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Visiting professor details breakthrough for airline industry labor union

| Monday, February 5, 2018

Ryan Murphy, an assistant professor of history from the Earlham College, gave a lecture Friday on his award-winning book, “Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics and Workplace Justice,” as part of the Higgins Labor Program’s series Lunchtime Labor RAPS.

Murphy spoke briefly about having worked as a flight attendant in 1988 before transitioning to life as a graduate student after the events of 9/11 and how his experiences led him to write his book.

“This book is the culmination of my dissertation project for my Ph.D. in American Studies, and what I would say it does is two things. Number one is it tells a story of my coworkers and me and of our union and of its history from 1970 to the present, so it establishes a narrative of flight attendant labor organizing,” Murphy said. “The second thing that it does is it identifies a phenomenon in that it is connected to the specifics of airline work.”

Murphy pointed out that the flight attendant workforce was quite unusual for its time, in that “in 1998 … almost 90 percent of [his] colleagues were women, a largely female workforce because of the original history of airlines almost always requiring flight attendants to be young, single white women.” This culture resulted in “a really unusual situation in that almost all the households in [his] workplace were woman-headed households.”

This contributed to the larger phenomenon of “families generally [becoming] ever the less traditional,” Murphy said.

This coincided with another trend of “traditional family [becoming] ever the more important to U.S. politics,” Murphy said.

“The airline was a place to kind of tease out how that happened, and how people can counter-mobilize against the use of ‘traditional family’ as an idea to work against workers, and workers were at large in all positions,” he said.

He then read and explained a few excerpts from his book. The first excerpt was an explanation of how “many new airline jobs are similar to casual labor because they are very low wage and part-time.”

“[In Delta Airlines,] many employees begin their customer service careers in a non-union program called ‘ready reserve,’ where the starting wage is $9.07 per hour,” Murphy said. “Though they may fly 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 20 hours a week.”

Another example came from Allegiant airlines, whose “virtual domicile base program” for pilots forced them to relocate to new cities and be away from their families for at least one month.

“Itinerant groups of mostly male workers leave their loved ones to 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,” Murphy said.

After expanding on these parallels between airline employees and casual labor, Murphy shared an anecdote from 1983, when TWA’s flight attendants won a small victory against their company. In this incident, “management [was] cracking down and trying to force flight attendants into giving up work rules,” Murphy said.

“Work rules are basically, in the airline industry, those things that allow you to work shorter hours and have more control over your schedule, so you can have more time outside of work, which is especially important to single women heads of household, or any head of household,” Murphy said.

Although the flight attendants’ union offered a chance to formally negotiate the terms, management refused.

“During the last week of February, the company sent a new settlement offer directly to the homes of all 5,500 TWA flight attendants,” Murphy said. “They did so without notifying core union activists and without offering to negotiate the deal. … Although the offer that managers sent directly to flight attendants included the work rule cuts management had sought from the union, it came with an hourly pay increase of 30 percent over five years.”

This, Murphy said, was the company’s “effort to divide rank-and-file flight attendants from the union negotiating committee.”

“Managers wagered that union leaders would be more committed to protecting those work rules than those in the front lines,” he said. “Managers thus made an offer that coupled work rule givebacks … with a large hourly pay increase, a package that they guessed would appeal to ordinary flight attendants while remaining unacceptable to union leaders with a long-standing commitment to feminist activism.”

Murphy said this was a huge misjudgment from the company.

“Work rules would give flight attendants the time and the money that pilots, machinist, ground crews and managers had always expected,” he said. “But in this particular case, a 30 percent raise — as in the era of low inflation — would actually do the exact same thing, even if it came with work rule givebacks. … [It] would give TWA flight attendants both the time and the money that they had been demanding since the 1970s.”

This realization caused the flight attendants’ union to accept the deal during a dramatic arbitration meeting with the company, at which a federal mediator was present. The deal was “one of the most lucrative economic offers recently negotiated by any group in the airline industry,” Murphy said.

He said that the real significance of this victory had political and cultural significance because it broke barriers defined by class and gender.

“Flight attendant crews could access middle-class economic resources without necessarily living in middle class social locations or subscribing to middle-class cultural values,” Murphy said. “All of a sudden, just like automobile workers, just like machinists and just like building tradesmen, flight attendants could buy a house, send a child to the university or take a winter vacation at the beach.

“But unlike their labor movement peers, 91 percent of TWA flight attendants in the mid-1980s were women. … Therefore, although many flight attendants lived in domesticated nuclear families, those families became far less traditional after March 1983 because they could count on a feminized service worker to be their breadwinner.”

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