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yan Patrick Murphy’s Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice is a rollercoaster of a read. I laughed, scoffed, and stifled yelps. This is not surprising. As Murphy’s rich history of flight attendant labor activism of the 1960s through 1980s shows, flight attendants have been fierce and fearless labor organizers. In the 1960s and 1970s, rank and file members started their new unions when their old union was not representing members’ interests. Flight attendants threatened to more or less shut down the 1976 Republican National Convention, by walking off the job at the Kansas City Airport if Trans World Airlines (TWA) didn’t negotiate. This is vital history to know as labor rights are increasingly…and increasingly…and increasingly fragile today. Flight attendants’ bold and creative actions and strategies offer lessons for rethinking labor at the contemporary moment’s critical juncture.
Just as important to know is the more disheartening history that Murphy’s book also tells. Many of the labor protections won decades earlier have been lost, as the industry has been subject to a special deregulation experiment for the past 40 years that has worked against the interests of workers—and especially against those of flight attendants, the most precarious in the industry. This history is both familiar and important to know for thinking about the future of work and livelihoods in an increasingly precarious 21st century. The history Murphy tells is the history of the deregulation of the airline industry, of the breakdown of historic wins and gains by earlier labor activists. This is a history that leads to a 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s in which flight attendants’ pay often doesn’t start until the plane pulls away from the gate or shifts are increasingly difficult to make up when flights are cancelled. Like many workers, flight attendants have been put in impossible situations, pitted against each other, such as when American Airlines flight attendants voted not to recognize the seniority of TWA flight attendants in the December-2001 merger.
Finally, and equally as important, Murphy tells the history of the paring of corporate deregulation and the remaking of the traditional family. This pairing is one that Murphy beautifully lays out. He demonstrates first the connections between the heteronormative family structure and the breadwinner—a familiar story. His brilliant contribution is connecting how the heteronormative family structure is connected to a deregulated economy. The traditional family is remade to serve big business through the model of the working family, and what he calls the family values economy rises to prominence over the 1970s and 1980s. This is a creative and spot on analysis of the entanglement of the economic and domestic transformation of the late 20th century.
In the rest of my review, I offer three reflections or invitations to Ryan on his book and pose questions for how to take this important work in new directions. Or how we as readers can use this book. All of my questions are invitations for expansion on what is an important work and incredibly generative read.
The first invitation is a theoretical one on anti-work politics. US flight attendants made a lot of demands in the late twentieth century. These demands were not for simple wage increases, but were for working conditions that would enable new ways of living. Demands, according to Kathi Weeks (2011, who Murphy engages with, most specifically on the question of the work ethic) are important political tools. They are provocations and are thus announcements of power, that bring forth the power to make even further demands and challenge political discourses and dominant perspectives. Flight attendants, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, demanded not just drastically higher wages but a radically higher valuation of their work in all sorts of ways—more stability in their shifts, protections for lost work, guarantees to be home for their kids, guarantees for a living wage for all workers. Then again in the 1990s, even in an era of huge and continued setbacks for Labor, the case of United Airlines flight attendants shows how building alliances across all workers is essential to and important for gaining benefits for domestic partners; these benefits extend beyond just gay couples but disrupt the relationship between work and the domestic. For flight attendants, making demands in and of themselves were political acts with great power. As Murphy outlines, flight attendant demands focused centrally on dismantling the heteronormative breadwinner model, questioning who was the breadwinner and who they were winning the bread for. These demands were also about remaking domestic relationships as well as the relationship between work and the domestic—detaching livelihoods from the heteronormative model. And so my invitation: what theoretical offerings does the history of flight attendant organizing have for understanding the politics of demands and anti-work struggles? What lessons does this history provide for theories of labor demands both in times of labor gains and in times of deep concessions?
My second invitation is also theoretical, regarding Murphy’s engagement with race.
In the epilogue, Murphy addresses how flight attendants and flight attendant work in the 21st century is increasingly diverse, a significant change in the workforce from a few decades prior. Particularly evocative is Murphy’s accounting of Unwav Donte Harris, a young African American flight attendant for United Airlines and union activist with the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America. Harris’s experiences of racism and the expectations around race and gender in the workplace shaped his experience from the beginning of his employment. This now motivates him in his labor activism. How, though, would have taking on the subject of race—and specifically whiteness—changed the analysis of the body of the book? Like many occupations involving care work, deployments of race has been essential to making the job suitable for women—and that means particularly white women. Different racializations have worked over different times and geographies to gender and feminize different caring occupations (see Glenn, 1992). Though not strictly care work, flight attendant work is deeply feminized and involves a great deal of care work. Flight attendant work also has long been an occupation dominated by white women. And as Murphy lays out, the domestic sphere is present in all sorts of ways: from labor, evoked in labor activists demands; from management, used as an excuse to deny paying workers a fair wage or to fire married women. Thus, how has and does race, and specifically whiteness, play a role in the mobilizing of domesticity for both sides of the struggle (employer and labor)? And how has whiteness shaped flight attendant work more generally?
Finally, my third invitation is methodological. Murphy provides a rich methodological appendix outlining how he combined interviews with flight attendant activists with archival material from corporations, unions, and newspapers, as well as legal and legislative research to assemble a history of the present. The interviews with flight attendant activists are some of the most powerful parts of the book, providing rich first-hand accounts of labor’s side of the story. Murphy is upfront about how the interviewees approached these interviewees, with some seeing them as a chance to set the record straight. Murphy rightfully states that this “strategic narration in no way invalidates her testimony” (195). Having interviews only from one side of the bargaining table, however, provides a particular narrative of events. Researchers must contend with the data available to them, and corporate archives represent the management’s side in this case. (I can’t imagine that securing interviews with the airline management would be easy.) How, as researchers, do we contend with strategic narration and what implications does it having for assembling labor histories and learning from labor activism? How also might have the telling of this history been changed with interviews on both sides of the bargaining table, with labor and management?
I grew up in St Louis and remember the American Airlines buyout of TWA well. It was devastating for the city, which was TWA’s main hub and had previously served as the company’s headquarters. The bankruptcy wasn’t surprising but what it meant for the future of the workers, the city, the region was unclear. Each night the news gave updates on the prospect of American buying TWA, and then once it was clear the purchase would happen, the future of TWA’s workers was the talk of the town. TWA was a major employer in a region dealing with decades of deindustrialization. I have clear memories of newscasters reporting on the ten-o’clock news that American was going to try to keep as many TWA employees as possible, of taking family trips and chatting with the clearly anxious ticket agents about the transition, and of the branding transition from the erasure of an icon of the city to the new outside company that took over. Since then, and for many other reasons, St Louis Lambert International Airport has become a shell of its former self, now a much quieter regional airport, no longer the buzzing international hub full of workers and travelers.
Ryan Patrick Murphy’s Deregulating Desire puts this transition in context. His contemporary history is an intellectual and emotionally generative read that powerfully brings together family and domesticity with new economic formulations—a truly global intimate history. He has powerfully demonstrated the malleability, persistence, and centrality of the family to capitalists’ interests and the particular ways that institution has been used in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The book, thus, offers important lessons both for the necessity of being daring in labor demands and carefully understanding histories of concessions, deregulations, and reformulations of the family in service of capital.
Glenn EN (1992) From servitude to service work: Historical continuities in the racial division of paid reproductive labor. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 18(1), 1-43.