Telling the story of a bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry

This week in North Philly Notes, Ryan Patrick Murphy, author of Deregulating Desire, blogs about the flight attendants’s gains. 

In August 2016, flight attendants for United Airlines ratified a new contract that raised the top wage to over $71,000 per year. The deal provides pay and benefits that far exceed the standard for most jobs in the service economy. Whereas workers in restaurants and in big box stores can be forced into overtime at the last minute, United flight attendants get time and a half if they volunteer to work on busy days. Whereas those in retail and in fast food lose pay when business is slow, United flight attendants are guaranteed their monthly wage regardless of the demand for air travel. In an era when white men continue to out-earn other workers, the new United contract delivers a living wage to a majority woman workforce in which half of new hires are people of color.

deregulating-desire_smFour decades of tireless organizing allowed United flight attendants to lock in these gains. Since the middle of the 1960s, flight attendants have been on the cutting edge of social change. In an era when most middle class white women married and had children right out of high school, flight attendants – or stewardesses as the airlines still called them – stayed single, married later, and delayed motherhood. Living in the downtown areas of major U.S. cities, many stewardesses joined the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements, and helped transform dominant cultural ideas about love, sex, and kinship.  As people’s attitudes about sexuality changed in the 1970s, however, the economy failed to keep pace with the social transformation. On the one hand, most people’s families began to look more like flight attendants’, with people marrying later, having children outside of marriage, or choosing same-sex relationships. But on the other hand, the ideal of the traditional nuclear family became ever more important to the political debates of the 1970s and 1980s as phrases like “female headed households,” and “out of wedlock births” became means to blame poor women – and especially women of color – for their poverty.

Rather than avoiding these heated cultural debates, flight attendants made ideas about family and about sexuality the centerpiece of their union agenda. They built alliances with LGBT and feminist groups outside of the industry, and argued that a living wage, affordable health insurance, and a secure retirement should not be reserved for white men in heavy industry and in corporate management. Flight attendants’ new movement was immensely successful, and real wages for flight attendants at many airlines doubled between 1975 and 1985.

While the category of sexuality galvanized flight attendants, it also became the centerpiece of management’s effort to challenge the flight attendant union movement.  Business leaders in the airline industry – and among the Wall Street bankers who financed their operations – argued that a decade of rapid social change had undermined the values that had always made America strong. To alleviate the vast new economic pressures facing the middle class in the 1970s, managers pushed to restore those bedrock values: deferred gratification, personal responsibility, and hard work. Ordinary families’ stability, big business argued, rested on rolling back the cultural changes that flight attendants and many of their allies had initiated in the 1960s and 1970s. The new alliance between pro-business and pro-family activists presented a daunting challenge for flight attendants, and by the 1990s, unions at many airlines had been forced to forfeit many of their previous gains.

Deregulating Desire tells the story of this bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry. While it illuminates the challenges that flight attendants and all feminized service workers have faced as neoliberal reforms transformed their industry, the book shows that an ongoing commitment to feminist and LGBT activist movements has helped them maintain a heavily unionized workplace. As the recent victory at United Airlines demonstrates, flight attendant unions have delivered concrete economic resources for their members, resources that most workers – including much of the white middle class – lack in the 21st century. In an age when economic inequality is the centerpiece of national political debates, and when there is little concrete analysis of nuts-and-bolts efforts to fight economic inequality, Deregulating Desire documents flight attendants’ often successful struggle for workplace justice.

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Gay rights as a classic case of subconstituency politics

1996_regIn this blog entry, Ben Bishin, author of Tyranny of the Minority shows how gay rights issues result from the interplay of intense groups.

The last few months have seen an increased interest in the civil rights of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community. Most recently, this question has centered around President Obama’s unfulfilled promise to eliminate the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that allows only closeted members of this community to serve in the armed forces. Other similar questions of civil rights are seen in the discussion of states granting rights to marriage and civil unions.

One reason that civil rights for gays is of such interest is because political conditions seem ripe for change. Polls demonstrate that the public is increasingly supportive of granting the gay community equal rights as, for instance, a June CBS poll shows that only about a third of citizens think that gays deserve “no legal recognition” of their partnership status. Similarly, a May USA Today/Gallup poll shows that over 69% think that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Moreover, the last three years have seen a dramatic shift from a federal government unified in Republican hands to one of unified Democratic control.

Despite these major shifts, progress has been slow at best. The federal prohibition of same sex marriage (DOMA) remains the law of the land. Most of the states where gay marriage has been allowed, it has been initiated by the rulings of state courts which have implicitly granted these rights by striking down laws that ban gay unions. President Obama’s very limited order providing spousal benefits to same sex employees of the federal government represents perhaps the only tangible progress on this score. When taken in combination, the absence of change despite strong popular support and Democratic control of the federal government have left many wondering: what will it take for members of this community to gain equal rights?

Some, like UC Irvine professor Charles Anthony Smith, suggest that the gay community is captured by the Democrats and thus they don’t have to provide policy because the community has no alternative as Republicans are worse on the issue than are Democrats (i.e., Smith 2007). The case of gay rights strikes me, however, as a classic case of subconstituency politics—where political outcomes are dominated not by the public’s will (i.e., majority opinion) as classic democratic theory suggests, but rather result from the interplay of intense groups. Politicians acquiesce to, and work for, the preferences of subconstituencies because they provide them disproportionate resources (e.g., votes, contributions, manpower, endorsements). By offering bundles of positions across issues, politicians develop platforms of positions designed to appeal to members of these intense groups.

Historically, the LGBT movement has been disadvantaged by subconstituency politics; while they are passionate about their cause, and very active, they are opposed by an equally intense group, (i.e., fundamentalist Christians) that exists in larger numbers across a wider range of political jurisdictions (e.g. counties, congressional districts, states, etc.). While the size of the LGBT community varies dramatically across these jurisdictions, the fundamentalist community is always larger. In the congressional district representing San Francisco (CA 9), which has the largest adult gay population of any district in the country, for instance, the community of people identifying as fundamentalist Christians is about 2 points larger—a fact that provides their staunchest opponents a tremendous advantage because they are not opposed in those jurisdictions where the LGBT community is small or not vocal. In short, in most places, Republican politicians tend to be opposed to such policy while the Democrats are split, depending on the nature of their districts.

Understanding how these groups are distributed is central to describing political outcomes on this issue because, in places where one group is not represented, politicians have no incentive to reflect the views of the LGBT population. Both Democrats and Republicans will advocate the preferences of the intense group—in this case fundamentalist Christians. In contrast, in places where both fundamentalist and LGBT groups are active, politicians of different parties have the incentive to take opposing positions on the issue. Democrats tend to support gay rights in these districts while Republicans tend to oppose them. Consequently the distribution of groups across states and districts helps to explain why and where we are most likely to see advances in, and higher levels of support for, gay rights.

It also suggests however, that in order for gay rights to be recognized, confederate groups who strongly support gay rights may be needed to pressure politicians in areas where gay populations are small or inactive (or simply not vocal). Fortunately, other groups, especially the young and the well educated, see this civil rights issue as an important question of basic fairness. To the extent that politicians can bring these groups together, when these factions are combined, they provide a more potent alliance of groups. The challenge to those who advocate equal rights is figuring out how to bring these groups together toward their common goal.

Ben Bishin is the author of Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation. http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1996_reg.html

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