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he opportunity to share my reflections on Ryan Murphy’s stellar book Deregulating Desire is well-timed, because my thoughts have not been not far from the many vicissitudes plaguing the airline industry recently. I am concerned about these issues not merely because of my research interests, but also because of the many disturbing incidents that we have seen lately involving flight attendants, complaints about poor customer service in the airline industry, passengers kicked off planes, and CEOs who have to come out to do damage control. I think these are not isolated incidents, but are symptomatic of wider changes in the service economy that are both alienating, and generative of an insalubrious relationship between corporation, labor and customers.
Deregulating Desire represents a timely intervention in this respect, going to the root of these questions and folding in further dimensions and intersections such as cultural values, labor activist politics, and family life. Through the airline industry, it provides a masterful narrative on some of the leading problems plaguing the political economy in the last few decades. In geographic circles and beyond, a common concern in recent economic history often revolves around neoliberalism. Economic shifts since the late 1970s are said to have ushered in a period of economic deregulation that has swept across virtually every industrialized, and to an extent industrializing, country. In one way or another, nations have adopted a capitalism that deliberately shuns government support, and esteems the ‘free market’ as the staying hand of entrepreneurialism and prosperity. Such a policy not only puts misplaced faith in the merits of individual choice and responsibility, but also seeks to attain economic performance through particular ideals and ideas about efficiency, growth, and distributional justice. The result, however, has often been a disenfranchisement of ordinary workers, who are expected to accept fewer work protections, and endure routine devaluations of their labour. Engaging in a perceptive study of the contemporary history of the airline industry in the US, Deregulating Desire is exactly contemplative of these pertinent issues.
Documenting a history of labor activism that spans no fewer than four decades, the book provides a meticulous and enrapturing chronicle of the numerous advances won, and retreats suffered, by labor movements among US flight attendants since the 1970s. If this sounds like a tedious account of unionism, it is not. The style of the book is fluid and weaves in and out of complex changes in America’s political economy. It precociously points out the subtle ideological shifts that grace each economic period, and draws clever comparisons between what would have otherwise appeared to be identical labor movements through the years. By putting into conversation disparate economic philosophies dating from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s free market push, the book ably illuminates simultaneous distinctions and unexpected parallels between different time periods, allowing for a unique path dependency in US aviation history to unfold. This would not have been possible if the analysis were undertaken through a dogmatic allegiance to neoliberalism—or any other economic theory—alone. By going beyond a single cause in the proletarianization of workers, the book successfully removes the focus from a presentist idea of neoliberal exploitation, to one of a vacillating and a much more unstable reality of many overlapping labor struggles.
More critically, beyond the context of Murphy’s study on flight attendants, Deregulating Desire opens the door to some useful ways by which we can think about the linkages between culture and economics. This is where a major contribution of the book lies. Taking occasion of the airline industry’s distinctive labor characteristics, not least, one involving ‘a highly mobile transport workforce that [has] always crossed national, cultural, intimate, and sexual boundaries’ (14), the book shines an important spotlight on how the workplace, if in an extreme context, has been able to lend itself as a driving force of change in wider social attitudes towards work. The notion is not simply that the logic of capital shapes a particular patriarchal understanding of the nuclear family, and along with it, paradigmatic ideas of the male breadwinner and female domesticity; rather, ‘real’ women and men through their work, and in conjunction with unions, are equally crucial to defining and re-defining alternative work and familial norms. Such a thesis locates an intersection between labor and family innovatively in the actually-existing milieus of the workplace, illuminating how cultural values are conjured through pragmatic conduits of activism and strategies. If big business and governments have championed certain heteropatriarchal pathways to capital accumulation, Deregulating Desire serves to remind that there are always counter-movements seeking to reclaim workers’ rights through contestations of those same pathways and values.
Murphy’s book is at its best when it operationalizes these arguments and unbundles the said cultural wars relating to the family through historical examples. Instead of providing broad caricatures of the oscillations between periods of labor victory, and of brazen exploitations that leave flight attendants under- or unpaid, the book populates the drama of wage and employment negotiations with real-life characters who have been instrumental to (re)scripting the discourse on flight attendants’ work vis-à-vis the family. From Janet Lhuillier’s feminist crusade for equal pay and work rules at Trans World Airlines in the 1970s, to Continental Airlines’ then-new chief, Frank Lorenzo’s threat of mass layoff in the 1980s to get union members to accept deeper pay cuts, to 22-year TWA veteran, Roger Graham’s appeal to two Missouri Senate candidates in the 2000s to help preserve senior flight attendants’ careers after the TWA-American Airlines merger, the book is replete with historical details that not only offer explanations to the precariousness of flight attendants’ jobs, but also demonstrate how labor rights are secured and lost in coincidence with the rise and fall of particular actors, personalities, and corporate players. Through an eclectic range of sources, Murphy has garnered a grounded knowledge of the work-, family- and culture-related challenges that US flight attendants contend with. He offers an analysis that does not take this politics as a given, but respects the complex, multi-scalar interactions that precisely make these workers’ activisms challenging.
The last three chapters of the book further sharpen this analysis by highlighting the non-singularity of flight attendants’ activist movements. In particular, the closing chapters testify to the increasingly conflicted relationship between union members, as American society diversifies. As exemplified in the United Airlines protest of 1998, LGBT flight attendants, in allying with pro-work and pro-family queer discourses, ended up contradicting and breaking away from previous feminist movements that were predicated on the freedom to work outside of a familial arrangement, not within a reconfigured one. Significantly, these divergent strategies and values portend that solidarity among workers has become harder to achieve, as dissimilar community interests prove at times irreconcilable. It also piques a curiosity about how these various cultural groups may further dilute, challenge and revamp ideals about the ‘family’ in the future through their discordant activisms. To this point, the epilogue offers but a small taste of these fraught futures, alluding to how racism and ageism—and presumably other forms of discrimination—may exclude new groups such as African American and older workers from mainstream family values, even as others become incorporated. Put succinctly, this book does not reduce flight attendants to a uniform agency with one agenda, but presents a cautionary tale that acknowledges the challenges ahead for an internally diverse workforce.
This last point about competing interests among different communities is worth dwelling on, for it connotes a politics of relationality between aviation’s various labor segments. One group’s economic gains may well spell, or indeed depend on, another group’s loss or defeat, as part of capital’s structural tendencies to pit one set of cultural values against another amid its adjustments to cycles of booms and busts. As Deregulating Desire has many times intimated, union victories over the years are typically won at the expense of a silenced other, whether it be single women flight attendants during the LGBT breakthrough of the 1990s or, less often acknowledged, airline companies themselves at the height of the 1970s feminist movement. To borrow Anna Tsing’s words, ‘[n]arratives of capitalism gain their purchase through convincing protagonists—that is, exemplary figures through which we come to understand capital and labor’—and the valorization of these figures, as well as the displacement of others. This dialectic is what brings ‘the field to life.’ In short, another way of looking at the task of fighting for flight attendants’ rights is not to judge the apparent advances or retreats that the majority experience, but the ways in which labor activism relationally connects different groups, in an ever-shifting sea of undulating cultural norms that unevenly empower. This relative production of progress needs to be further explored, not as a lamentation of an impossible war against capital, but as a political reminder of the economy’s chameleon-like adaptations forestalling universal escape.
This leads to a related point on the geographic remit of, and thus range of possible relational stakeholders in, Deregulating Desire’s thesis. To return to the theme of neoliberalism in the opening paragraphs, it warrants recognition that the subjection of the economy to free market forces and their legitimizing cultural discourses is rarely contained within a single national context in globalizing times, especially in an industry like aviation. While the book has clearly worked through a rich trove of materials just by concentrating on flight attendants’ struggles within the US, I wonder if more can be said about how activisms there may invoke and mobilize labor markets elsewhere, such as through outsourcing flight attendants’ work to cheaper overseas centers where union protections are absent. Consider, for instance, Christine Yano’s research on Nisei stewardesses—Japanese and Asian American, and later other Asian, crew members who were hired by Pan Am to fill a ‘cosmopolitan’ gap. While the purpose of Yano’s study is not to engage in a history of flight attendants’ labor unions, her work intersects with Murphy’s in that it spurs new questions about whether airlines are turning to transnational means of recruitment to avert higher cost structures within the US. If so, what does this mean for global labor rights, seeing that exploitation is not so much eradicated as exported away to populations without proper union representation? How is the family, in turn, reconfigured in those other places? What cost does this transnationalization incur? These are all important considerations for a more circumspective labor politics.
The extrapolation of Deregulating Desire to non-US contexts has further bearings on airline competition and the geoeconomics of the aviation industry. Even as US-based airlines were embroiled in a time of collective bargaining in the 1970s, competitors from Europe and Asia were consolidating their presence in hubs worldwide (e.g. Tokyo), and directly competing with American carriers on both regional feeder and US-bound routes. As a result, US carriers had been suffering diminishing influence on the world stage, even as leaner air transport corporations from abroad chipped away at the former’s markets. On the international front, East and Southeast Asian—and now even Middle Eastern—carriers prove to be particularly formidable challengers, undercutting US carriers in price and quality, but without enduring the usual cultural backlash for, sometimes, overtly sexist and racist service scripts that had enabled such growth. Even the sacred cow of cabotage flights is not spared today, as Richard Branson’s daring launch of Virgin America, which Murphy likewise acknowledges, managed to establish a foothold in the US domestic market. These examples are not meant to critique the decline of US airline service standards, but that the labor struggles in the US, which Deregulating Desire so vividly captures, must be read in the context of these transnational economic and cultural pressures that US-based airlines increasingly face. A story that takes into account this wider backdrop arguably sets US flight attendants’ labor struggles within a more comprehensive geopolitics and geoeconomics that airlines operate in.
A final comment that I would like to raise about Deregulating Desire is that the book can inspire new appreciations of technology and its effects, not just on passengers’ life in the air, but also on transport workers’ jobs, employment terms and their earthbound lives. Though Murphy’s book does not actively emphasize the role of technology in molding the airline industry, several of its pages insinuate exactly such a relation between the two. Whether it pertains to the advent of the Boeing 707 jet that had allowed airlines "to launch new routes that spanned the globe" (6), or the 1990s revolution of jet-propelled regional aircraft that drove subsidiary line operations and the employment of low-paid crew (147), technology has always had a significant impact on crew contracts, including on work rules, duty rigs and line guarantees that flight attendants care about. This has yet to factor in the implications of newer ‘super-heavy’ and ‘ultra-long-haul’ technologies like the Airbus 380 and 350—which may not be prevalent in the US yet, but, for flight and cabin crew elsewhere, ensure fewer and shorter ground layovers, obligate longer flying hours and intensify workloads. As such, technology may be another avenue where one can consider the nonhuman interferences that shape and drive discourses about flight attending, family norms and the limits of domesticity.
In sum, Deregulating Desire offers a long overdue, in-depth look at flight attendants’ labor situated within their industry. Unlike other books, it assembles a rare conjunctural analysis of how social justice issues relating to fair wages and employment intersect with cultural discourses and contestations revolving around family, gender, sexual and racial identities. Such a sophisticated study is a feat that no one other than somebody deeply immersed in flight attendants’ circles, as Murphy is, can pull off. And for that, this book has exceeded expectations. In this context, perhaps all that I have suggested serve only to adorn modestly what is already a stellar and self-sufficient piece of work. Even without embellishment, the book should encourage future examinations of how flight attendants elsewhere, as well as other transport workers, are economically and culturally inserted into a myriad of fascinating aeromobile contentions.