Epilogue: The Future of the Flight Attendant Union Movement

On August 13, 2014, flight attendants for Virgin America voted to join the Transport Workers Union of America. With the representation election, activists brought collective bargaining to the industry’s trendiest airline. Based in San Francisco, Virgin America is the carrier of choice for design-conscious tech workers. Travelers may relax in The Loft, Virgin’s upbranded airport lounge, before they board their flight. Guests swivel in red minimalist modern armchairs, drinking mixologist-curated craft cocktails and eating canapés off of square plates. On the aircraft, passengers are greeted with white leather first-class seats, purple Plexiglas cabin dividers, and lavender mood lighting that provides a cool, calming glow. Onboard service comes from flight attendants who, at Virgin’s behest, are young, racially and culturally diverse, and fashionable, and who are proud to work for a boutique airline that leads the industry’s customer service rankings. As they joined the TWU, those hip young workers became the newest members of the flight attendant union movement.1

For demographic reasons, unionization would seem to be an unlikely political strategy for Virgin America flight attendants, who share little in common with the generation of activists who built the movement in the 1970s. The majority of the members of the new union’s negotiating committee are black or Latino flight attendants who are under forty years old.2 They work at the confluence of the technology and service industries, two of the least unionized parts of a private sector economy in which the overall union membership rate is falling through 8 percent. Unions reached their peak political and economic influence sixty years ago, when the bulk of their members were white men who worked in a manufacturing sector that largely excluded people of color and women. Since most Virgin America flight attendants were born after 1970, they grew up well after the peak of women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation. Much of today’s information about those movements comes from mainstream media that stereotype 1970s feminism as dowdy, humorless, and passé. Although previous activists’ economic advances would undoubtedly impress many at Virgin America, the earlier generation of flight attendants often failed to address issues of race that are central concerns for many Virgin America flight attendants, focusing instead on a bid for a family wage that few of today’s workers have ever expected to earn.

Despite the gulf between traditional trade unionism and the twenty-first-century service economy, Virgin America flight attendants face challenges at work that begin to explain their receptiveness to the union. Although they provide an indulgent experience for passengers, Virgin flight attendants live on a tight budget. Like crews at most of the carriers formed after deregulation, employees at Virgin start at $20 per flight hour.3 Workers fly much more today than they did in the 1970s: duty periods regularly exceed twelve hours with as little as ten hours of rest between shifts. Even with the longer hours, however, it would be difficult for a Virgin flight attendant to earn more than $30,000 in the first year of flying. While wages have remained stagnant, rents have skyrocketed in Virgin’s San Francisco base. The median price for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was $3,460 per month as of March 2015, a figure that exceeds most flight attendants’ gross income.4 Because of the scarcity and fear that resulted from the 2008 economic crisis, and the reduced effectiveness of unions after four decades of neoliberal reforms, younger people have rarely taken collective action at work to demand the economic resources they need. But regardless of their generation’s unfamiliarity with trade unionism, the TWU’s pledge to provide new resources to mitigate the high cost of living clearly resonated with the majority of Virgin America flight attendants.

Cultural parallels between the union upsurge of the 1970s and the careers of present-day flight attendants provide further explanation for the TWU vote. Flying for Virgin America gives young workers vast physical and social mobility. Like 1960s Pan Am, TWA, and United stewardesses, Virgin crews lay over in stately downtown hotels in booming global cities and interact with employees from cutting-edge firms in the leading sectors of the economy. Though city nights in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago arouse a host of desires among flight attendants, small paychecks prevent them from fulfilling many of those desires. Furthermore, inadequate longevity pay and minimal retirement benefits discourage Virgin flight attendants from staying on the job long-term or from using their career to support a family. In an age when domesticity and marriage are celebrated on both the left and the right, a Virgin America flight attendant paycheck barely supports a single person. Therefore, many workers—by choice or by necessity—live far beyond the boundaries of the conventional household. Though the immediate cultural and economic dynamics of the twenty-first century shaped flight attendants’ decision about the union, these conditions bore striking similarity to those that produced the flight attendant union movement in the 1970s.

Virgin America workers’ decision to vote in the TWU exemplifies the rule and not the exception in twenty-first-century U.S. airline labor relations, as flight attendants at many carriers continue to authorize union representation. This final chapter of the book reflects on the future of the flight attendant union movement, explaining why crew members at companies such as Virgin America continue to organize even as the labor movement faces unprecedented challenges, and showing the relevance of their decision to workers in other industries. I demonstrate that highly exploitative labor has become the norm in the airline industry, both for customer service agents, flight attendants, and other lower-paid workers and for historically more privileged machinists and pilots. Many new airline jobs pay little more than minimum wage, are temporary and/or part time, and are highly mobile, forcing workers to move from city to city with little notice and few opportunities to return home to visit family. Thus, working for even the most successful carriers often places great stress on employees’ families, requiring long blocks of time away from home and necessitating that each family member have at least one other job to supplement the small airline income.

Before 1970, the family wage system had temporarily alleviated many of the pressures that airline workers now face. In the heavily unionized manufacturing, construction, and transport industries, employers provided the wages and benefits necessary for one person to comfortably support an entire family. But because ideas about whiteness, manhood, and heterosexuality were used to justify the family wage and to decide who received it, the system excluded far more people than it benefited. As workers in a feminized trade, flight attendants were always on the margins of the family wage system, including during the brief period before 1985 when they reaped some of its benefits. Flight attendant unionism thus has been about the struggle to balance family and work without a family wage. Out of both necessity and political commitment, activists demanded economic resources for older women, for single and divorced parents, for households of one, and for people who cohabitated with friends and lovers. Now that the family wage has disappeared from nearly all sectors of the economy, flight attendants’ previous strategies are relevant to a wider audience and to a population far more diverse in terms of race and age than the young white women who led the struggle in the 1970s. This chapter traces how new rank-and-file leaders are transforming previous generations’ arguments about sexuality and family to help build a twenty-first-century workplace activist movement.

Family Values and the Rise of Casual Labor in the Twenty-First-Century Airline Industry

The struggle to balance low-wage jobs with family responsibilities is not unique to Virgin America flight attendants, to the airline industry, or to the neoliberal economy. Anxieties about domesticity have inflected debates about U.S. labor policy for at least one hundred fifty years, especially during the period of rapid industrialization that followed the Civil War. A century before flight attendants confronted the airlines about women’s economic mobility, industrialization was transforming men’s and women’s social roles.5 In the agrarian economy, women and men worked in close proximity. When they moved into factory work, however, jobs physically separated people from their kin. More time in anonymous, public, urban spaces provided new sexual opportunities for both women and men. Meanwhile, by turning yeoman farmers into wage workers who were dependent on their employers, and by providing women with paychecks that brought economic independence, industrialization undermined traditional manhood.6 As workers struggled to adapt to a changing relationship between gender and power, the economy boomed at the turn of the twentieth century. Manufacturers pushed some workers to spend sixty or more hours on the assembly line to meet growing demand and required others to travel far from home to harvest the timber and minerals necessary to build industrial products. These dynamics further strained domestic relationships for an ever-wider swath of the U.S. population.

Sexuality played an explicit role in the public controversy that surrounded industrialization. For example, as historian Colin Johnson demonstrates, the widespread use of “casual labor” in the early twentieth century provided a visible yet highly stigmatized alternative to the nuclear family. Johnson shows that casual labor was an “intentionally vague term” that described the work of “seasonal migrants and other transients whose relation to the wage labor economy was distinguished primarily by its irregularity.”7 Employers hired poor and often immigrant men to travel great distances to extract natural resources for the manufacturing economy. After long stints in lumber camps, in copper mines, or along the railroad, casual laborers would return to major cities to spend weeks or months waylaid between jobs. Lacking the time and money to support a family, these men lived in a homosocial world, passing their time on the streets and in saloons, relying on other men for emotional support, and finding regular erotic outlets only in homosexual sex or commercial sex work. Life on the road produced widely recognized social identities—the hobo, the tramp, and the bum—that were defined by an unwillingness to accept full-time work and a refusal to domesticate into a traditional nuclear family.8 Though workers who found full-time, year-round jobs near their homes could form families that appeared to be more traditional than casual laborers’ kinship networks, cultural anxieties about aberrant sexualities affected the many workers who spent seven days a week in the factory.

By the end of the nineteenth century, social reformers and employers were turning to a new remedy for the social dislocation that came with industrialization: the family wage. Instead of reducing wages to maximize profits, some companies increased pay to stabilize social relations, a move that they assumed would also increase productivity. The family wage system made industrial work far more predictable, guaranteeing full-time employment, a dependable year-round paycheck, and a sufficient income to save for retirement. To soothe the cultural anxieties that stemmed from the loss of family farms and the rise of unskilled labor, the family wage turned the workingman into a breadwinner, the leader of his own, independent, self-reliant family. Husbands’ paychecks would tamp down workingwomen’s independence, allowing them to reorganize their once-public lives around a new world of domesticity, caregiving, and motherhood.9 The family wage would, in other words, help get men off the road and women out of the public sphere, reorganizing family life around domesticity. By its peak in the immediate post–World War II era, the family wage had brought the urban, industrialized economy in line with traditional heteropatriarchal values.

The family wage system heavily influenced the structure of airline work. Air transportation is highly unpredictable: macroeconomic cycles, seasonal demand spikes, and technological advances leave route networks in a constant state of flux. Operational irregularity makes the airlines ideally suited to the part-time, temporary, and contingent employment practices that had defined casual labor. But because the airline industry took off at the peak of the family wage system during the New Deal era, the work process was anything but casual. Union contracts with strict work rules provided workers with full-time year-round jobs, regular hours, a constant pay rate, and ample time off in an employee’s home domicile city. With a family wage, a person could be both an airline worker and a dependable breadwinner for his or her family.

The economic benefits of the family wage were so robust that even flight attendants, who had been systematically denied access to the system, organized their movement around the basic principle of the family wage in the 1970s. The campaign for higher pay, stricter work rules, a better retirement, and more time off inspired a generation of rank-and-file flight attendants to get involved with their unions. When TWA flight attendant Janet Lhuillier described her union’s victory in Chapter 2, for example, she focused her analysis on the core economic benefits of the family wage system: home ownership, time off for leisure, and enough money to pay for children’s college education. Indeed, with slogans such as “We Are Breadwinners,” flight attendants reinforced family wage ideology even as they openly critiqued its heteropatriarchal foundations. Conventional notions of domesticity influenced what activists wanted out of their careers and out of their unions even though such notions helped stigmatize flight attendants’ families and devalue their labor.

Immediately after flight attendants’ watershed gains, neoliberal reforms undermined the family wage system as the hegemonic model for the labor market. A family wage is an expensive commitment for an employer because high compensation rates, paid vacation, paid sick leave, and pension commitments all drive up labor costs. By 1980, large firms in Latin America and East Asia were making high-quality industrial products while paying unskilled workers far less and were thus able to undercut U.S. companies that were locked into the family wage. Therefore, and as Chapters 3 and 4 demonstrated, the political economic changes of the 1980s—deregulation and financialization—took direct aim at the family wage system and allowed companies to break their commitment to the family wage even as corporations and pro-business activists lauded traditional family values. With a new set of tools to trim compensation, airline managers reorganized the industry around a far more flexible model of employment, one that has begun to resemble casual labor in its economic and social dimensions.

Many new airline jobs are similar to casual labor because they are very low wage and part time. These practices are emerging not just among flight attendants, who had been subjected to poor compensation and short tenure before 1980, but also among the historically male-dominated labor groups that had always expected a family wage. Customer service agents, for example, were members of the International Association of Machinists at many carriers before deregulation and thus benefited from the union’s commitment to the family wage system. Today at Delta Airlines, however, many employees begin their customer service careers in a non-union program called “ready reserve,” where the starting wage is $9.07 per hour. Though they may fly for free on Delta flights, ready reserves have no other benefits: no health insurance, no sick pay, no vacation, and no retirement. Ready reserve is a part-time position, and workers rarely accrue more than twenty hours per week. Despite the short hours, they often work every day of the week because Delta schedules ready reserves to cover the morning or evening rushes but then sends people home during the slow midday periods. Frequent shifts make it particularly difficult to juggle a ready reserve position with other jobs, a balancing act that a maximum gross annual wage of just over $9,000 per year forces most ready reserves to perform. Indeed, since they bring home less than $200 a week and have no health insurance, most ready reserves must find at least one other full-time job to meet their families’ needs, which in turn drastically reduces the amount of time available to spend with friends, children, and lovers.10

On the other hand, other airline jobs resemble casual labor because they require workers to spend long blocks of time on the road and outside the nuclear family. At Las Vegas–based Allegiant Airlines, for example, some pilots spend months away from home without a guaranteed break to visit friends or family. Every Allegiant pilot has a domicile city where trips begin and end and where his or her family would presumably live. But if demand for air travel temporarily moves away from that city, a pilot may be assigned to Allegiant’s Virtual Domicile Base (VDB) program. In that case, the company pays for travel to a new city, which could be anywhere in the continental United States. The pilot then spends an entire schedule month in a motel near that airport and shares a rental car with one other worker. VDB pilots receive ten days off during the month, but there is no complimentary transportation home. Furthermore, pilots report that in some VDB cities, Allegiant has tended to schedule days off on the slowest days of the week—Tuesday and Saturday—and not in blocks of two or more days. Thus, even if a pilot paid to fly home, there would not be time to travel.11

Although some pilots choose the VDB base, often because it includes a roughly $700 per month tax-free per diem budget that a pilot can send home to family as a remittance, the vast majority are forced onto the assignment. Since seniority determines schedules, junior pilots may receive multiple VDB assignments in a row. Allegiant pays for transportation directly to the new VDB city but does not provide for a stop home on the way.12 Therefore, some junior pilots go months at a time without a break to see their families. For VDB pilots, airline work has distinct parallels to early-twentieth-century casual labor. Itinerant groups of mostly male workers leave their loved ones and live on the road, flying long trips with short layovers and then sitting idle with other men in airport motels until Allegiant calls with the next assignment. Living far beyond the boundaries of domesticity and away from commitments to wives and children, the VDB pilots work in rhythms that transgress traditional family values.

In the vast uncertainty that Delta ready reserves and Allegiant VDB pilots face on the job, one begins to see why the discourse of family values resonates with so many workers in the twenty-first-century economy. As historian Bethany Moreton has shown in her highly original scholarship on Wal-Mart, family values provide both ideological and financial resources for people to adapt to a labor market that undermines domesticity. Describing the social role of the “Christian servant,” for example, Moreton shows that evangelical Protestantism helps make low-wage labor compatible with traditional gender ideology. In one sense, Christ is a patriarch in evangelical thought, a spiritual leader who guides his followers. But he is also meek, one who rejects self-aggrandizing, decadent values and who serves his people. Emulating Christ as a servant, a man can be both the patriarch and a low-wage worker, someone who is a moral and political leader but not a breadwinner.13 Meanwhile, a commitment to family values also provides financial security.14 After the demise of the family wage, one job at Wal-Mart or one position at Delta Airlines on ready reserve could never support a family. Pooling the resources of five or six of those jobs, however, could. Therefore, as families struggle to live on jobs that provide four-figure annual incomes or require four-month sojourns away from home, marriage and domesticity can be key survival strategies.

Moreton’s work is particularly important because it shows how cultural values have shaped white Protestants’ relationship to the economy during the post-1970 period. It is less useful, however, for understanding how people of color, recent immigrants, feminists, queer people, and others cast outside the discourse of traditional family have navigated a changing economy. Flight attendants thus provide an important alternate account of lower-wage workers’ response to neoliberal reforms. Activists have refused the trade-off at the core of the family values economy: that family values can replace the family wage. Flight attendants have focused instead on winning back the wages, benefits, and work rules that the airlines have taken away over the past thirty years. Therefore, although many individual flight attendants have supported the evangelical Christian movements that are the context for Moreton’s work, the most distinct political trend among the flight attendant population as a whole over the past three decades has been an unwavering support for trade unionism.

The trend is consistent and unmistakable in all sectors of the airline business. Flight attendants at Spirit, Frontier, and other low-fare carriers have voted in unions. So have those at Envoy, Endeavor, Compass, PSA, and other firms that operate as subcontractors (see Chapter 6) for the major airlines.15 At Southwest, a company that is famous for uninterrupted profitability and unmatched employee morale, flight attendants voted in the Transport Workers Union. The giant international carriers American and United, meanwhile, are also union shops. There are notable exceptions, of course. New York–based jetBlue, which is a large and relatively young airline recognized for top-notch customer service, has non-union flight attendants. There is an organizing drive under way, however, and since jetBlue pilots voted to unionize in April 2014,16 followed shortly thereafter by pilots and flight attendants at Virgin America, the political momentum is clearly running in union activists’ favor. Delta, which has fended off the labor movement in no fewer than six representation elections since World War II, remains the largest holdout.17 The Atlanta-based carrier’s willingness to pay wages that are competitive with unionized firms, and unions’ historic weakness in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and other southern states where the majority of Delta flight attendants live, explains some of the challenge facing organizers. Nevertheless, the support for a non-union workplace among some Delta flight attendants does not reflect an industry-wide pattern.

Flight attendants at most carriers are joining a movement for social and economic change that bears a resemblance to the dynamic of the 1970s. The substance of today’s flight attendant activism, however, is vastly different from the earlier upsurge. Though flight attendants at Virgin America, Frontier, and Compass are building their own unions just as Pan Am, Continental, and TWA activists did, the breadwinner wage and ironclad work rules that defined flight attendants’ 1970s agenda will be unattainable for a new generation that works in a deregulated, financialized industry. Additionally, because of far greater age, gender, class, and racial diversity among today’s flight attendants, newer activists do not necessarily share their predecessors’ goals. Most 1970s flight attendants were young white women who lived in close proximity to the family wage system and for whom home ownership, college education, leisure time, and a secure retirement were realistic prospects. But because they face an economy that is defined by casual labor practices—the low-paid, part-time, temporary jobs that require constant moves—contemporary flight attendants may not see home ownership, kids’ college, and a secure retirement as their most pressing needs. While they respond to a different set of urgencies, newer flight attendants are broadening the horizons of the movement, taking up new issues that were beyond the immediate concern of the white, middle-class workers who were the previous generation’s majority.

The View from the Ninth Floor: Sexuality, Race, and Activism among Young Flight Attendants

Union representation is as important to many flight attendants today as it was to the activists of the 1970s. But as the culture and economics of the industry change, flight attendants are joining the movement for different reasons than they did forty years ago. Before deregulation, the airline industry was a place for privileged workers. Many jobs, including those of international flight attendants, required a college education and the ability to speak multiple languages, and most airline positions came with free health insurance, a pension, and a family wage. Because of those perks, and because the overwhelming majority of managers with the power to hire and fire were white, the airline industry remained overwhelmingly white until 1980. With the rise of casual labor practices, however, and as low-wage subcontractors employed an ever greater share of the workforce, airline workers have become a far less privileged group that includes many more workers of color. Growing diversity brings a new imperative for the flight attendant union movement. As the streets erupted in a bitter struggle over police violence and mass incarceration in 2015, activists demonstrated that dominant ideas about race and sexuality have drastically limited young Latino and black people’s social and economic mobility. Racist and heteropatriarchal ideology presents young workers of color with immense challenges when they come to work for the airlines. Unions’ intervention in the politics of race and sex is thus crucial for a new generation of flight attendants who are trying to turn their jobs into lifetime careers.

Few flight attendants better illustrate the stakes of the contemporary movement than Unwav Dante Harris, who is a young African American man and an activist in the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) at United Airlines. Harris began doing union work in the early 2000s, when he was commuting into the airline’s San Francisco crew base. Like many at United, Southwest, and Virgin America who fly to work to avoid the astronomical rents in the Bay Area, Harris lived in a distant city with lower housing costs—in his case, near Burbank in southern California. Despite the hassle of a three-hundred-mile commute to the union office on the airline’s jammed Los Angeles–San Francisco shuttle, Harris began giving up precious days off to help build AFA soon after United hired him.18

Though he dedicated most of his early activism to the contractual rights of newly hired flight attendants, Harris argues that race was the motivating factor in his decision to join the movement. Explaining why he became an activist, Harris began the story of his political journey in a place where no United flight attendant would ever want to be: on the ninth floor of United’s world headquarters in suburban Chicago. He first saw the ninth floor after being summoned there during the nine-week training program that all flight attendants must complete before they begin flying. A call to the ninth floor is usually the last experience a trainee has at United because the offices of human resources, labor relations, and corporate security—the groups that collaborate on employee interrogations and terminations—are immediately outside the elevator. As Harris’s heart pounded that day, the elevator doors opened, and one of United’s only African American training supervisors stood outside. Harris was unexpectedly confused, however, as she looked not stern but humiliated. During their brief interaction, the supervisor questioned Harris about his stylish and well-trimmed goatee:

The black woman supervisor looks disgusted—like she has been put up to it by white managers. She says to me, “We just got to the point where we can have corn rows. Can you just wait until you get out to the line to wear the goatee?”

The supervisor quietly pushed Harris to tone down his look, presumably because when combined with his braids, his fit muscular frame, and his dark complexion, the goatee made Harris seem threatening to white passengers—or even to white employees. Harris indicated that he would comply with her request and then quickly removed himself from the situation, as he was so humiliated that he was starting to cry:

There are only three times I have cried in my career as an adult and this was one of them. I was like, “Why do I have to shave when the white guys don’t?” A white guy in the uniform manual has a goatee and it is in my face.

Harris was shaken as he witnessed one of the few African American women who had made it into airline management giving up her authority in front of a subordinate, an inversion of the corporate hierarchy to which a white manager would not be subjected. Speculating that white higher-ups had forced her to invent a racist dress code that clearly violated her own integrity, Harris watched as the supervisor contradicted United’s employee appearance manual, which explicitly allowed men of all racial backgrounds to have facial hair. As Harris cried while riding the elevator back downstairs, he wanted to quit. He of course refused that urge, recognizing that being a black flight attendant would have to be about learning to stand up to management strategically while remaining employed to fight another day.

As he describes a personal experience with overt racism, and as he cites that racism as a reason to build his union, Harris contradicts the story that major corporations tell about race and about unions in the twenty-first century. Employers often point to ambitious, successful young people of color like Dante Harris as evidence that companies value diversity and that corporate managers—rather than unions—are black and brown people’s most important ally in the struggle against inequality. As sociologists Frank Dobbin and John Sutton have shown, after victories by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, companies have used a “profit framing” to insist that they value diversity.19 Recognizing that they could no longer reserve managerial and front-line positions for white men, employers began to accommodate feminist and antiracist claims by arguing that a broader swath of social and cultural perspectives would help companies compete in a global economy that values difference and innovation. Recruiting a young black man for a profession made up mostly of white women would, according to profit framing, make United Airlines a more competitive corporation. United would thus be more interested in hiring and retaining Harris than it would in hiring and retaining a white flight attendant, which would make a union even less necessary for Harris than for his white coworkers.

Harris’s experience at the company tells a far different story. From his first days on the job, Harris was forced to respond to explicit and inequitable treatment from both managers and coworkers. When he was called to the ninth floor of corporate headquarters, for example, Harris was already in the middle of another contentious situation while completing flight attendant training. During the program, recruits live with colleagues in hotel-like suites on a campus next to United Airlines’ world headquarters. Shortly after classes began, rumors circulated that Harris’s suite mates—both of whom were nineteen-year-old gay white men—were regularly having sex in the bedroom that the airline had provided them. United’s corporate sexual harassment program strictly forbade sexual relations on company property. Flight attendants could have sex in their layover hotel rooms while off duty but not while sharing space with other recruits at the conference center. If United could prove that a trainee violated the no-sex policy, that person would be fired immediately.

Harris purposely avoided feeding the rumor mill about his suite mates to protect his own career and was thus disturbed to be pulled out of emergency procedures training—in which flight attendants face grueling drills for in-flight fires, bomb threats, and postcrash evacuations—and summoned to the ninth floor. Harris described how the ensuing investigation pitted him against managers and flight attendants.

They said, “Mr. Harris, come upstairs now.” They put me in a room with the other three trainees accused of sexual harassment and left us there. They didn’t question us. They just let me sit there with the accused. They made it look like I was the accuser. They put me by myself then and threatened to fire me if I didn’t talk. . . . They were all fired, and no one talked to me for the last three weeks of training, calling me homophobic and a gay hater. They told us all we couldn’t talk—so I couldn’t talk about the questioning and . . . I didn’t say anything. . . . They shamed my parents when they came for my flight attendant graduation, saying I was homophobic. . . . All of the others involved were white.

In the days after the interrogation and firings, Harris’s white colleagues seemed not to consider that he was also in the process of being singled out and threatened because of his sexuality. Instead, because he was a young black man who sometimes wore hip-hop gear when he was off duty, they figured him to be hypermasculine and homophobic, the source of gay white men’s oppression rather than another young person who—given the goatee intervention—was also navigating the airlines’ sexual repression. When managers left Harris in an interrogation room and pressed him to testify against his peers, and when his coworkers shamed an African American family who was proud of their son for winning access to a career at an esteemed company with few black employees, Harris faced the same barriers as a flight attendant that other young black men were facing across the economy and society. Corporate diversity discourse would not protect Harris from that treatment.

Worried that his job was in jeopardy after the tumult in the training center, Harris turned to the AFA for support and began an activist career that would quickly carry him to the top of the union. The child of labor activists, Harris recognized that in some cases, unions had opened doors for black workers in segregated industries. Harris grew up in New York City with a father and an uncle who were activists in the Amalgamated Transit Union, an organization that made headlines during the Cold War as a hotbed of black labor radicalism. As a child, Harris always wanted to be a union president, something that seemed honorable and achievable in a black New York labor family in the 1980s despite the growing power of the pro-business activist movement. Given that family past, Harris sought out mentors in AFA Council 11 in San Francisco when he reported for his first day on the line and began taking classes on bargaining and arbitration at the National Labor College while he flew. After he built up enough seniority to transfer to United’s Los Angeles flight attendant base, Harris connected with local African American labor and political leaders, who helped him kick off his first campaign for his local’s presidency in 2008. Harris lost that race, but he stayed in permanent campaign mode and eventually defeated the incumbent president during the next electoral cycle in 2011.

Harris’s career as a flight attendant demonstrates that unions are particularly important because they can provide access to careers that had been systematically denied to African Americans. Activism, after all, brought black flight attendants to the airline industry. In 1959, after a pressure campaign from local leaders in New York, Margaret Grant became the first African American stewardess for a major airline when she joined TWA. Energized as the race barrier was broken in the revered airline industry, the Congress on Racial Equality staged a pro-TWA march through Harlem to publicize Grant’s hire among African Americans.20 Initial access to the industry, however, revealed new struggles for black flight attendants. In 1967, for example, Joanne Fletcher testified to civil rights investigators from the state of New York that she had encountered a pattern of systematic discrimination against dark-skinned black women. Fletcher was eventually hired by Eastern Airlines but had previously had applications accepted by multiple other carriers, only to be rejected after meeting company recruiters in person.21 Thirty years after Fletcher’s case, white people’s implicit and explicit anxieties about black men’s hairstyles, skin color, and masculinity would jeopardize Dante Harris’s career. Like the earlier generation of black women, Harris turned to workplace activism to protect his job.

In an era when unions have faced daunting economic setbacks, Harris’s career illuminates their relevance to a new generation of flight attendants. Labor activism has helped prevent the airlines from being another industry that is locked off to young African American men like Harris. The loss of the family wage, the loss of free health insurance, and the loss of a secure retirement are a disappointment to Dante Harris, as they are to his white colleagues. And in a deregulated, financialized industry, Harris’s access to the comforts of middle-class life is fleeting, as it is for every flight attendant. Nevertheless, Harris owns a home and continues to build seniority after eighteen years in the business. For young African American men who face disproportionate discrimination in the labor market, the security of a union job like Harris’s is rare and hugely important. Therefore, while focusing on middle-class white workers makes the loss of the family wage and the decline of union power the central narrative of the recent history of the airline industry, Harris’s activism points to the unions’ enduring strength. Harris’s accomplishments begin to explain why young flight attendants at Virgin America, Frontier, and so many other airlines have bucked political economic trends and voted for union representation.

“Are You Getting Hustled?”: The Airline Pension Crisis and the Politics of the Aging Body

During his career as a union leader, Dante Harris has confronted cultural assumptions about young workers’ bodies and sexualities. Harris’s success as an activist, however, does not mean that young people’s issues are the only task for today’s flight attendant leaders. Instead, the emergence of casual, low-wage employment practices has made aging workers’ issues increasingly central to the movement’s agenda. Before 1980, the family wage system kept the airline workforce relatively young. People worked through young adulthood and the middle years and then used their retirement benefits to leave the workforce as old age approached. But as affordable retirement benefits have vanished from the airlines and other industries, employees must continue to work, balancing long hours of labor against the physical process of aging. Working full time well into one’s elder years presents a challenge because the culture and economy of the United States continue to privilege youth. Therefore, whereas the 1970s flight attendant upsurge was in part a response to the exploitation of young women’s bodies, today’s activists—some of whom walked the picket lines in the 1970s—are invigorating the movement as they confront the exploitation of aging bodies.

The airlines’ ongoing effort to reduce their labor costs has been particularly hard on older flight attendants. The root cause of most senior workers’ financial distress has been the termination of major carriers’ defined benefit pension plans, programs that had been a key feature of the family wage system. Employees who worked full time for a whole career—which most companies defined as thirty years—would receive a fixed monthly payment after retirement. The amount of that payment was usually similar to a worker’s monthly wage before retirement. Because they were guaranteed the benefit, and because most flight attendants spent their whole paychecks as providers for their families, pension beneficiaries rarely set aside extra money for retirement. After the crisis of September 11, 2001, and as they faced new competition from lower-cost upstarts like jetBlue and Frontier, most of the major carriers announced that they would terminate their defined benefit pension plans. The airlines planned to replace the benefits with defined contribution pension plans—which are often called 401(k)s—that are far cheaper for employers and transfer the risk of retirement savings away from the company and to workers.

Flight attendants at United, US Airways, Northwest, Delta, and other carriers that terminated their defined benefit pension plans had some protection. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which Congress passed in 1974 to shield older workers at troubled firms, created an entity called the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), which would nationalize companies’ pensions in the event of financial distress. While the PBGC would provide baseline pension coverage for employees, the amount the government would pay was capped, and any additional benefits won through collective bargaining would not be protected. Therefore, ERISA provided no insurance for many of the enhanced benefits that flight attendants had won during the upsurge of the 1970s. Furthermore, PBGC payments were of little help to flight attendants in the middle of their careers, those who had not worked long enough for full pension eligibility under the old system but who lacked enough future working years to build up their 401(k)s. As a result of the cutbacks facing middle- and full-seniority employees, two-thirds of flight attendants at United Airlines lost half of their expected retirement income during the pension termination process, a move that also dumped $23 billion of unfunded pension liabilities on taxpayers.22

The pension termination was a traumatic experience for workers who had thought that they could count on a secure retirement. Terry Sousoures, a San Francisco–based flight attendant for United Airlines, became emotionally elevated as she described her employer’s actions in 2005. Sousoures was a veteran of labor unrest in the airline industry, having been fired from United in 1985 when she refused to cross the picket line in a coalition strike between pilots and flight attendants. After AFA helped her and other strikers win their jobs back, Sousoures became a lifelong union activist. Sousoures is a nuts-and-bolts trade unionist, someone who tends not to show her emotions and who is most comfortable in the minutiae of contract language and federal safety regulation. It was thus unnerving to see her lose her composure when the subject of pensions came up in our interview. Halfway through her technical explanation of ERISA pension regulation, Sousoures became visibly distraught: “Losing my pension is the worst feeling. I can’t make up for what I lost. I feel like I can’t grow old.” Sousoures paused, falling silent. “I want to kick and scream and cry about it.”23

Angered and motivated by the pain of coworkers like Terry Sousoures, flight attendants countermobilized against the pension termination. Senior flight attendants led the charge, since they were the primary targets of the cutbacks. Though some of these older women had helped build the movement forty years ago, their new campaign looked far different from 1970s flight attendant activism. During the sexual revolution, the airlines had made flight attendants’ bodies a centerpiece of their public image. Selling young women’s youth, attractiveness, and sexual availability, managers insisted that stewardessing should be a temporary, low-paid job for a girl who would eventually settle down and domesticate. Activists responded by refusing to bare their bodies for the airlines’ exploitation and by insisting that they deserved a family wage, lifetime employment, and a secure retirement like all other airline workers. But forty years later, after the family wage and the retirement benefits have vanished, flight attendants’ bodies have changed, as people are now forced to work well into their old age. The activists of the 2010s, therefore, have made the aging body a foundation of their politics, presenting it as an archive of exploitation and as the center of a demand for more resources.

Nowhere was the aging body more visible than in the activist work of a group of senior flight attendants from Los Angeles who called themselves the Stewardesses Stripped. Joining forces in 2005, the Stewardesses Stripped came together to publicize the pension termination and to demand economic relief for older workers. Activists soon became famous for a series of stewardess-themed pin-up girl calendars in which models appeared half-naked in sexually provocative poses. By including the word “stewardess” in the title of the calendars, the group referenced the sexual objectification that all older flight attendants confronted when they began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s. But instead of using young models who would look like stewardesses from the previous era, the older activists posed, baring the bodies of women in their fifties and sixties. The Stewardesses Stripped clearly had fun dressing up, just as many senior flight attendants did when they put on their Valentino or Pucci or Halston uniforms decades ago at the beginning of their careers. However, the group was also defiant, presenting the graying, sagging, and scarring that occurred over forty years on bodies that, because of the pension termination, faced having to work long into old age.

Humor, sexual innuendo, and anger work together in the text and image for each month. For the October 2007 page, for example, the caption reads, “Our retirement benefits are going up in smoke. It’s time to sound the alarm!” and appears under the image of a burlesque-clad flight attendant in her fifties straddling a vintage hook-and-ladder fire truck.24 “Are you getting hustled?” the caption for another month in 2007 asks. “Don’t get caught behind the 8-ball,” reads the text that frames an image of an older flight attendant in stilettos and panties splayed across a billiard table while suggestively stroking a pool cue. Making an even more historically salient reference, a different month’s caption below a nearly nude, aging flight attendant in fishnets and a tiara asks, “Coffee, tea, or me without a pension?” The layout alludes to the 1968 pulp novel Coffee, Tea, or Me, which titillated audiences with an embellished account of the sexual exploits of a young, attractive stewardess.

The bold work of the Stewardesses Stripped caught the eye of the public. Flight attendants and other activists scrambled to buy the pin-up girl calendars, T-shirts, and other merchandise from the group’s online store. The project also received its share of negative feedback; some critiques came from older flight attendants who had always presented themselves as genteel and lady-like and who saw the art as inappropriately risqué, while others came from those who saw humor as an insensitive response to the economic crisis. Responding to the positive and negative commentary, Georgia Nielsen, a forty-two-year veteran flight attendant for United Airlines before her retirement in 2002 and the official historian of the Association of Flight Attendants, argues that humorous, sexually explicit art leveled a pointed, indignant political protest:

These women are angry. They know exploitation of their bodies and they have just turned it around! They are saying, “I am sixty and I have been violated. You have taken my clothes. You have taken what I need. You are putting me out here with promises made and not kept, and I am going to show you what this looks like.”25

By condemning “promises made and not kept,” Nielsen demonstrates that the Stewardesses Stripped took the domain of morality that had been a foundation of the family values economy and turned it against major employers. Corporations had used morality to justify the economic changes that took place during senior flight attendants’ careers, arguing that deregulation and financialization would create new opportunities for hardworking American families. Commitment and personal responsibility were among the core values that employers had mobilized. But in this case, the airlines took a group of women who had been required to display their bodies for airline profits in the 1960s and 1970s and forcibly stripped them of their retirement, breaking the commitment that management had made to support these women in their old age. Arguing that activists were saying “you have taken my clothes” and “I am going to show you what this looks like,” Nielsen frames the Stewardesses Stripped as a moral response to a corporate act of sexually inflected economic violence.

While the Stewardesses Stripped made political art to publicize older flight attendants’ crisis, activists built new infrastructure to back up the protest. In 2004, for example, workers formed the first union for retired flight attendants, the Retiree Association of Flight Attendants (RAFA). Signing up one thousand members in the first locals in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the new union served two purposes.26 First, it mobilized retirees to bolster their younger peers’ activism, bringing the experience and energy of retired flight attendants to today’s picket lines and contract disputes. Second, RAFA activists went to their state legislatures and to Washington to demand legislative protection for current and future retirees, working to block the courts and the airlines from making further cutbacks to flight attendants’ remaining pension benefits and defending the Social Security system that all flight attendants depend on. Building a movement within and beyond the workplace around the interests of older workers, RAFA continues to charter new locals—opening London and Honolulu chapters in 2012 and canvassing Portland and Miami to connect retirees in 201327—and to augment active flight attendants’ grassroots activism with retiree ranks.

Retired flight attendants’ activism reveals the complex role that age plays in the twenty-first-century labor market. Most of the new jobs created in the airline industry and in other sectors of the economy are far better suited to younger workers than they are to older ones. Low pay and scant benefits require people to work longer hours. Temporary and seasonal work compels people to move long distances to find new jobs. Jobs that force people to move frequently, to stay up late, to get up early, and to perform physically demanding labor without access to medical care favor a young body. But without sufficient pay to save for retirement and without the income that a defined benefit pension plan guarantees, many young workers are going to have to work until they are old, and in some cases very old, when they will inevitably need the paid sick leave and medical insurance that fewer and fewer jobs provide. Therefore, and as the Stewardesses Stripped insisted in an art project about their aging bodies, advocacy for aging workers must be a core of twenty-first-century workplace activism.

Conclusion: Toward a New Coalition Politics for Airline Unions

Recent flight attendant activism has engaged the airline workplace through a broad set of alliances. For Dante Harris, the African American labor and political establishment in Los Angeles provided the mentorship and grassroots organizing network that helped him become president of his Association of Flight Attendants local. Similarly, the Retiree Association of Flight Attendants supports the movement for economic security for all seniors, especially the campaign to defend Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety net programs for older people. For both Harris and the leaders of RAFA, trade unionism has been the foundation of a political practice that has overcome immense odds. Their success demonstrates that despite the hurdles that face today’s contract negotiators, collective bargaining is a necessary component of the effort to contest the family values economy. But as Harris and the RAFA activists also show, collective bargaining is no longer sufficient as the sole foundation of the struggle for economic justice; it must be complemented with coalition-based activism that engages the world outside the workplace and beyond the boundary of the airline industry.

Coalition building has allowed airline activists to make substantive advances in the twenty-first century. For example, there are a handful of Delta Airlines stations where ready reserve customer service agents make more than the standard wage of $9.07 per hour. In Oakland, California, workers start at $12.17.28 The pay premium is the result of a local living-wage law that covers all workers at the airport.29 Although unions were a driving force behind the ordinance, the campaign opted not to pursue traditional collective bargaining as an economic strategy. Most people on the front lines at the Oakland Airport are marginal workers: young people, elders, recent immigrants, women of color, and others who struggle with the constant unpredictability of a deregulated, financialized economy. Turnover is high in many airport positions, and because of their age, race, and documentation status, most employees feel insecure in the workplace.

Union leaders recognized that such vulnerability would make the contentious, time-consuming process of certifying a traditional union unworkable, especially at a company like Delta, where managers had thwarted organizing efforts by flight attendants, mechanics, and other more privileged workers. Thus, rather than base their effort solely at the airport, activists teamed up with religious leaders, immigrant rights groups, and racial justice organizations to engage workers in their neighborhoods, in their churches, and through grassroots social service agencies. Although an individual corporation was not the primary target of the campaign as it would have been in conventional collective bargaining, trade unionism heavily influenced the movement: the bid for a wage hike and better work rules—the standard topics in most contract talks—was at the core of rank-and-file organizers’ effort to engage their coworkers on the job.30

The coalition in Oakland deepened the argument about family and work that flight attendants have been making since the 1970s. Jobs for those who serve food, empty the trash, and load baggage at the airport leave people with scant resources. The Oakland activists explicitly argued that ideas about race, immigration, and class have justified workers’ precarity, making long hours and low wages seem natural and reconciling the contradiction between the American value of hard work and the clear failure of airport jobs to deliver the material rewards that work is imagined to provide.

Like the flight attendant union movement, the Oakland campaign also challenged employers’ effort to use ideas about sexuality and family to rationalize the tenuousness that racism and anti-immigrant policies produce. Most low-wage airport jobs require what flight attending always has: commuting long distances 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. Since the early 1970s, the ideology of domesticity has explained those stresses not as the result of falling real wages and a much longer workday, but as the consequence of families with the wrong values. Rejecting that moral explanation for poverty, flight attendants and the Oakland activists have shown that regardless of people’s values, most twenty-first-century jobs require people to live far beyond the boundary of the heteropatriarchal nuclear family. Workplace-based social movements must thus explicitly engage the changing nature of marriage, domesticity, and kinship as they push for better pay, because these cultural categories have been the central venue for debates about economic change. To motivate people to organize at work, as flight attendants for Virgin America and other successful new airlines have, social activists must move the needs of today’s flexible new families from the margin to the center of the bid for a fairer economy, just as they have in four decades of flight attendant activism.

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