FLIGHT ATTENDANTS & LABOR HISTORY
Not many people would associate the stewardesses of yesteryear with unions, strikes, and
other kinds of labor activism. But these glamour girls were not the docile bunch that
stereotypes would suggest. Below are just some of the highlights of their activist history.
Women's Rights in the 1960s & 1970s
Many flight attendants had never cared for the airlines' long-standing no-marriage rule for stewardesses (no other airline employees were
subject to it). Many were also annoyed when airlines began in the 1950s to require them to retire or transfer to a ground job when they
turned 32 or 35 years old. Flight attendants' union officials complained about these policies and tried to overturn them through official
grievances and collective bargaining, but airlines would not budge.
Then came Title VII. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was mostly concerned with addressing racial discrimination, but Title VII of the Act, which
concerned employment, also forbade discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex. For flight attendants, Title VII meant new leverage
in challenging airline age and marriage rules in labor relations and in the courts. Though using Title VII would prove slower and trickier than
flight attendants anticipated, they eventually forced airlines to drop age and marriage restrictions entirely by the end of the 1960s. In the
1970s and beyond, they used Title VII with less success to challenge maternity restrictions and strict weight monitoring (which, like age and
marriage rules, had never been applied to other airline employees). Click here for more on flight attendants' fight against discrimination.
As flight attendants and airlines did battle over discriminatory policies in the late 1960s, airline marketing was showing new boldness
inspired by the sexual revolution. By the early 1970s, slogans like "Hi, I'm Cheryl - Fly Me" (National) and "We Really Move Our Tails for You"
(Continental) left many flight attendants feeling exploited in a new way by their employers. It hardly helped that uniforms had changed, too,
from the prim and proper suits long favored by airlines to miniskirts and hot pants that put considerably more stewardess flesh on display.
In late 1972 a group of self-declared feminist flight attendants organized a new, non-union-affiliated organization, Stewardesses For
Women’s Rights. SFWR protested what they considered airlines’ degrading treatment of flight attendants in the workplace and in
increasingly sexualized marketing, such as National’s “Fly Me” campaign. The group would go on to draw widespread media attention to
their contention that airlines’ sexy images of stewardesses hindered their ability to act as safety professionals necessary to the traveling
public’s well-being. SFWR would also build the strongest organizational and ideological links between the flight attendant occupation and the
women’s movement. Though some feminists found it hard to take stewardesses seriously as women's rights activists, SFWR counted feminist
luminaries Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan among their allies. While small — less than three percent of flight attendants in the United
States ever joined — SFWR influenced the entire flight attendant workforce with its high-profile feminist activism.
back to top
In December 1957, Mohawk Airlines hired the first African-American stewardess in the United States, Ruth Carol Taylor. Within months,
TWA announced that it would hire a black stewardess, making it the first large airline to break the color barrier in passenger service. Neither
flight attendants nor their union representatives deserve credit for promoting the desegregation of cabin service. Credit goes to the
African-American applicants, overqualified except by their race, who finally broke down airline resistance and their allies in civil rights
organizations and state anti-discrimination agencies, especially the New York State Committee Against Discrimination. The breakthroughs of
1957-1958 were followed only by forced token integration on some other airlines in the early 1960s. Even after several airlines began to hire
more African American women for stewardess positions by the mid-1960s, other forms of racial discrimination continued for several years.
back to top
Union Changes in the 1970s
Feminist sentiments, combined with spectacular growth of the workforce, unleashed a far-reaching union autonomy movement among
flight attendants. With the advent of “jumbo” jets, the workforce had increased from around 30,000 to more than 40,000 just between 1970
and 1974. As their numbers and militancy grew, flight attendants found little reason to continue subordinating their desire for union self-
governance to secure the protection and resources of parent unions.
On January 1, 1974, the Steward & Stewardess Division of the Air Line Pilots Association became the Association of Flight Attendants
(AFA), a truly autonomous affiliate of ALPA. In 1984 AFA got its own independent charter from the AFL-CIO, a badge of adulthood in the labor
movement that flight attendant unionists had been denied in the postwar era.
Over the course of 1976 and 1977, four groups of flight attendants reorganized in completely independent unions and thus broke all ties to
their subordinate past in the labor movement. Continental flight attendants established the first of the independent unions by breaking away
from the Association of Flight Attendants in 1976. TWA, American, and Pan Am flight attendants, who were all in locals of the male-
dominated Transport Workers Union, established independent unions as well in 1977.
The independent unions quickly joined the Association of Flight Attendants in efforts to use Title VII to challenge airline weight and maternity
policies. They also joined forces in reviving the moribund effort to achieve safety licensing of flight attendants.
back to top
Long Battle for Recognition as Safety Professionals
In 1951 ALSSA held its first biennial convention. There, flight attendant delegates were able for the first time to vote in their own officers and
vote their own agenda for the young union. They chose a woman as president, Mary Alice Koos, and they chose federal certification of flight
attendants for safety qualifications as one of a handful of key goals. Koos, not coincidentally, ran on a platform that included certification.
From nearly the beginning of their organized activism, flight attendants have sought certification as unassailable proof of the importance of
their role in passenger safety (and to guarantee that their training would reflect that role.) They have also sought certification for the
practical benefits it would confer, especially increased power should they threaten a strike. Not until 2003 would they achieve it.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, flight attendant unionists put considerable effort into trying to persuade federal regulators that they should be
licensed, just like pilots, mechanics, and others whose work was vital to the safe operation of flights. Indeed, flight attendants argued that
only they worked directly with passengers and thus played a key role in the cabin when other licensed workers could not prevent an
emergency. Regulators demurred, however, claiming that licensing such a high-turnover group would be an unnecessary administrative
burden (largely because of the no-marriage rule, turnover was about 30 to 40% annually). Flight attendants also lobbied Congress to achieve
licensing through legislation. They managed to push a licensing bill far enough to obtain hearings in 1962. But with opposition from
regulators and no support from the pilots' union, flight attendants were unable to move Congress to action. After the failure of their licensing
bill in 1962, flight attendant activists became increasingly involved in challenging airlines' discriminatory age and marriage policies and
certification efforts fell largely by the wayside.
In the late 1970s, certification took on renewed importance to flight attendants. The public and the media were more interested in safety
issues, which made it more difficult for airlines to continue to marginalize flight attendants' safety work. Flight attendants themselves were
as keen as ever to be taken seriously as skilled professionals, but now had feminist concern with their hypersexualized image as further
motivation. The flight attendant unions again made certification an active item on their agenda.
Still, while flight attendants received more public and state recognition for their safety work in the last decades of the twentieth century, it
took the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to convince federal authorities that flight attendants ought to have the licenses they had
sought for over half a century. In a far-reaching aviation bill passed late in 2003, Congress mandated a licensing program for flight
back to top
Unionization in the Postwar Era
In 1945, a group of stewardesses at United organized the first labor union of flight attendants in the United
States, the Air Line Stewardesses Association (ALSA). The inexperienced but plucky organizers soon won
voluntary recognition of the union from the company, pay raises, duty hour limits, and the right for
stewardesses to see their personnel records and file grievances.
In 1946 the pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), bankrolled the establishment of a second,
rival union for flight attendants, the Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA), a subordinate
affiliate of ALPA. The better-funded ALSSA soon dwarfed the independent ALSA. In 1949 the two unions
merged, despite warnings from ALSA's founder and president Ada Brown that pilots would allow flight
attendants little say in their union affairs. After the merger, ALSSA represented 3,500 flight attendants on
sixteen airlines, more than two-thirds of the workforce.
By 1960 ALSSA represented some 9,000 flight attendants on thirty airlines. Meanwhile, active ALSSA
membership grew from 1,800 in 1953 to 7,000 in 1960, an increase from less than one-third to more than
two-thirds of all flight attendants in the United States. Thanks to ALSSA contracts, flight attendants with a year
of service on leading carriers saw their monthly earnings increase nearly 150 percent from the late 1940s to
the late 1950s. But as Ada Brown warned, flight attendant union leaders were not pleased with what they
considered the pilot union's overbearing oversight in some areas and failure to support them in other areas.
By 1960 growing tensions between ALSSA and its parent union, ALPA, as well as conflicts among flight
attendants themselves, sparked a series of intense intra- and inter-union battles. In the end, flight attendants
found that they lacked the power to secure the ultimate goal of their union struggles, autonomy, in the face of
male labor leaders’ paternalism. In a series of heated union elections in 1961 and 1962, flight attendants
ended up splitting into two, rival unions that still left them in subordinate relationships to male-dominated
parent unions: the new Steward & Stewardess Division of ALPA and ALSSA, reconstituted as a local of the
Transport Workers Union of America.
back to top