organized labor’s crisis does not mean that workplace activism disappeared after 1990. On the contrary, front-line employees continued to make successful political and economic demands on their employers. Those advances, however, would require a new set of strategies to supplement the contract-based collective bargaining that had been the dominant practice in previous decades. Particularly effective were the economic claims of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizers. By 1990, an ascendant LGBT rights movement was transforming corporate employment policies. As sociologist Nicole Raeburn has demonstrated, the movement won valuable new resources for LGBT people and their families as activists pushed many of the largest corporations to include sexual orientation in their Equal Employment Opportunity statements and to offer the medical and retirement coverage for same-sex couples that organizers called “domestic partner benefits.”2

Contradictory ideas propelled the LGBT movement’s economic advances in an era when most workers faced setbacks. On the one hand, LGBT leaders channeled the radical critiques of the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements of the 1970s. Activists, for example, staunchly and vividly confronted the “pro-family” movement with a mass demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1993, demanding not only legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people but also public funding for AIDS research, abortion rights, and racial justice. On the other hand, by touting the LGBT community as a lucrative emerging consumer market and by framing workplace activism as a demand for benefits for the committed, domesticated partners of deserving, hardworking LGBT employees, a growing number of LGBT rights organizers worked to accommodate the dominant cultural politics of the 1990s. Indeed, by embracing niche marketing and domestic partnership, activists turned the LGBT person into a hard worker, a faithful partner, and a brand-loyal consumer, a formulation that upheld—rather than contested—the dominant pro-work, pro-family ideology of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Flight attendant unionists would intervene in the contradictions of 1990s LGBT activism as they helped bring the movement to the airline industry. During the spring of 1997, a group of flight attendants from San Francisco began collaborating with LGBT leaders who were pushing the airlines and other corporations to offer domestic partner benefits for their employees. When managers at the major carriers refused, flight attendants and their allies responded with direct action political mobilization. Borrowing militant, theatrical protest strategies from the decade’s dissident queer groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), activists organized in gay bars, staged mass union demonstrations, initiated civil disobedience at protests, and launched a consumer boycott against the largest U.S. carrier, United Airlines. This chapter analyzes the political and economic ideas driving a protest movement that, by the end of the decade, had won new medical and retirement benefits for tens of thousands of airline workers and their lovers.

As they mounted a successful challenge to the airlines’ anti-union and antigay agenda, flight attendants provided a new direction for organized labor and for LGBT activists at a moment when both movements were at a crossroads. Although unions continued to shed members in their historic stronghold in manufacturing, the labor movement had proved that it could grow on its margins in the late twentieth century.3 Public employees—many of who were African American women—organized en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. Two decades later, seventy-five thousand Los Angeles–based home healthcare workers voted for union representation as the Service Employees International Union joined forces with the Chicano/Latino and immigrant rights movements. In both of those cases, unions succeeded because they built a political and economic agenda around the needs of nontraditional families. Racism, after all, had locked most Latino and African American men out of family wage jobs, which meant that their households had never counted on a sole male breadwinner. Unions thus would help Latina and African American women provide additional resources for families in which women, men, and children had always worked outside the home. During the domestic partner benefits campaign, flight attendants pushed the labor movement toward a new group of families that had also been locked out of the family wage system. Lesbian- and gay-identified people in same-sex relationships were systematically denied the economic privileges extended to middle-class white straight families in the mid-twentieth century and rarely counted on the wages of a traditional male breadwinner.4 Flight attendant unionists confronted those historic disparities during the domestic partner benefits campaign, in the process helping unions deliver badly needed benefits to their members in an age when collective bargaining was failing to deliver such goods.

Collaboration with unions, meanwhile, helped shift the agenda of the LGBT movement. Many flight attendants were deeply suspicious of the pro-family, pro-work ideas that some LGBT organizers—especially those in mainstream political organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)—espoused in the bid for domestic partner benefits. For the mainstream movement, aligning LGBT people with the family values of domesticity and hard work was a means to defend the community against religious conservatives who had attacked queer people for deviating from traditional family values. But at Frank Lorenzo’s Continental Airlines and at Carl Icahn’s TWA, the very family values that the mainstream LGBT movement was embracing had helped justify managerial efforts to strip flight attendants of health and retirement benefits. As they joined mainstream LGBT organizations in the streets of San Francisco, then, flight attendants demonstrated that contesting corporate homophobia would require not an embrace of family values but rather an explicit challenge to both the family ethic and the work ethic. Connecting the domestic partner benefits campaign to the longstanding push for more money and less work for a broad spectrum of families, flight attendants helped build a coalition of single and partnered people and of LGBT- and straight-identified people who would permanently transform family benefits programs in the airline industry.

Meeting the Mainstream LGBT Rights Movement in San Francisco

In the mid-1990s, flight attendant activists were looking for a means to reinvent the movement. Militant, grassroots union mobilization had energized the rank and file in the 1970s and had provided a venue to build alliances with the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements. But after debilitating setbacks in failed strikes at Continental, TWA, and Eastern in the 1980s, the costs of mass mobilization seemed to far outweigh its benefits. Although those costs were most pronounced at the carriers subjected to the harshest managerial tactics during financialization, even such successful airlines as United, American, and Northwest were demanding concessions from flight attendants as industry average wage rates tumbled. On the eve of the domestic partner benefits campaign, for example, United Airlines flight attendants were starting at today’s equivalent of $28,000 per year, roughly 45 percent less than they had made at the peak of the upsurge in the early 1980s.5

As downward pressure on wages intensified, a collective bargaining process that had once invigorated flight attendants became arduous. Aiming to reverse the decline in real wages, leaders of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) at United slogged through six months of tense negotiations in the second half of 1995, finally delivering a tentative agreement to their members the following February. Angry that the proposed contract gave management new scheduling flexibility for international flights, front-line flight attendants voted the agreement down6 and circulated a series of underground newspapers that blamed the AFA negotiating committee for a weak, inept performance at the bargaining table.7 Rank-and-file agitation proved insufficient to jumpstart negotiations, however, and contract talks remained stalled for a year after the failed ratification vote. Meanwhile, United reported gangbusters earnings: shares outpaced a red-hot “dot com” economy as they tripled in value between 1994 and 1997, and the company reported a $1.3 billion profit for 1997 alone.8 Facing disgruntled, cynical members who were struggling to balance the high cost of living with falling wages at a profitable employer, activists who remained committed to the flight attendant union movement looked for a solution to the problem of rank-and-file discontent.

That solution walked up to union activists in May 1997. On a spring afternoon, United Airlines flight attendants Stan Kiino and Beth Skrondal were painting picket signs in the garage of the apartment building where they both lived in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. The co-chairs of their union’s communication and education committee, Kiino and Skrondal were brainstorming about ways to counteract disappointing flight attendant turnouts at rallies after a year of failed negotiations. Painting and talking in a sea of tagboard and stencils, the two barely noticed Jeff Sheehy walking up the alley. Sheehy, the president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, the LGBT caucus of the local Democratic Party, approached Kiino and Skrondal and asked for help.9 In November 1996, Sheehy told the flight attendants, local activists had scored a notable victory for LGBT workplace rights. After Congress dealt the national LGBT movement a watershed blow by passing the Defense of Marriage Act on the same day that it defeated an LGBT workplace civil rights bill called the Employment Non-discrimination Act, Sheehy and his peers persuaded the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to ratify an ordinance requiring all firms doing business with the city to offer domestic partner benefits for unmarried same- and opposite-sex couples.

Three months later, however, United Airlines put Sheehy’s victory in jeopardy when it filed suit on behalf of twenty-six airlines against the San Francisco law,10 aiming to persuade a judge to either exempt some companies from providing the benefits or to overturn the entire ordinance. Sheehy asked Kiino and Skrondal to join him in building a linkage between flight attendants and LGBT activists, since United’s intransigence at the bargaining table and in the partner benefits lawsuit made both groups into targets of the airline’s political, economic, and legal apparatus. The goal, Sheehy argued, would be to isolate United, publicly shaming the airline so that firms in other industries would be afraid to add their names and financial resources to the lawsuit. Kiino beamed with excitement as he remembered that first back-alley conversation. “Jeff started talking about civil disobedience, saying, ‘Now remember, the police and mayor are your friends.’ I just stared at him in disbelief, as we had never done anything like that before!”11

Jeff Sheehy came to that conversation with a well-developed political playbook because domestic partner benefits advocacy was already a centerpiece of the policy agenda of mainstream institutions such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT political action committee and a major donor to the Democratic Party, which Sheehy helped lead. The HRC turned to the private sector and to activism at major corporations precisely because of stinging setbacks in public venues. Given their immense economic resources and widely distributed, confrontational antigay message, pro-family activists had rolled back LGBT rights at the ballot box. From Anita Bryant’s “save our children” campaign, which invalidated municipal gay rights ordinances in the mid-1970s, to the anti-same-sex marriage amendments that helped turn out conservative voters after 1990, the LGBT movement faced daunting setbacks in popular referendums as evangelical Christians and their allies politicized so-called social issues such as feminism, abortion, and homosexuality. Pro-business and pro-family activists then leveraged social issues to build a mass movement against LGBT people, women of color, welfare recipients, and other marginalized groups.12

After 1990, private corporations provided the shield that LGBT activists needed from popular referendums during the upsurge of organizing around social issues. Since corporations have never been democratic institutions, and since deregulation, financialization, and the other neoliberal reforms made them even less democratic, activists could pigeonhole health coverage and termination protection for LGBT employees through corporate boards of directors while dodging backlash from the right at the polls. Thus, although LGBT-led initiatives for same-sex marriage rights and nondiscrimination laws often failed in the 1990s, activists made Equal Employment Opportunity policies and domestic partner benefits the norm in the Fortune 500 by mid-decade. Mainstream LGBT activists had indeed found a new route to prove that gay is good, even if that meant abandoning the ballot box and building alliances with British Petroleum, Chase Manhattan, and American Express. LGBT institutions enjoyed such success in winning resources from major corporations that, in 1997, HRC president Elizabeth Birch announced, “The truth is it’s corporate America that has been the unlikely hero in the movement for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.”13 In her comments, Birch named and endorsed the increasingly widespread gay-corporate alliance of the 1990s.

Flight Attendant Unionism Challenges Mainstream LGBT Activism

While many flight attendants sympathized with the HRC’s overarching commitment to lesbian and gay rights, Birch’s pro-business rhetoric revealed a potential barrier to a coalition between flight attendant unionists and the domestic partner benefits campaign in San Francisco. After all, the gay-corporate alliance of the 1990s was helping legitimate the pro-family, pro-work political consensus that flight attendants had spent three decades contesting. Advocacy for domestic partner benefits accomplished this in two important ways. First, private benefits for hardworking employees and their domesticated partners became a substitute for medical and retirement benefits for everyone.14 At the same time as some companies spent money on extending domestic partner benefits, they aggressively lobbied to cut corporate taxes and to eliminate the public housing, education, and health programs that corporate taxes paid for. Second, domestic partner benefits remade LGBT identity and community to comply with corporate cost cutting.15 In the age of domestic partner benefits, the LGBT person could access health and retirement coverage through productive employment, through a company-supported domestic relationship, or through both domesticity and hard work. Through LGBT institutions’ détente with the Fortune 500, the LGBT person became everything that the poor, racialized, and feminized targets of pro-work politics were assumed not to be: gainfully employed in the private sector and in a responsible, committed, domesticated relationship.16

By constituting LGBT identity in sexual and racial regulation, the gay-corporate alliance abetted the transition to a neoliberal economy. In her incisive book Against the Romance of Community, Miranda Joseph theorizes the relationship between mainstream LGBT identity and the post-1970 economy. Joseph argues that in the age of the gay-corporate alliance, ideas about LGBT community supplement the capitalist system.17 Whereas the notion of community is often invoked to describe a time of horizontal power relations before the development of the free market, Joseph insists that liberal capitalist modernity is made from oppressive communal discourses.18 Rather than a space outside capitalism, community is an idea that facilitates the workings of the free market, filling in for what capitalism lacks. The political and cultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s helped make the LGBT community perform the work for capitalism that Joseph references.19 Aggressive anti-unionism and a pro-work political culture made critiques of corporate power less common and less legible in all populations, including among LGBT people. Meanwhile, pro-family organizing coupled with homophobic scapegoating in the wake of the AIDS crisis convinced many gay leaders that they should turn away from the sexual complexity among LGBT people, pushing kink, bondage, sex parties, and polyamory to the margins of the movement by 1990. Who remained most visible, then, were middle-class, monogamous, domesticated LGBT people who complied with the renewed cultural commitment to the family ethic and the work ethic. Once it appeared that domesticity and hard work were the raw materials that produced the LGBT community, corporations and pro-work policymakers could leverage LGBT people and culture to validate the family values economy.

At its core, Joseph’s argument is about political mobilization even more than it is about political economy. When community supplements capital—in this case by figuring gays to be domesticated, partnered, and hardworking—LGBT people are cut off from those who might otherwise be allies. Indeed, as they elevated same-sex domesticity, 1990s bids for domestic partner benefits lost relevance to single people, to working mothers, to nonromantic roommates, and to a host of other alternative families that, like same-sex couples, also needed companies to broaden the scope of their benefits programs. In an age when the nuclear family was a waning social form, and when gays and straights alike were broadening the definition of domesticity, the gay-corporate alliance made domestic partner benefits seem like an economic resource for the families of the past and not for the families of the future.

Unfolding in a far different historical context, the dispute between the city of San Francisco and United Airlines provided an opening to widen the coalition around employment benefits. Not only had family always been broadly defined in San Francisco, where single people, friends, and lovers headed up a variety of households, but United Airlines had long been home to a flight attendant movement dedicated to the economic needs of the unpartnered. Those histories intersected in the personal lives and political commitments of the flight attendants most involved in the domestic partner benefits campaign. Beth Skrondal, for example, refocused her activism around the benefits dispute soon after Jeff Sheehy approached her in that afternoon in Pacific Heights. Like 51 percent of her colleagues at United, Skrondal identified not as married, divorced, or partnered but as single.20 A longtime San Franciscan who had lived in Haight-Ashbury during the counterculture of the late 1960s, Skrondal bucked demographic trends for young white women and stayed single, spending the 1970s in Miami as a flight attendant and union activist at National Airlines. Post-deregulation industry consolidation carried Skrondal from Florida back to California, and by 1990 she was flying for United Airlines and living on her own in an apartment in San Francisco’s leafy Pacific Heights neighborhood.

Despite a passion for the labor movement and for social justice, Skrondal was at first reluctant to get involved with the partner benefits campaign when Jeff Sheehy and Stan Kiino followed up with her about the exchange in the garage. Skrondal reflected:

I remember Stan telling me, “Okay, we have to go over to the community church over in the Castro because there is a big domestic partnership meeting there tonight.” And I said, “Stan, I am not gay. I will fight for domestic partnerships, but I do not want to go to this meeting.”21

Skrondal went on to say that although she had always actively supported feminist and gay rights causes, she was at first uninterested in the partner benefits campaign because it seemed irrelevant for—or perhaps even counter to—the issue she had always most cared about: the economic and political position of single people. Over a career when marriage, motherhood, homosexuality, and abortion had all been politicized social issues in her workplace, Skrondal often felt adrift in her own social location as a single woman who was the head of a household of one. With gay identity and domestic partnership so tightly interwoven in mainstream LGBT activist discourse, the domestic partner benefits campaign seemed to Skrondal like another demand for resources that she would not have the privilege to access.

Skrondal soon changed her thinking on domestic partner benefits at United. Obliging Kiino and going to the citywide meeting in the Castro that May night, Skrondal saw a room full of labor, LGBT, and AIDS activists testifying about the life-and-death importance of family benefits, expressing anger, fear, and despair about the United Airlines lawsuit. Moved by activists’ political analysis and personal narratives, Skrondal joined the movement. As a single person, Skrondal felt at least somewhat welcome because her fellow activist, Stan Kiino, had also spent the majority of his adult life single, in his case as a single gay man. A twenty-seven-year veteran of Pan Am and United, Kiino lived by himself in the same Pacific Heights apartment complex as Skrondal. He arranged his flight schedule around five- or six-day trips to the South Pacific, maximizing days off to commute to care for and live with his ninety-year-old mother in the Central Valley town of Hanford, California. The son of Japanese immigrant parents, Kiino grew up in the 1960s without the expectation and valorization of nuclear, single-generation domesticity common to his white suburban counterparts and has never lived in that traditional arrangement.

As race and immigrant status helped Kiino frame his relationship to his mother, he highlighted a host of alternative family relationships cultivated during his airline career, dependencies that have enabled material and emotional sustenance outside domesticated, partnered realms. Kiino was particularly pointed, for example, when narrating the mutual support networks that grew out of the AIDS crisis. In his early thirties, Kiino had spent a decade flying for Pan Am when AIDS upended the lives of gay flight attendants, their coworkers, and their friends. The skills and rhythms of flight attendants’ working lives, Kiino argued, made them critically important caregivers for friends, lovers, and acquaintances when the agents of traditional family—the state, parents, and spouses—were either unable or unwilling to provide compassion and care. Kiino reflected:

AIDS was devastating. There are only a few men from my fifty-person training class at Pan Am still left alive. And that is true for a lot of airlines’ flight attendant groups. . . . A lot of us weren’t involved in any organization, but we spent all our time trying to help friends. As a flight attendant, I am used to sleeping in different situations because of layovers and jet lag. So I was the one who was flexible enough to stay over at people’s houses because they needed help with their illness during the night. There was this era—where you just had to get used to it. You didn’t know who was next to die.22

Kiino argued that friends with AIDS could count on flight attendants because they were used to sleeping away from home, because they expected to wake up and help people during normal sleeping hours, and because they regularly and calmly handled blood, vomit, and feces—the physical products of many AIDS-related illnesses—as part of the first-responder qualifications of their professional lives. Even more importantly, union wages, work rules, and personal leave benefits allowed Kiino the schedule flexibility and financial stability to take time off work during his friends’ darkest hours, a practice that would have been much more difficult had Kiino worked one of the many low-wage, non-union jobs in the service sector. In Kiino’s relationships to lost coworkers and friends, to his current peers aloft, to the union movement, and to his mother, kinship has been practiced much more broadly than the domesticated, partnered version espoused by the gay-corporate alliance.

In some ways, Beth Skrondal’s and Stan Kiino’s lives were hallmarks of the family values economy. Both were single adults who worked full time, who juggled responsibilities for family and work, and who could not fall back on the wages of a husband breadwinner or the unwaged labor of a domesticated wife. During three decades of activism, however, both had rejected the family ethic and the work ethic that were the bedrocks of the family values economy, staying single and building a union that demanded more money and less work. For Skrondal and Kiino, winning new medical and retirement benefits for some of their coupled friends would represent much more than a victory for coupled people. Challenging United Airlines’ intransigence would constitute one more stop on a long journey of labor, feminist, and gay activism. Thus, even though neither Skrondal nor Kiino stood to gain any economic resources from a partner benefits victory, both led the charge to build a new connection to an LGBT movement that could help flight attendants win economic resources from airlines that, in the age of deregulation and financialization, had been shrinking rather than expanding corporate benefits.

United against United: Sexuality and Labor in the Streets of San Francisco

Beth Skrondal and Stan Kiino’s practices of kinship were a deeply threatening prospect for the airlines and for other major corporations. If employees imagined families that crossed the boundaries of the household, of generations, of blood relations, and of legible intimacy, they could be inspired to make expensive new claims for flexible hours, for better pay, and for broader benefits programs. Skrondal and Kiino’s kinship ties, in other words, threatened the commitment to both the family ethic and the work ethic that had driven the pro-business activist movement since 1970. Therefore, despite the fact that firms in other industries were extending domestic partner benefits to help build the gay-corporate alliance, United Airlines launched a vigorous countermovement against LGBT activists in San Francisco. United’s intervention centered on a federal lawsuit it filed in conjunction with the Air Transport Association, the management lobbying group for the major passenger airlines. Reiterating big business’s support for pro-work politics, the suit argued that withholding domestic partner benefits was necessary to protect the jobs of hardworking American families. Domestic partner benefits, United’s attorneys insisted, are an expensive entitlement program for people who choose to live outside the nuclear family. Other interest groups, from environmentalists to product safety advocates to women’s and minority rights groups, had won similar entitlements in the 1960s and 1970s. Their victories, as pro-business activists had previously argued, placed an economic burden on corporations, a burden that in turn meant fewer jobs for ordinary workers who were not part of such special interest groups. Reducing that economic burden—in this case by continuing to withhold domestic partner benefits—would be necessary to foster the corporate job creation that would restore the middle class.

United’s case against domestic partner benefits rested on three pro-work legal claims. The first involved the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Since the Commerce Clause gives states the right to regulate business only within their boundaries, courts have long recognized a corresponding and inverse—though unwritten—dormant logic that prevents states or municipalities from governing companies operating outside their physical jurisdiction. United argued that the city of San Francisco not only regulated business extraterritorially with the partner benefits ordinance—requiring new employee compensation in Boston and Brussels and Beijing—but also, by requiring expensive new family benefits, placed an undue burden on United from which competitors would be exempt.23 In the view of the airline’s legal team, the San Francisco ordinance would give American, Delta, and other carriers a labor cost advantage over United, one that would jeopardize the jobs of all United employees.

In addition to their claim about interstate commerce, United made a second argument rooted in federal labor law. The airline proposed that the San Francisco ordinance violated the “minimum labor standards” principle of the Railway Labor Act because it would tip the balance of power in the labor-management relationship toward the union. The RLA mandated that all such realignments must occur in government-regulated negotiations: in formal collective bargaining, in mediation, in arbitration, or in a legal strike. Street-level gay activism, United insisted, was none of the above. Furthermore, the airline argued that activists such as Jeff Sheehy were imposing obligations on United that were inconsistent with the domain of collective bargaining offered by the RLA. LGBT issues, in other words, were beyond the scope of labor-management relations and thus out of bounds either in street-level protest or at the negotiating table. Through its RLA claim, United aimed to insulate the workplace from the LGBT rights movement, a move that would protect jobs and workers from grassroots activists’ anticorporate agenda.24

The airlines rounded out their objections to the domestic partner ordinance by alleging that the law violated the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) of 1978. Echoing the claims of 1970s pro-deregulation activists, United told the court that the ADA was primarily intended to promote free market competition, in which the laws of supply and demand would solely determine prices. Lower fares would stimulate consumer demand, generating new business that would promote economic growth and create jobs for the middle class. Mandating domestic partner benefits would constrain United’s pricing flexibility by requiring higher airfares to offset the cost of health insurance for unmarried couples. The airlines made this argument in multiple contexts in the 1990s. Delta Airlines, for example, told a different federal circuit court in 1997 that all state civil rights laws violate the ADA because they generate undue pricing constraints.25 For United and its peers, civil rights advances such as the San Francisco benefits ordinance would push the airline back to the high-price, low-growth model of the 1970s, in which the political gains of a feminist and gay minority came at the expense of all hardworking families.

In United’s economic and cultural argument to the federal district court lay the root of flight attendants’ interest in the partner benefits campaign. Even though the HRC’s focus on domesticity and hard work did not resonate with the origins of the flight attendant union movement in women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation, the terms of the airline’s case were familiar—and offensive—to many on the front lines. For twenty years, the discourse of traditional family values had been a mechanism to devalue flight attendant labor and to pit racialized and feminized workers against the middle class. Flight attendants, for example, came into the 1970s making 20 percent less than their next-lowest-paid colleagues, a disparity rooted in managers’ and male union leaders’ assumptions that stewardesses were not breadwinners.26 That same assumption helped single out flight attendants for disproportionately harsh treatment during the major strikes of the 1980s. Now, as executives tried to rebuff LGBT activists in San Francisco, they once again insisted that traditional family values—in this case heterosexual marriage—would be necessary for full economic citizenship in the airlines. In a workplace where over 50 percent of the population was single and where many people were in same-sex relationships, that insistence saved the company a huge amount of money, since fewer than half of United’s twenty thousand flight attendants were eligible for any family benefits.

Given those historical inequities, flight attendants—both leaders such as Skrondal and Kiino and a broad swath of the rank and file—joined the domestic partner benefits movement in force. By doing so, flight attendants connected their ongoing campaign for a new union contract to the increasingly visible dispute for domestic partner benefits. On June 20, 1997, for example, AFA members assembled and marched in the San Francisco LGBT Pride festival, an annual happening that brought a million visitors to the Bay Area from across the globe, making it a centerpiece of both the city’s cultural life and United’s summer profit-making strategy. Activists donned screaming chartreuse T-shirts with jagged black letters that formed the word CHAOS. The shirts signaled AFA’s trademark “Create Havoc Around Our System” strike strategy, which featured quick, unpredictable, hit-and-run work stoppages that guaranteed maximum operational disruption while reducing the chance of a lockout like that at TWA in 1986. Threatening to disrupt passengers’—and Pridegoers’—flight schedules, unionists passed out ten thousand leaflets that asked, “Is United really gay friendly?” and directed the audience to call the airline to demand a fair contract for flight attendants and domestic partner benefits for all employees.27

As they put the squeeze on a major corporation with a parade float, flight attendants challenged the political economic transformation of Pride festivals in the 1990s. As the millennium approached, gatherings that once served as hubs for socializing and political organizing had become bully pulpits for companies aiming to make money on the LGBT niche market. Beginning in the middle of the decade, communications firms including Witeck and Combs published a series of widely cited studies that identified the LGBT niche—and especially same-sex couples—as lucrative and particularly brand loyal. Corporations, especially those in the travel, real estate, and entertainment industries chasing dual-income couples with no children, used Pride festivals to cultivate the LGBT niche. Icelandair managers, for example, raffled off free trips to Europe at Pride in Seattle, Minneapolis, and New York, collecting contact information and demographic data from the LGBT community in the process.28 Flight attendants’ CHAOS T-shirts and strike-threatening leaflets interrupted this seemingly natural convergence between the airlines, gay travelers, and niche marketing. The campaign did so by offering a vivid challenge to corporate power that moved demands for full LGBT citizenship away from claims about domesticity and consumption and back toward Pride festivals’ historic legacy of active political defiance.

The domestic partner benefits campaign used similarly colorful tactics when it took its cause beyond the Pride festival and into the streets of San Francisco. In the process, leaders helped deepen ties between front-line flight attendants and the LGBT movement. Three weeks after Pride, on July 10, 1997, the coalition staged the first in a series of civil disobedience–centered mass protests in downtown San Francisco, demonstrations demanding both a flight attendant contract settlement and domestic partner benefits for everyone at United. Leaders were particularly strategic in choosing United’s Geary Street City Ticket Office as a target of economic intervention. Before the Internet became the airlines’ primary customer service interface, city ticket offices provided face-to-face support for carriers’ highest-paying customers. Frequent flyers from Wells Fargo, Cisco Systems, AOL, or other profitable United accounts could walk from their financial district offices to make reservations, change seats, and confirm upgrades at the ticket office, thereby avoiding long airport lines while building personalized business relationships with local United sales agents that the discount carriers could never provide. A throng of chanting, CHAOS T-shirt-wearing, picket-sign-waving flight attendants and scores of LGBT allies with bright rainbow flags quickly interrupted United’s sophisticated and stylish customer service experience. “The whole thing was like theater,” Jeff Sheehy recalled:

First we assemble, march, and chant. Then we send in the United frequent flyers, who cut up their frequent flyer cards in the office in front of the press. Then, at a given moment, those who volunteer to do civil disobedience block the doors and shut the office down. They arrest us and we go to jail.29

Sheehy described events that were choreographed as media spectacles for still photography and video feed. Plastic shards of cut-up frequent flyer cards were tossed through the air as police pushed through rainbow flag pickets to handcuff demonstrators blocking United’s doors.

Despite flight attendants’ readiness to draw on three decades of grassroots activist experience in direct action protests, activists faced a major tactical problem. Flight attendant union leaders quickly informed the partner benefits coalition that the Railway Labor Act severely constricts what flight attendants and other unionized groups may do and say during conflicts with employers. In particular, the RLA prevents union members from engaging in strikes, boycotts, sickouts, or any other act that could have a negative financial impact on an employer without prior approval from the federal agency that administers the law. Since flight attendants had no right to domestic partner benefits in their union contract, they had no legal basis to convince the agency that union members deserved to conduct acts of civil disobedience against United.

The HRC stepped in to solve this problem. Whereas the RLA would likely have allowed United to fire flight attendants and sue their union if rank-and-file activists took part in economic sanctions, labor law had no jurisdiction over the HRC or any other non-employee political group. Therefore, the HRC immediately called for a global consumer boycott of United Airlines and used publicity for the boycott to announce mass protests where flight attendants would picket on public sidewalks but would avoid participating in civil disobedience.30 That role was left to local activists such as Sheehy and the HRC’s press operation. Using the HRC as a shield for union activism helped protect flight attendants from being held liable for the economic consequences of the boycott, a fate that met pilots for American Airlines during the same period. In February 1999, when pilot activists called a sickout without federal approval to protest outsourcing of flight crew jobs, a judge fined the pilots’ union $10 million for violating labor law, the largest penalty ever levied against a union in the airline industry.31 As they hoisted the rainbow flag in front of the United ticket office, LGBT activists opened a new space for flight attendants to intervene in airline economics, a space the Railway Labor Act had previously foreclosed. Most importantly, new alliance partners made protest spaces much more fun and energizing than they had been during the earlier, stand-alone phase of the flight attendant contract dispute. Activists struggled to get fifty flight attendants to spend their day off at airport pickets, but organizers estimate that at least four hundred people showed up to march in the July 10 demonstration.32

Spectacles like the ticket office occupation helped activists transform LGBT identity in the streets of San Francisco. Every domestic partner benefits protest was awash in rainbow flags, the most widely recognized symbol for the mainstream LGBT community of the 1990s. Those flags, however, flew alongside union picket signs, next to throngs of indignant, chanting protesters, and amid acts of civil disobedience where policed dragged limp protesters across the pavement into paddy wagons. In the commotion of a passionate, angry crowd, the rainbow flag and the LGBT community became signs of political dissent. Even the HRC, which had been the architect of the gay-corporate alliance, was dedicating staff time and legal resources to an explicitly anticorporate practice, opening a space for flight attendants to put new economic pressure on United without fear of reprisal. The practice of active defiance moved the coalition away from the two categories that were otherwise dominant in mainstream LGBT politics: domesticity and hard work. In the 1990s, the family ethic and the work ethic were supposed to make up for the economic resources that twenty years of anti-union and antiwelfare policy initiatives had taken away. The San Francisco activists refused to make that trade-off and instead demanded new and affordable health and retirement benefits to meet the needs of a growing diversity of kinship practices. Because of that refusal, mainstream LGBT community and identity—at least for the duration of the San Francisco campaign—presented a new challenge to the family values economy.

“Are You Sitting Down?”

As the domestic partner benefits coalition protests turned heads in San Francisco, the contractual standoff between United and its flight attendants jumped back into the headlines with a rare development in collective bargaining in the airlines in the 1990s: a settlement. Only four days after the mass demonstration in front of the Geary Street Ticket Office, AFA reached a tentative agreement with United Airlines management.33 While there is no documentary proof that direct action protests pushed management to make a contract offer—although local activists swear that United’s labor relations department called AFA Local Council 11 president Liz Loeffler asking what it would take to “call her dogs off” immediately following the protest—it is clear that the San Francisco campaign turned the heat up on United by putting the flight attendant labor issues in the national spotlight.34 Despite members’ embrace of the news that eighteen months of negotiations had finally brought a deal, the accord was bittersweet for AFA members. On the one hand, the contract provided lucrative work rule improvements, rules that were better than those the flight attendants had won at the apex of the flight attendant union movement in the late 1970s. All layovers exceeding thirteen hours, for example, were required to take place in four-star hotels in the destination city’s downtown, allowing flight attendants physical and mental outlets at museums, theaters, and river walks and preventing them from being cooped up in boring, isolated, expensive airport motels.

On the other hand, the contract came with an unusual duration and pay system that benefited management by forfeiting long-term real wage growth. The contract would last an unprecedented ten years, the longest ever under the Railway Labor Act. Wage increases were partially paid in lump sum bonuses that upped some employees’ tax liability, and additional pay hikes granted after the first five years would come only via a binding arbitration system that denied flight attendants the right to strike. Though the agreement would make United flight attendants the highest paid of any U.S. airline, starting wages—of roughly $28,000 in 2015 dollars per year—were still approximately 35 percent lower in real-dollar terms than they were in 1976.35 Since the 1970s, front-line flight attendants had insisted that robust real-dollar wage increases were the primary means to remedy the sexist legacy of the family wage system. Although the new contract would provide some of the work rules that flight attendants had long coveted, it would do little to remedy those historical disparities.

Mulling the virtues and the significant shortcomings of the pact, union leaders faced a difficult choice. If they endorsed the tentative agreement and the rank and file approved it in a referendum, they would strip the domestic partner benefits campaign of a potent resource: the threat of a flight attendant strike. Hundreds of flight attendants had massed in downtown San Francisco not just because they cared about LGBT issues but also because they wanted a raise. Coalition leaflets demanding both domestic partner benefits and a fair contract convinced both LGBT- and straight-identified flight attendants that joining the partner benefits campaign would further their economic self-interest. But if flight attendants ratified the contractual accord, a move that would lock in management’s subpar wage offer and remove flight attendants’ right to strike, the partner benefits coalition would lose its point of leverage on flight attendant wages and working conditions.

Although the partner benefits protests were invigorating the flight attendant union movement, AFA leaders remained wary of the broader political economic context surrounding labor disputes in the 1980s and 1990s. Strikes had come with devastating consequences for even the most disciplined, politicized flight attendant unions and had jeopardized the very existence of the Union of Flight Attendants Local 1 at Continental and the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants at TWA. In both of those cases, flight attendants had staged defensive actions against management efforts to cut pay and benefits in half. In this case, however, management had agreed to industry-leading wages and work rule enhancements. Modest and incremental though the improvements were, and despite their failure to offset the drastic setbacks of the 1980s, union leaders recognized the immense strategic risk of forgoing a pact and shifting to a militant, direct action approach like the one in San Francisco. AFA therefore endorsed the tentative agreement and sent it to rank-and-file United flight attendants for ratification. Members approved the deal, but by an extremely narrow 51 percent to 49 percent margin.36 Flight attendants clearly understood the stakes of militant union activism in the 1990s and were deeply divided about how to move forward in an era when other feminized service trades paid even less than airline work.

Although the AFA contract settlement changed the terms of the debate for the San Francisco campaign, denying it the blaring color and imminent strike threat of CHAOS, United flight attendants remained key players in a movement directed against their employer. Major political and legal developments kept United Airlines activists in the news as the campaign moved through its second year. On December 15, 1998, days before San Franciscans would descend en masse on the United terminal at SFO to travel for the holidays, the city’s Board of Supervisors officially endorsed the campaign’s consumer boycott.37 With the dramatic beaux arts façade of City Hall towering in the background, city leaders urged the public to support LGBT rights by avoiding United, pledging that no city employee would be allowed to fly the airline on city business. Officials made the simple claim that, regardless of what the dormant Commerce Clause or the Airline Deregulation Act implied, companies would not be allowed to classify and compensate employees based on race, gender, or sexual orientation in San Francisco. Though the HRC’s familiar equal-sign logo adorned the podium from which city supervisors delivered their comments, the city’s endorsement of the boycott drew on a vastly different history of economic activism than the HRC’s gay-corporate alliance. Since the early days of AFL craft unionism in the late nineteenth century, labor activists had used their economic and political organizing power to sever relations between city governments and hotels that locked out striking employees, builders that worked non-union, or contractors that violated public agreements.38 Suddenly, an HRC that had focused on persuading companies to voluntarily extend same-sex benefits was borrowing from unions’ long-standing push for compulsory, government-standardized regulation of pay, benefits, and working conditions.

In addition to the support from city government, the campaign got a major boost from the legal system. On May 28, 1999, Ninth Circuit judge Claudia Wilken lifted the temporary restraining order that had exempted United from providing the benefits required by the San Francisco domestic partner benefits ordinance. Wilken tossed out United’s professed right to discriminate, insisting that neither constitutional interstate commerce law nor labor or regulatory policy allowed the airline to continue withholding domestic partner benefits. The decision validated activists’ overall premise in the dispute, that the LGBT movement should be able to influence the way a company does business even if that intervention would change the terms and conditions of private employment contracts and increase companies’ labor costs. The dismissal of United’s labor and regulatory case was, however, accompanied by an expansive caveat. Wilken exempted United from changing its pension or medical benefit programs, arguing that the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) superseded the San Francisco ordinance. ERISA prevented firms from raiding employees’ pension funds to subsidize other business transactions. Given strict language that prohibited outside groups from unilaterally changing pension benefits, Wilken found that ERISA prevented municipal governments from amending benefits eligibility. Therefore, any court-ordered change to medical insurance or retirement benefits would have to come from a new ERISA case that would have to make its own, arduous way through the legal process.39 Nevertheless, and much more importantly, save for the avowedly conservative Salvation Army, no other employers signed on to the lawsuit. Activists had thus achieved their strategic goal of painting United Airlines as an obstinate outlier rather than the spearhead of a new corporate movement against domestic partner benefits.

Refusing to allow the legal system to set the terms of debate for the campaign, activists continued to plan vivid, direct action protests to capture the attention of United Airlines and the media. In July 1999, for example, activists learned that the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative think tank founded by family values stalwart Pat Robertson, had joined United in suing San Francisco to block the domestic partner benefits ordinance.40 Robertson was a close friend and confidant of fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell, who had recently condemned Tinky Winky, the purple, alien-like cartoon star of the British children’s show The Teletubbies. Falwell claimed that Tinky Winky was “gay”—presumably because of an antenna that Falwell thought resembled a pink triangle and because of a purse-like bag the “male” cartoon character carried as an accessory. Activists lampooned United’s alleged legal tryst with reactionaries Robertson and Falwell, recruiting local AIDS quilt designer and founder Gilbert Baker to create life-size Tinky Winky costumes that demonstrators wore while blocking the doors of United’s city ticket office, getting arrested in front of an amused press. In a similar case of direct action, protesters piled suitcases in front of the same property, each adorned with the details of a discrimination lawsuit United had lost. “Get Rid of Your Tired Old Baggage,” rainbow flag–clad picket signs shouted. The event mobilized a double entendre, figuring United’s antifeminism, homophobia, and racism as outmoded and retrograde while poking fun at public frustration at United’s propensity to lose passengers’ luggage.41

United managers opted not to wait for the next legal plot twist or protest march to reveal their next move in the domestic partner benefits dispute. Instead, on July 31, 1999, just three weeks after the Tinky Winky protest, the airline shocked the industry and floored activists by capitulating to the San Francisco campaign’s demands. The carrier announced that, effective immediately, it would offer full domestic partner benefits to the same-sex partners of all United employees worldwide. Two days later, American Airlines, freed from fear of the conservative reprisal that had met firms such as Walt Disney that had been first to offer domestic partner benefits in other industries, followed United’s lead. US Airways joined the group a month later, and all carriers, even socially conservative Delta and cash-strapped TWA, had followed the pattern by April 2001.42

“We have changed the world,” San Francisco’s city supervisor Mark Leno trumpeted at a mass victory rally at San Francisco City Hall the day after United’s announcement, projecting a euphoria common among those who worked on the domestic partner benefits movement.43 Every one of the dozen campaign participants interviewed for this book spoke of phone calls that began with “Are you sitting down?” when news broke of the about-face, as if people would faint at the idea that activists could have an impact on a corporation in the 1990s. Just when it seemed as if caveats always invalidated good news for working people in the 1990s—flight attendants won a new contract, but it drags on for ten years, and flight attendants finally get a raise, but it adds up to less than flight attendants made thirty years ago—the domestic partner benefits story seemed to have few caveats. Even though activists lost the ERISA decision, for example, United would offer full medical and pension benefits to all eligible parties. In an age when neoliberal reforms seemed inevitable and uncontestable, flight attendants and their friends forced the world’s largest airline to change the way it did business.

Despite the euphoria, and despite the lack of caveats like those coming from traditional collective bargaining, the victory had some notable shortcomings. For example, United allotted the benefits as narrowly as possible, taking advantage of the HRC’s focus on same-sex couples to decide who could use the new resources and who could not. Though all domesticated lovers of San Francisco–based employees could sign up for the program, a move United made so it could comply with the broad scope of the city ordinance, only same-sex couples could access domestic partner benefits in the one hundred fifty other cities where United employees were stationed. And since both domesticity and partnership were required to access the new benefits, alternative forms of family among friends, relatives, and neighbors, those ever more common among working people like flight attendants, remained squarely ineligible for the new resources. Radical feminist, gay liberationist, and queer critiques of marriage, monogamy, and domesticity were thus muted in a final settlement that privileged a same-sex version of traditional family values.

Even more critically for the future of the flight attendant movement, the neoliberal reforms that continued to intensify in the late 1990s and early 2000s put new strain on all family benefits programs. During the economic upheaval of the 9/11 crisis, which came just two years after the partner benefits decision, the airlines cannibalized the benefits that activists had just won. Invoking bankruptcy law to abrogate collective bargaining agreements, just as Frank Lorenzo did at Continental Airlines in 1983, managers at United, Delta, Northwest, and other airlines used the power of the courts to eliminate many forms of compensation. For example, family health insurance that had been free for employees at United Airlines before 9/11 now required hefty monthly premium contributions. Unable to balance insurance payments against a new round of pay cuts that lowered hourly wages by at least 10 percent, many flight attendants canceled the domestic partner benefits that they had signed up for after the 1999 victory.44 As benefit givebacks pushed the lovers of some United employees to remain uninsured in an austere effort to make ends meet, LGBT leaders were forced to confront the broader political economic context of their activism. In an era when the family values of domesticity and hard work had become organizing principles of society, and as the gay-corporate alliance continued to endorse those values, corporations would tightly constrain the LGBT workplace movement, refusing to provide affordable benefits for the vast majority of straight- and gay-identified employees even as they marketed to the LGBT niche.

Conclusion: Against the Romance of Middle-Class Families

To understand the sadness that followed the domestic partner benefits mobilization as evidence of its futility or its failure would miss the immense significance of the campaign at United Airlines. What is perhaps most striking about the domestic partner benefits movement was the way that it departed from the dominant discourse about trade union and LGBT politics in the 1990s. There were many echoes of feminist, queer, and unionist pasts on the picket lines in San Francisco. There was the echo of radical feminism, in which flight attendants’ participation in the women’s liberation movement helped challenge the airlines’ control of flight attendants’ bodies, households, and desires. There was the echo of the 1980s flight attendant strikes, when people at Continental, TWA, and Eastern risked and sacrificed their jobs to prove that a flight attendant is a breadwinner. And there was the echo of ACT-UP, a movement that challenged the Fortune 500 with politically pointed, visually compelling, and emotionally charged street protests.

Much less audible in the streets of San Francisco, however, was the widespread tendency of the past two decades to frame the struggle for economic justice as a bid to defend hardworking middle-class American families. In trade union advocacy for “working families,” in the new upsurge of LGBT “marriage equality” activism in the 2010s, and in President Barack Obama’s defense of progressive taxation and economic stimulus, the values of middle-class families are often presented with innocent trappings, as the things that give people solace, comfort, and stability in a disorienting economy. Frontline employees such as flight attendants remind us, however, that the family values of the middle class have been the primary means to justify—rather than to challenge—corporate efforts to eliminate pensions, cancel insurance, and cut wages. Hard work, self-restraint, and deferred gratification were all that Carl Icahn offered employees when he locked them out of TWA in 1986, and all that United Airlines offered flight attendants when it abrogated their benefits after 9/11.

Flight attendants Beth Skrondal and Stan Kiino help us envision an alternative to middle-class family values for working people. Their activism in San Francisco illustrates that queer and feminist legacies, those that openly indicted middle-class values, might tell us how to navigate an austere economy and inspire people to challenge four decades of rapidly increasing social stratification. After all, most jobs created in the past forty years require what flight attending and other feminized service jobs have always had: long commutes to work, toil at all hours of the day, the blurring of physical and emotional labor, and a tightrope walk to balance work with loved ones’ emotional and economic needs. Family benefits—medical insurance, retirement beneficiary eligibility, and bereavement and emergency leave—are crucially important resources to relieve the stress that comes with working in a neoliberal economy. But for those benefits to be accessible to all working people, and especially to the single women who have faced the biggest challenge in the post-1970 economy,45 they must be uncoupled from traditional family values. Only when they extend to workers like Beth Skrondal and Stan Kiino will family benefits become an effective solution for working people’s economic problems. To make employment benefits work, then, labor activists must move nontraditional families from the margins of political practice—where they are squarely placed in both the pro-family movement and the HRC’s gay-corporate alliance—to the center of demands for a fair economy.

AFA activists’ political and economic success demonstrates that workplace-based trade unionism and the broader movement for queer, feminist, and racial justice depend on each other to be effective on the neoliberal landscape. Although traditional collective bargaining had become a demoralizing process in the 1990s, the domestic partner benefits campaign—especially when it joined AIDS activists dressed up as Tinky Winky—inspired flight attendants and brought them to the streets of San Francisco en masse. Flight attendants’ presence, however, forced the domestic partner benefits movement to grapple with the right to organize, the right to strike, and the need for a living wage, issues that the gay-corporate alliance wholly ignored in most other venues. As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, and as the September 11 attacks triggered the deepest and longest economic crisis in the history of the airline industry, the coalition between unions and broader social justice movements would become even more crucial to front-line flight attendants. Important though they would be, those coalitions were ever harder to maintain as material resources vanished. Union leaders would struggle to strike a balance between the bread-and-butter economic needs of their members and the commitment to social justice that grew out of the liberation movements of the 1970s.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!