- Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice by Ryan Patrick Murphy
Ryan Patrick Murphy
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016
252 pp., $94.50 (cloth); $34.95 (paper); $34.95 (ebook)
Deregulating Desire explains how flight attendants harnessed the energy of 1970s social movements to demand the pay, autonomy, and respect the airlines had long reserved for male-typed work. The book’s title conveys their goals and their employers’, too. Workers attacked the gendered assumptions about their private lives that employers used to justify their meager compensation and poor working conditions. Corporate leaders favored deregulation to buck laws and union contracts that constrained the market and capped their profits.
Disputes over the terms of flight attendant work played out on the conceptual terrain of domesticity. Airlines sought to create a low-wage and flexible flight attendant labor force by defining the work as appropriate for female dependents. They argued that flight attendants’ current or future breadwinner husbands, not the airlines, should be their route to economic security. Flight attendants pursued the trappings of breadwinner status for themselves. Ryan Patrick Murphy brings these conflicts into focus through a broad and shifting lens that captures unions, individual activists, corporations and their leaders, and more.
At mid-century, activists interrupted airlines’ efforts to build a young, white, and female flight attendant labor force intended to cultivate a calming aura of on-board domesticity. Murphy applauds flight attendants’ 1960s-era campaigns that ended many of the airlines’ explicitly sexist practices. But he argues that it took the following decade’s technological advancements and bolder social movements to explode the myth of the passive and provincial flight attendant. In the 1970s, commercial carriers launched longer trips that freed flight attendants from their own domestic spaces. This freeing encouraged them to envision the job as an independence-granting career. They drew inspiration from feminists’ opposition to physical and economic exploitation and gay liberationists’ critiques of traditional marriage and monogamy. Pressuring and often breaking from unions that had long presumed their dependent status, flight attendant activists won lucrative contracts that began to professionalize their jobs.
The airlines met this challenge with new tools of their own. Like other business interests in these years, they defined recent legal and cultural reforms as threats to an imagined white, heterosexual, middle-class family forced to pay crushing taxes that lined the pockets of the less deserving. As they steadily gained control of the conversation, corporate leaders framed any limits to businesses’ prerogatives as threats to America’s cultural and political fabric. Murphy underscores the irony of this successful linkage of pro-business and “family” values: it “opened a space to pass reforms that, while lauding work as a social good, would make it much more difficult for working people to make ends meet” (87). [End Page 137]
These arguments convulsed the airline industry and forced flight attendants back on their heels. Packaged as a boon to hard-working consumers, the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act opened the industry to upstart and nonunion airlines. The banking industry tightened its grip on aviation over the next decade, and these financiers developed jarring new methods to stretch shareholder value and shrink labor costs. These changes made collective bargaining a less reliable path to workplace gains, and flight attendants adapted once more. Murphy highlights an innovative 1990s San Francisco campaign that saw flight attendants join forces with queer community activists in pursuit of expanded partner benefits. After years of street protests and consumer, legal, and union pressure, United Airlines in 1999 offered such provisions to all employees worldwide. Most other airlines followed suit within a few years.
Flight attendants’ new strategies moved them a few steps forward, but the broader context unsettled the ground under their feet. Only same-sex couples who lived together could take advantage of the benefits, and further cutbacks in the early 2000s limited the scope of the victory. The book concludes on this ambivalent note. At the turn of the century, flight attendant work was open to more people than ever, but flight attendants and their unions remained in a “defensive posture” (140...