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This Day in Labor History: August 22, 1945

[ 56 ] August 22, 2013 |

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.

The Quote Doctor

[ 39 ] August 21, 2013 |

Maureen Dowd really is the worst.

The Southern Thing

[ 23 ] August 21, 2013 |

Patterson Hood with a long essay on what has become his lasting statement, as much as he might not always be comfortable with it, the duality of the southern thing, particularly in the context of a South that is changing rapidly.

The song begins at about 3:20 in the clip.

Also, Hood correctly notes that Cooley wrote the two best songs on Southern Rock Opera, by which I assume he means this

and this

Immigration Reform Not Happening

[ 40 ] August 21, 2013 |

I have to admit that I was optimistic that meaningful immigration reform would happen in 2013. Although I didn’t think I could underestimate the Republican commitment to white supremacy, I thought political reality and changing demographics would force just enough Republicans out of insanity to vote for some kind of package that had a pathway to citizenship.

Alas, no.

And there’s almost no chance for immigration reform in 2014 either, not with primary challenges to every Republican to the left of Benito Mussolini.

It’s all incredibly depressing. It’s basically going to be up to President Obama to take executive actions on immigration, which will have the political benefit of reminding everyone in 2016 which party is the party of New Jim Crow and white supremacy and which is not. On the down side, it takes actual laws to create meaningful, long-term change and that pretty much isn’t happening until at least 2015 and probably 2017.

Silver Lining

[ 15 ] August 21, 2013 |

The Obama Administration has made some positive moves in the wake of the West fertilizer plant explosion that killed at least 15 people in April, which is good because the state of Texas certainly wasn’t going to do anything:

Although it seems incongruous to say that anything good could come from such a tragedy, the fact is West has been the catalyst for a more systematic approach to chemical safety. An executive order from President Obama establishes a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group and creates a series of deadlines that a team of Cabinet members and agency heads must meet for updating best safety practices, data-sharing and emergency response. The first deadline is set for mid-September, when the team must develop a pilot program to determine best practices for agency collaboration. Other improvements include making sure that state and local governments better coordinate their emergency-response efforts. The final deadline, set for next spring, will create a unified federal approach for identifying and responding to potential dangers at chemical facilities. The directive calls for a specific evaluation on how to improve the handling of ammonium nitrate because it is so volatile. Although the U.S. chemical industry has regularly fought such efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue an alert on the hazards of ammonium nitrate, its first since 1997.

West relied on an emergency plan that assumed there was no risk of an explosion. Texas regulators hadn’t inspected the fertilizer plant in five years. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors had not been on site since 1985. That sort of inattention and unawareness is what the executive order seeks to prevent, in light of the fact that ammonium nitrate is stockpiled in hundreds of depots and warehouses around the country. They, too, are accidents waiting to happen.

It will be worth monitoring to see what this all leads over the next few years.

….Mike Elk noted to me that the Houston Chronicle claim about the plant not being inspected was not quite accurate and pointed me here for clarification.

On Tanning Salons

[ 92 ] August 20, 2013 |

Not that fashion is exactly my wheelhouse, but this piece on the growth of tanning salon use among white teenage women and the very real health risks involved is worth a mention, not only because it is a growing public health problem that exists for no good reason, but because tanning salons are stupid. When I was at the University of Oregon in the 1990s, along about February you’d see 95% of students looking as pasty as can be after 4 months of gloom. And then there would be the 5% of young women (although a few guys too) who would be almost obscenely bronzed. They looked ridiculous. Obviously, I wasn’t the target demographic here, but they were putting their health at risk and making themselves look like alien freaks at the same time. Every time I hear about tanning salons, I think of these students.

I’m glad Obamacare forces a 10% tax on tanning salon use. It should probably be regulated as tightly as smoking and highly discouraged.

Lead and Fracking

[ 20 ] August 20, 2013 |

Industry fought against all evidence that lead exposure hurt people since at least 1767. Robin Russell-Jones rightfully compares that to the battle against fracking today, with industry saying that there are no major environmental problems at all with the process, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The lesson is to never trust industry positions on the environmental or health effects of their products. In fact, we’d be better off assuming they are lying and forcing corporations to convince us they are not.

Today in Duh

[ 32 ] August 20, 2013 |

It’s sad that we still need major scientific panels to determine whether humans caused global warming. I’m sure this won’t stop Jim Inhofe and his Merry Band of Corporate Hacks in Congress from claiming this was just a bunch of liberal commie treehuggers instead of real scientists, you know the kind who cash their checks and create findings to fit current Republican policy points.

The Cherished Principle of Amateurism

[ 45 ] August 18, 2013 |

It is obviously extremely important for the purity of the NCAA to not allow this guy to play college football:

A Middle Tennessee freshman who finished five years of active service in the Marines this summer is appealing an NCAA rule preventing him from playing this season because he played in a recreational league in the military.

According to The Daily News Journal, the rule essentially says student-athletes that do not enroll in college within a year of graduating high school will be charged one year of collegiate eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition.

By NCAA standards, Steven Rhodes’ play at the Marine base counted as “organized competition” because there were game officials, team uniforms and the score was kept.

But the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marine sergeant said the recreational league was nothing close to organized.

“Man, it was like intramurals for us,” said the 24-year-old. “There were guys out there anywhere from 18 to 40-something years old. The games were spread out. We once went six weeks between games.”

If you let former Marines play college football after participating in glorified scrimmages, the next thing you know schools will be making hundreds of millions of dollars off the game, turning the snow-white purity of the NCAA into an exploitative system that makes a mockery of amateur athletics. And we can’t have that.

Labor and Nature in the Fields

[ 28 ] August 18, 2013 |

Mark Bittman is making sense:

Oddly, affordability is not the problem; in fact, the tomatoes are too cheap. If they cost more, farmers like Rominger would be more inclined to grow tomatoes organically; to pay his workers better or offer benefits to more of them; to make a better living himself.

But the processed tomato market is international, with increasing pressure from Italy, China and Mexico. California has advantages, but it still must compete on price. Producers also compete with one another, making it tough for even the most principled ones to increase worker pay. To see change, then, all workers, globally, must be paid better, so that the price of tomatoes goes up across the board.

How does this happen? Unionization, or an increase in the minimum wage, or both. No one would argue that canned tomatoes should be too expensive for poor people, but by increasing minimum wage in the fields and elsewhere, we raise standards of living and increase purchasing power.

The issue is paying enough for food so that everything involved in producing it — land, water, energy and labor — is treated well. And since sustainability is a journey, progress is essential. It would be foolish to assert that we’re anywhere near the destination, but there is progress — even in those areas appropriately called “industrial.”

I agree with everything in this article. I suppose he could have talked to a worker or two to investigate the conditions a bit more, but the overall point about making the food system more fair to the land and to people is excellent.

Saturday Night

[ 28 ] August 17, 2013 |

For this Saturday night, we need to have as much fun as Bobby Grich did when pouring beer on Richard Nixon’s head after the California Angels won the 1979 AL West title.

Gene Autry, “The Death of Old Mother Jones”

[ 9 ] August 17, 2013 |

One doesn’t exactly think of future Reaganite and California Angels owner Gene Autry as a crazy radical, but he did record “The Death of Old Mother Jones” in 1931.