Northwest Airlines and the need for a new queer labor politics

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Weather forecasters tell us that Minnesota will bring us yet another hot and humid weekend for Pride 2006—and the festival on June 24–25 at Loring Park. Deep-fried candy bars and pronto pups coupled with the unrelenting sun could convince many a Pridegoer to seek shelter under one of the massive tents of Pride’s many corporate sponsors. The plush white couches of the Target booth, or the cool breeze, shade and free balloons at the Wells Fargo tent offer a welcome reprieve from the heat. Pride 2006 will continue the intensifying trend of the last decade, where every minute of the Pride experience, from the seeking of shade to the floats in the parade (set for Sun., June 25, starting at 11 a.m. down Hennepin Avenue) to the cups in the beer garden to the plastic bags for collecting free goodies, are branded by Fortune 500 corporations.

Of course more than a few have noted the irony of the corporate stamp of approval on a gathering that once demanded a space for dissident sexualities in Minneapolis. Critiques of the corporatization of pride seem virtually played out, with groups from ACT UP to Gay Shame making them a centerpiece of activism for more than two decades. Yet, rather than rehashing old debates, it is useful to examine a particularly troubling example from our local community to identify the shortcomings of Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Director Elizabeth Birch’s triumphal claim that “corporate America has been the unlikely hero in the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.”

HRC, the GLBT lobbying organization, has compiled a massive database of 396 Fortune 500 companies, ranking them on a scale of 1 to 100 for their gay friendliness. Important criteria include a corporation’s offering of equal benefits for gay and straight couples, corporate anti-discrimination policies covering GLBT employees, mandatory diversity training for managers, and refraining from the use of corporate lobbying resources for anti-gay causes.

Northwest Airlines, not only one of the top five employers in Minnesota but also a huge employer of GLBT people, did very well on the HRC’s test, receiving an 86, and was ranked among notably gay-friendly corporations such as Disney and Target.

Yet it only takes an occasional perusal of the local and national press to realize that Northwest Airlines is at war with its employees. Last August, mechanics and airplane cleaners went on strike to protest wage cuts of nearly 50 percent. All were immediately fired.

Very low income, non-union workers now perform cleaning with no rights on the job, and airplanes are fixed in low-cost locations such as El Salvador and Taiwan.

The most recent chapter in the dispute involves Northwest’s flight attendants. The airline’s management has petitioned to dissolve the labor contract of all flight attendants. Flight attendant pay and benefits have already been dramatically lowered, with starting workers making $15,500 per year, and a maximum of roughly $33,000 after 15 years. This isn’t low enough for Northwest. Now, the company wants the right to initiate mass layoffs and to subcontract international flights to low-wage flight attendants based in Thailand, the Philippines and India. Remaining flight attendants would be subjected to further cuts in pay and the elimination of company paid pensions and affordable health insurance.

This is a crisis for GLBT workers. The airline industry has long been critical to the establishment of rights on the job for queers. Airline work, especially pilot and flight attendant positions, keeps workers moving across the globe, and has continually allowed workers to escape the rigidity of social norms around gender and sexuality. Who a person sleeps with, or how they present their gender, on their layover in New York or London or San Francisco, can be kept separate from their home lives. Airline workers’ global lifestyles have always resisted societal pressure to settle down, marry and raise a family, and fewer than 50 percent of Northwest flight attendants are married today.

Flight attendant activism has translated these diverse sexualities into concrete workplace gains. Lawsuits by female flight attendants in the 1970s barred airlines from forcing women to resign on their 30th birthday, allowing airline salaries, rather than rich husbands, to provide life-long financial sustenance. Flight attendant communities were devastated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, with crews coping with long hours of work amid the sadness of losing so many of their members to the early phases of the pandemic. Yet via their unions, flight attendants forced airlines to allow people with AIDS to remain on the job, earn an income, and keep their health insurance. These are victories that remain important to workplace privacy today. Activism by flight attendants and other GLBT airline workers was central to bringing non-discrimination policies to airlines in the 1990s, righting the wrong of gay witch hunts in the 1950s and ’60s that cost so many pilots their jobs, and blocking airlines from singling out GLBT workers for dismissal.

Finally, a direct action campaign by United Airlines flight attendants and their supporters in San Francisco, which included guerilla theater and civil disobedience, brought equal employment benefits to all airline workers regardless of sexuality in 1999.

Flight attendants will certainly draw on this genealogy of GLBT and union activism in their current battle with Northwest Airlines. Yet as Pride is celebrated, their struggle reminds us of the shortcomings of a narrowly defined movement for gay and lesbian equality counting on corporate benevolence. Of course, it is true and commendable that Northwest Airlines does not follow the example of Domino’s Pizza, funding right-wing extremist causes.

And the HRC should commend Northwest for its domestic partner program. But to assign 86 out of 100 for a company that is directly attacking unionized flight attendants, some of the most veteran activists for the rights of queers and for all workers, is appalling. After all, what good are domestic partner benefits when, if Northwest gets its way, medical benefits will be unaffordable, company-paid pensions will be terminated, and half of the work force will be eliminated all together? Ask striking queer mechanics that got axed last fall how management sensitivity trainings are working for them.

The situation facing the thousands of Northwest flight attendants in Minneapolis illustrates the need to re-enrich queer politics with the struggle for workplace rights. Target can shade us at the Pride festival if it wants, just like Subaru can advertise its station wagons, and every developer in town can push condos in Lavender. But pretty balloons, fabulous floats and high scores on the HRC’s test will not make up for a dignified workplace with health insurance and a living wage.

Ryan Murphy was a San Francisco-based flight attendant for United Airlines and an activist in his union, the Association of Flight Attendants. He is currently a doctoral student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, focusing on the workplace struggles in the airline industry, especially those around issues of gender and sexuality.

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