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This Day in Labor History: August 22, 1945

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On August 22, 1945, five airline stewardesses, as they were then called, formed the Air Line Stewardesses Association, wanting a labor union to give them a voice on a demanding, difficult job where they faced constant pressure about their bodies, poor working conditions, low pay, and restrictions on marriage status and age.

The position of flight attendant began on May 15, 1930, when a woman named Ellen Church worked at what was then known as a “skygirl.” Women worked very hard, but had to look glamorous while doing it. They spent hours on their feet, dealt with drunk passengers, bent and reached and stooped over. A pedometer worn by one stewardess on a 1948 flight from Chicago to Miami showed she walked eight miles during the flight. The career itself wasn’t glamorous—but it had to look glamorous to the passengers. Rather than train the hostesses, airlines required them to pay for their own training with private services, at least one flight attendant paid $325 to a private school for stewardess training in Kansas City in 1948.

The sexualized nature of this work meant that woman had to uphold physical standards so that the ancestors of fictional Don Draper could enjoy their flight. There were strict requirements around height, weight, and appearance. The woman had to remain single. Moreover, there was a forced retirement on your 32nd birthday. In other words, airlines used young women to sell sexual allure to male customers, who were then expected to choose conventional lifestyles and marry. The 1951 film Three Guys Named Mike followed a flight attendant played by Jane Wyman around her adventures of love and travel until she settled down with one of the Mikes, a small-town science professor where she could perform traditional duties of domesticity.

Working conditions could be quite unpleasant. Planes were smaller, slower, and flew at much lower altitudes than today. That meant long turbulent flights with a lot of passengers vomiting from motion sickness. Flight attendants had to manage this, getting thrown around from turbulence and sometimes crawling through vomit. Pay was very low, about $125 a month in 1944, which is the equivalent to $1630 a month today or slightly less than $20,000 a year. Moreover, the pay was weighted on 100 hours of air time, but various duties on the ground raised it to a real 150 hours, meaning 50 effective unpaid hours a month. There were very small numbers of male flight attendants as well, mostly on international flights, but they were losing their hold in the profession by the 1940s and many airlines refused to hire them.

Ada Brown had the idea to start the union. She was United’s chief stewardess and was angry about the airline’s unwillingness to make improvements. She later remembered, “As chief stewardess I tried to get improvements for the girls with salary, flight restrictions, and protection from unjust firing. We were always promised things, but nothing was ever done—except to throw parties for the stewardesses.” She found four friends to join her—Edith Lauterbach, Frances Hall, Sally Thometz, and Sally Watt. Lauterbach joined United in 1944. Like many women, she planned to work for a year, see a bit of the world, and quit. Instead, she became a union activist and fought to stay in the air, even after her age reached 32.

Within a few months, three-quarters of United attendants had signed up and by August 1945, the ALSA had established local councils in 4 cities, had elected officers, and drafted a constitution. ALSA became the new frontier in pink-collar labor activism, where professional and semi-professional women organized their professions, including telephone operators, waitresses, teachers, and social workers. The ALSA conceived of itself as elite labor and as such demanded respect. The first issue of the ALSA newspaper Service Aloft in October 1946 notes, “The airline industry seems to think they are doing a favor when they give a person a job as a steward or stewardess. They are prone to forget that these people have done more to sell airplane traveling to the American people than any other single factor.”

Thus began a multi-decade movement consisting of thousands of women, often new workers in a field with high turnover and severe rules that restricted long-term employees. It was a long hard struggle for flight attendants to reach the point they are at today. The union won its first contract in 1946, when United increased pay to $155 and agreed to limited hours, set rest periods between flights, and a grievance procedure. In 1947, ALSA President Ada Brown married and became a victim of United’s rule against marriage, forcing her to resign from both her work and the union. The union not only had to deal with these issues, but also significant sexual harassment from pilots, a group with which the union had a complex and not altogether productive or friendly relationship. A former TWA flight attendant remembered pilots making “unofficial girdle checks” on the attendants. The pilots union started their own subsidiary within the flight attendants and forced the ALSA to merge with it in 1949. Several breakoff movements took place over the years, with most of the attendants forming what is today Association of Flight Attendants in the late 1970s, although the AFA did not get a charter from the AFL-CIO until 1984.

The age requirements did not go away until 1968, after flight attendants used Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to challenge discrimination. At that point the average career of a flight attendant was only 18 months. The union pushed the airlines to end the marriage requirement as well, to which courts agreed in 1971, at the same time they opened the profession to men. The weight requirements were loosened in 1979 after more union pressure. The union pressed to apply OSHA rules to airplane labor, end bans on pregnant attendants, promote cabin safety measures for both passengers and workers, and helped kill a 1981 FAA plan to reduce flight attendants in each flight.

Today, the AFA is a part of the Communication Workers of America, a merger it undertook after post 9/11 layoffs. The union represents about 60,000 workers.

The last surviving member of the 5 flight attendants to start the ALSA, Edith Lauterbach, died in February at the age of 91. She retired from the airlines in 1986, the first woman to serve more than forty years as a flight attendant.

Edith Lauterbach

Those interested in learning more should read Kathleen M. Barry’s Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, from which I drew a good bit of this post.

This is the 73rd post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

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  • Joel Patterson

    I recall seeing a speech and Q&A session with Frank Lorenzo at Rice University in the early 1990s. I went because I was curious about this brilliant businessman whose name had been in the headlines for expanding Continental Airlines.
    At the Q&A session, I was surprised to hear Lorenzo say that flight attendant pay should be capped at $15,000 a year because they don’t contribute any more value to the airline after a couple years experience.
    What a jerk!

    • Ah, capitalists.

    • rbl

      Given the fate of the airline industry over the last few decades, I’d guess that a salary cap of $15,000 for executives would still leave most of them massively overcompensated.

    • Bruce Vail

      I knew a young woman who was recruited as a Lorenzo scab back in the 80s. She did a weeks secret training and was all set to go to work when the AFA settled the contract with Continental. She never got her job….and Continental went bankrupt.

  • LeeEsq

    Semi-related, my parents were born in the early years of the Baby Boom. They were in late junior high and high school during the early 1960s. They do not get the appeal of Mad Men or the nostalgia for the period. They hated the fact that you have to get dressed up to do things like go into the city or to concerts or to board a plane. They like the causual style of the present much better.

    • Linnaeus

      It’s the design of the period that people like when they watch the show. But I don’t think they long for a time when you were expected to dress like that all day, every day.

      • LeeEsq

        Thats what my parents don’t understand, they can’t comprehend why people like the design of that period, particularly when it comes to clothing. They also aren’t that sure why people romanticize about the society of the time.

        I can kind of understand why people might be drawn to the design of the period, particularly the clothing. People like to dress fancy at times but modern society doesn’t give them that many options for that. Dressing up is really popular in the partner dance community. Ballroom dance competitions are probably one of the few places where men can dress up in black or white tie and women in gowns.* Swing and tango dancers often like to dress up in period custome. The same logic applies to the SCA, steampunk and other cosplay. When I was in anime, a lot of fans really wished that their high schools had uniforms like Japanese high schools.

        *My mom was shocked to learn that the ballroom competition depicted in the Silver Lining Playbook was accurate.

        • sparks

          When I was in anime, a lot of fans really wished that their high schools had uniforms like Japanese high schools.

          I’m sure many fetishists do, too.

          • LeeEsq

            I thought the fetishsts were into Catholic school uniforms. Its really so hard to keep track of these things.

        • Linnaeus

          Thats what my parents don’t understand, they can’t comprehend why people like the design of that period, particularly when it comes to clothing. They also aren’t that sure why people romanticize about the society of the time.

          It’s something different, I suppose, and a lot of the designs are kind of cool, IMHO. To your parents, those things were probably pretty mundane, because they were around it all of the time in their formative years, so they don’t see it as anything special. But maybe to someone who didn’t grow up then, it’s a change from what they see now.

          Personally, I enjoy Mad Men a great deal, and one of the reasons is the design of the time. It’s possible for us to see things that are interesting from another time period without going all in on the social and cultural mores of that time. Liking Don Draper’s suits or the architecture of Sterling Cooper’s building doesn’t mean that I want to be the same kind of person Don is or that I don’t recognize his flaws. I can understand why Mad Men doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I would argue that the show doesn’t romanticize the 1960s, if you watch the show closely.

        • Origami Isopod

          I have seen quite a few people openly long for a return to such a societal dress code, because obviously other people’s own personal comfort is as nothing compared to their “right” not to see sweatpants or sneakers in public.

          The fashion police are a plague.

          • LeeEsq

            To be honest, the thing that I hated most about college is that people would go eat breakfast in sweatpants or their pajama bottoms. Thats mainly because they didn’t shower either.

    • ruviana

      I might be around your parents’ age, since I was in high school in the very late 60s and I hate Mad Men. It just curdles my blood. My brother, who’s four years younger, loves it because he can barely remember the era and it fills in stuff for him. I remember it too well and don’t need to be reminded of it.

      • LeeEsq

        My parents were born in 1946 and 1947.

        • ruviana

          Yup, I’m about 5 to 6 years younger, but I still hated it. And my brother, who’s about 10 years younger loves the clothes, style and architecture, though he does think Don Draper is an ass. He knows I’d kill him otherwise.

    • DocAmazing

      From Pleasntville:

      Jennifer: HELLO! I’ve got like three pounds of underwear on here!

    • Murc

      They hated the fact that you have to get dressed up to do things like go into the city or to concerts or to board a plane.

      While this is true for a lot of people, I will note that I’ve met equal numbers of people from your parents generation who bemoan the fact that nobody knows how to dress anymore and show a little respect to their circumstances and the people around them.

      I’ve always kinda-sorta seen their point. I’m not real eager to return to the days when everyone had a three-piece on all the time, but I have reached the age when I’m getting real tired of going to work with guys in ten-year-old concert t-shirts.

      • LeeEsq

        We had several conversations about this topic on another blog I read recently. I’m actually sympathetic towards your point to. I’m a lawyer, so a suit is normal work wear for me and I’m pretty comfortable in it. Plus, I think that the distinction between work and non-work clothing allows me to separate my personal life and work life.

        My brother recently attended a wedding of a friend of his from law school. The invitation said that the dress was semi-formal. According to my brother, one person interpreted this as slacks and a bowling shirt. This kind of annoyed him.

        Yet, I really don’t think we can go back to a time to wear knowledge of how to dress for the occassion is wide-spread. There is too many negatives associated with the time and for the most part people are going to resist it. I can’t see programmers willingly put on a suit for work.

        • Murc

          I can’t see programmers willingly put on a suit for work

          Nor should they be. If you’re working in a cube farm in a building that sees visits from people who don’t already work there MAYBE once every eighteen months, requiring a suit and tie every day is grossly excessive. Hell, jeans and a t-shirt can make a person look pretty decent.

          But it’s like… wear stuff that’s been laundered. If you’re wearing clothing that needs to be ironed, iron it. SHAVE, for gods sake. Wash your hair. Understand that a Big Johnson t-shirt isn’t really all that witty.

          • JustMe

            If you’re working in a cube farm in a building that sees visits from people who don’t already work there MAYBE once every eighteen months, requiring a suit and tie every day is grossly excessive.

            A suit is generally an outfit appropriate for attending a meeting or some kind of “event.” Programming is a form of physical labor (granted, not the difficult physical kind), and the writing, typing, and equipment-moving involved is not conducive to wearing the large amount of fabric that a suit requires. It took a while for this to catch on, and in many “old line” programming businesses (notoriously, Perot’s ADS), programming was associated with “office worker”, and since “office worker == wears a suit”, everyone had to wear suits and ties to their programming jobs. Fairly pointless, if you ask me.

            But that doesn’t mean you are going to make any friends showing up in an XL-size tshirt when you’re a medium.

        • Origami Isopod

          I was about to type that I don’t understand what people’s issue with grasping situational context is. Then I remembered… well, conservatives, by and large.

          People who want to police me for going to the supermarket in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers can get bent. OTOH, I completely agree with you in re weddings. If you agree to participate in social events with formal (or even semi-formal dress codes), you agree to those codes, with obvious exceptions made for things like disability. It’s rude to show up for a formal wedding in a T-shirt, and it’s delusional to pretend that the request for you to wear a suit is stifling your creativity with bourgeouis conformity.

    • JustMe

      Part of the appreciation for the aesthetics of the 1960s seen in Mad Men (and similarly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) is that modern casual dress went off in a bad direction. The “anonymous uniform” of the suit got replaced by the “anonymous uniform” of polo shirts and pleated khakis, which looks much worse. Also, suits were tailored-to-fit, and casual dress is generally not, so the final result looks much worse in comparison. The admiration of those aesthetics in Mad Men comes very much from the fact that the characters are wearing clothes that fit rather than are sloppy. Yes, it is a great thing that you don’t have to “get dressed” just to go out for lunch, but the general public seems unable to find a casual replacement for the suit without resorting to mom jeans, cargo shorts, and crocs.

      The problem with the trends of dressing up for things like partner dancing is precisely because they’re “dressing up”– they are effectively wearing costumes, and while more formal clothes have their place, “wearing a costume” always looks awkward and out of place, and I find it unbearably twee.

      • mpowell

        The reason for this is that the general public interprets less than formal dressing as: you don’t have to care what you look like anymore.

      • LeeEsq

        I like formal clothing and I do not see the suit as being uncofortable. The modern business was originally referred to as a longue suit for a reason. That being said, for people to dress formally you need to have ocassions that would allow for the use of formal dress. People did not wear formal dress as everyday where. To a certain extent, formal wear was always a costume of sort. There was a faset of society did wear formal wear on a more frequent basis but I doubt that anybody on this blog wants to go back to the time when high society was a viable element.

        Sometime you might really have to through the baby out with the bath-water. In this case, as much as I hate to admit it, the current bad aesthetics of clothing might be the price tag of our much more, for all its faults, egalitarian society.

  • Joel Patterson

    After that recent crash at SFO where very few people died, a few media outlets gave flight attendants the respect they are due:

    they train in “live fire pits” and “ditching pools.” As one flight attendant once said, “I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol or a servant. I think of myself as somebody who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down and in the water.”

    • Lee Rudolph

      That’s so hawt.

  • LeeEsq

    A lot of the fantasies that people have about “the Golden Age of Flight”, particularly the ones revolving around sexy stewardesses, are based on treating people horribly. It takes a lot of chutzpah in order to see yourself as Don Draper at the expense of others.

    • TribalistMeathead
      • Think of her as your mother.

        • LeeEsq

          Somehow, I think that reminding customers of their Oedipus complexes is not the best business strategy.

          “I’m Cheryl. Fly me” was surprisingly direct, so was the Delta recruitment ad.

  • ajay

    Moreover, the pay was weighted on 100 hours of air time, but various duties on the ground raised it to a real 150 hours, meaning 50 effective unpaid hours a month.

    150 hours a month? Less than 35 hours a week? Not bad by 1944 standards. And it works out at a salary of $0.87 an hour. What was the average salary in the US in 1944? $0.90 an hour. (Average salary for workers of their age, presumably rather less, but I don’t have that data). So their pay was hardly “very low”. It was “average”.

    • Do you have any data on what pilots earned?

    • How do you make that out to be “not bad”? You are contractually for is deb to be married so can’t access a second salary, you have to maintain expensive dress and grooming standards, and you pay for your own tools. In addition be side of the nature of the scheduling you can’t pick up other work/a second job.

      • Dear me, are you suggesting that we should look at the specific requirements of various jobs when determining whether a salary is fair or not? How radical.

      • ajay

        Aimai, I make it out to be not bad because it’s pretty close to the average for everyone (male and female, married and unmarried) in the US civilian workforce in 1944. As I say, my guess would be that it’s considerably above the average for 20-something unmarried women in 1944, because I’m guessing that younger workers tended to earn less and that women tended to earn less than men.
        It’s almost three times the minimum wage, for another comparison.

        Do you have any data on what pilots earned?

        Yes. A junior navy pilot would have been on $1800 a year base pay, plus combat pay and allowances if he was overseas.

        • I would guess, although I don’t know, that a civilian pilot flying with United would have made more.

        • Unless military flights had stewardesses, it seems only data on commercial pilots would be relevant.

          • ajay

            I don’t even think that data on commercial pilots would be terribly relevant. Just because you work in the same room as someone who makes more than you doesn’t mean that one of you is overpaid or the other one underpaid. Especially when you’re doing two completely different jobs.

            Say a pilot for United was making $2500; what exactly would that prove? Pilots earn a lot more than cabin crew even today. What does that prove?

            • OK, pick a job that you think is equal in effort required and compare it that.

              It would also be helpful (I think) to look at the length of the career and expected lifetime earning.

              The stewardess was cut off at 32, compared to someone in another career who might work a couple of decades more. So unless she can find another job, that “average” salary has to go a lot further, doesn’t it? Which – once you look past the one year period – would make it rather smaller, correct?

              • ajay

                The stewardess was cut off at 32, compared to someone in another career who might work a couple of decades more. So unless she can find another job, that “average” salary has to go a lot further, doesn’t it? Which – once you look past the one year period – would make it rather smaller, correct?

                You’re not seriously suggesting that we work on the assumption that stewardesses would work until 32 and then live off their savings for the rest of their lives, are you?

                OK, pick a job that you think is equal in effort required and compare it that.

                OK, a quick bit of googling finds civilian nurses in 1941 being paid $1700-$1800. Similar working conditions: yes. If anything the nurse would have it worse; occasional airsickness vs. constant actual sickness. Working hours would be longer, I suspect – if we assume the nurse is on a full-time schedule, she’s probably actually getting less per hour than the stew. And she’s more highly trained than the stew: nursing college, after all.

                Stewardesses were paid slightly less than nurses, but they worked less hard, in easier conditions, for less time. Sounds pretty even.

                • Randy

                  A lot of airlines required stewardesses to be nurses.

  • ruviana

    One thing I kept thinking about as I read this was “smoking.” This was the era of constant, widespread smoking, and while a small thing, the flight attendants also had to breathe the endless cigarette smoke. Maybe not the worst thing for them, but another difference from these days.

  • Good grief, I knew things were bad but this is appalling. I am sure the opposition presented arguments that are truly puke inducing.

  • ChrisTS

    OT, but noteworthy:

    Bradley Manning has announced that she is Chelsea Manning and wants to start transitioning. Naturally, I had to learn this from BBC and The Guardian.

    • I feel so sorry for this kid. How terrible to come to terms with your identity in the fierce light of the trial and the imprisonment.

      • ChrisTS

        I know. And gods know if the military prison will allow him to even take the hormones.

    • Origami Isopod

      It’s a wonderful day to Not Read The Comments!

  • Randy

    Male flight attendants were called “Pursers,” and they were indeed mostly on international flights. Pursers outranked mere stewardesses (they got to handle the cool things, like selling duty free booze).

    • TribalistMeathead

      Pursers outranked mere stewardesses

      Still do.

    • Murc

      IIRC, this was because it was thought that male business-class passengers, the primary passengers on international flights, wouldn’t be comfortable trusting a female to do the various administrivia involved in helping them get ready for customs, changing their money, making duty-free purchases, etc?

  • J

    Looks as if attitudes like those described persisted for a very long time. Witness this airline ad of 1970!

    http://www.retronaut.com/2013/08/presenting-the-losers/

  • Keaaukane

    Strutting up the aisle, big deal you get to fly
    You ain’t nothing but a waitress in the sky

  • Bruce Vail

    AFA has had a 20-year organizing campaign at Delta Airlines. Organizing is tough.

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