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This Day in Labor History: July 10, 1986

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On July 10, 1986, United Airlines agreed to pay a minimum of nearly $33 million in restitution and reinstate at least 475 fired flight attendants to compensate for illegally firing them for getting married. This was the all-too rare case of women winning compensation for their inherent sexism they faced on the job for essentially all of American history and a sign of what may be an all-too-brief period where finding redress is possible.

From the beginning of commercial airlines, flight attendants dealt with multiple levels of discrimination. Not only was the job hard and quite nasty in the era before jets, when the constant turbulence led to a lot of air sickness, but the other airline workers did not respect them, the companies believed they should be sexualized to appeal to their male customers, and they faced harsh rules on weight, looks, and marriage. Plus, sexual harassment from pilots and passengers was endemic and there was nothing they could do about it. As early as 1945, flight attendants unionized, but they faced a long struggle to get those unions recognized and to earn respect from pilots and employers.

United and other airlines routinely fired women when they got married. They had defined the job of flight attendant, or stewardess as it was known in the 1960s, as a short-term job suitable only for single women. While there were all sorts of justifications for this in terms of societal norms, the real reason, as it so often is against women workers then and now, is to keep them powerless and undermine any real union activism. In 1966, flight attendants filed a case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against United. The policy against marriage was probably illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 anyway. But to attract more customers for its flights to Hawaii, United hired a bunch of Hawaiian men to be flight attendants. That wasn’t such a problem, but they allowed those men to be married. And that was blatant discrimination.

Mary Sprogis, a United flight attendant, was the lead plaintiff on the case in 1966. In August 1968, the EEOC found that United had violated Title VII. The airline acted by making a deal with the flight attendant unions, allowing current attendants to marry, but not hiring married attendants. But this was not the end of the story because Sprogis then filed a federal discrimination suit against the company and she wanted damages. She still couldn’t be hired after all under United’s new policy. In 1970, a U.S. District judge ruled United’s policy illegal and that Sprogis be rehired. By this time, a couple of other fired attendants had filed a class-action lawsuit for the discrimination they faced in the years after 1964. The first class action failed when the same judge refused to allow it to go forward. But a second class action, also rejected by the judge, was then allowed by an appeals court. United continued appealing it but the Supreme Court eventually ruled it could proceed.

The class action suit wound through the courts in the incredibly complex way that these things go. But what became really interesting was that the flight attendant union switched sides and joined against the fired attendants when its leadership realized that if all these fired attendants had to be rehired, it would threaten its current paying members! What was worse is that the union went along with United’s sexist allegations that all these women were just working as attendants because they wanted husbands and weren’t real professionals to begin with.

The final judgment was inevitable by the early 1980s. Some of the women already had returned to work by the 1986 judgment, around 400. The hearings were worked out one by one for a long time, with about 2/3 of the plaintiffs proving discrimination and receiving a job back. The 475 that United was ordered to rehire were also given seniority on their pay and benefits retroactive to the 1960s for their wage increases, which gave them salaries of about $33,000. They didn’t quite get full seniority for job bidding, but they received significant progress there. If more than 475 fired attendants wanted their jobs back, a lottery was to be established to work that out, but I’m not sure if that was ever established. The total liability to United was between $32.7 and 38 million, depending on how many attendants wanted to return to work.

Ultimately, this is just one of so many stories in the history of sexual discrimination on the job. It was only in recent decades that any movement for redress and compensation for women happened. Given our current government, that opportunity is probably closing as we return to a society where employers have full control over employees, with the government backing up their policies no matter how discriminatory. Moreover, even in this period, it took the flight attendants a full 18 years to win, which is not exactly a timeline to celebrate, even if the final outcome was positive.

This is the 275th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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