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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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 attendants.
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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.
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