Well-groomed and smiling, the flight attendant of the 1950s and early 1960s played a traditional woman’s role. Hers was one of the glamour careers for women, usually terminated by marriage after two or three years…. Pilots kept a close watch on their “girls” – expecting deference and admiration both on the plane and off….
As years of flying rose, the glamour wore thin for many flight attendants, who began to voice dissatisfaction with their role the airlines assigned them (“We move our tail for you”), with their wages and working conditions, and with their union contracts. They also began to ask for a greater role in union activities and for an equal voice in key decisions affecting them.
– Marjorie B. Rachlin, “Training Rank and File Leaders: A Case Study,” Labor Education for Women Workers (1981)
When Marjorie Rachlin died in late August at the age of 99, we lost a friend and neighbor, and a nature lover who enjoyed sharing her curiosity about the natural world with everyone around her. At least, that’s how many of us knew her. Others knew Rachlin as a longtime labor rights activist.
This is the story of Rachlin’s work with the Association of Flight Attendants union, one of her career highlights.
by Katherine Saltzman
By the early 1970s, the Association of Flight Attendants was in a period of transition. For years, the union was a branch of the airline pilots’ union, but its leaders and members, most of them women, had never received formal training to participate in collective bargaining, and were limited in negotiating power. The mostly male pilots, on the other hand, determined bargaining rules, appointed the union leadership and regulated other important facets of union activity.
The flight attendants were increasingly fed up with airline demands, including requirements that they remain single and childless, submit to monthly weigh-ins, and stop working at age 32. And the male union leadership did not seem to understand their issues. So in 1973, the flight attendants decided to break from the pilot’s union and establish themselves as an independent organization.
They would need training for their new leadership and advocacy roles. The following year, AFA leaders went to the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, part of the now-closed National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland.
That’s where they met Marjorie Rachlin.
Susan Bianchi, former president of the AFA, and Rachlin’s longtime colleague and friend, said Rachlin sought to work with the flight attendants because of their professionalism, activism and their importance to the women’s labor movement.
“She was an original feminist. And she believed in, the power and the prestige of women just as equal members of society,” Bianchi told Forest Hills Connection. “And I think she gravitated toward women leaders, of which there were very few in the labor movement.”
“It was important for her to help bring women leaders more and more into a male-dominated union movement,” Bianchi said.
Rachlin’s training on negotiation would prove critical during the tumultuous period of airline deregulation. In the late 1970s, deregulation contributed to an explosion of young and small airlines. Longtime legacy carriers, such as United and US Air, were joined by dozens of smaller airlines with smaller workforces, different employee protocols, reduced wages and varying approaches to recognizing union activity.
In response to the chaotic changes in the industry, the AFA created field service representatives by region. This would help ensure that flight attendants across the country had access to union leadership.
During this transition, Rachlin prepared flight attendants to take on new union leadership roles and also developed guidance on expectations and reporting processes for field service representatives.
“Marge really was like ‘Where do we go, where we do start, what’s their role, how are they going to report to us, what are expectations of them,’” said Judy Stack, who served as a grievance chair in San Francisco and later became assistant to the AFA president under Bianchi.
Both Bianchi and Stack said the training Rachlin developed also fostered a sense of solidarity and empowerment among the largely female workforce.
“Her skill was in guiding you to be better at what you were doing,” Bianchi said. “Her guidance was about making sure there was not just training or education from the front of the room. They learn from each other as adults.”
Feminism and Footwear
Airlines sought to control every aspect of the flight attendants’ appearance, from head to toe.
“In the olden days, when I started and Susan started, you wore the shoes that [the airline] gave you,” Stack said. But the footwear provided by the carriers was often uncomfortable. More than that – “We’re all dying in these shoes,” she said. The flight attendants faced resistance to changes from the male-dominated industry, but eventually got new contract terms allowing them to choose their own shoes.
Efforts to negotiate changes to the uniform and uncomfortable footwear rubbed off on Marge too.
Once allowed to make their own footwear decisions, many of the flight attendants purchased Ferragamos, which Stack said were expensive but not unattainable at the time.
Stack also said Rachlin was often complaining about her own uncomfortable shoes and trouble with her feet. But Rachlin was also “incredibly thrifty,” and unlikely to invest in a pair of expensive shoes. Stack suggested Ferragamos to Rachlin anyway.
“I finally said ‘Marge, go buy yourself a pair of Ferragamos.’ And she goes, ‘Well, how much are they?’ And I said you can get a beautiful pair for like $180 or $200,’” Stack recounted.
“Now in the 1980s that was a lot of money. Anyway, the next time she comes to the office. She’s got on a pair of Ferragamos. And we laughed.”
Marge the mentor
Rachlin was 25 years older than Bianchi, and in her typically straightforward way, decided that Bianchi was young and inexperienced in feminist advocacy. Bianchi said Rachlin selected her to be “one of her trainees in the world of feminist action, feminist purpose.”
Stack said Marjorie Rachlin empowered a generation of female leadership.
“We learned so much from her, so much. And I mean, she really, in a lot of respects, gave us a power that was there,” Stack said. “We all had it because we were all pretty strong women, but we learned how to use it well.”