The Story Of The Founding Members Of The Association Of Flight Attendants

Today, many of us take for granted the benefits, rights and privileges we have as cabin crew/flight attendants. 

Years ago once you reached the age of 30 you were told you were too old to fly. Those who wanted to marry or have children had to retire immediately. Put on a few extra pounds and didn’t pass that infamous girdle check? Grounded.

There were no workers unions to fight for our rights, for better pay and working conditions. No voice for our crew. 

But a small group of those early flight attendants changed all that. 

Ada Brown, Frances Hall, Sally Thornetz, Edith Lauterbach and Sally Watt organised the first flight attendant union in the USA to fight for equal rights in 1945 and this is their story. 

Following The Second World War airlines began to expand their passenger services. More emphasis was now placed on passenger comfort, altering the responsibilities of crew. To the public, the role was now becoming more feminine and thus more female flight attendants or ‘air hostesses’ were hired.

During the war the profession had been firmly established, but now these ‘Sky-Girls’ as they were known, grew tired of being treated like minors, closely supervised and scrutinised and began to collectively desire improvements in pay, status and working conditions. 

Ada Brown joined United Airlines in 1940 and quickly climbed the ranks to the role of Chief Stewardess. During her tenure, she and her colleagues began to question the low-earnings that indeed had not increased and in some instances even decreased, from the ‘original eight’ stewardesses in 1930. General working conditions and regulations were also not keeping pace with the changing airline industry. 

Brown was unimpressed and decided to establish some sort of ‘movement’ to organise her fellow Flight Attendants in to one collective voice. 

She stepped down as Chief Stewardess and in 1944, frustrated at the fact that she was unable to negotiate better wages and greater job protection whilst in this role and began to set up a union under the provision of the ‘Railway Labor Act’ of 1926.

Brown focused on organising the San Francisco region, while her colleagues Sally Thometz and Frances Hall assumed the responsibility for Denver and Chicago bases respectively. 

But her task was a formidable one. Most women approved of the goals that Brown and the others suggested, but many at that time were scared to actually have a voice and the idea of an actual ‘union’ was terrifying to some. 

At that time unions, mainly serving the blue-collared workers, were outside the experience of many FA’s, whose upbringing was hostile to the overtones of radical activism from the 20’s and 30’s which unions still had.

Edith Lauterbach later said that these ‘stewardesses’ more often “Came from families where Daddy just didn’t want his daughter belonging to a union.” Crew wanted to have their jobs viewed as a professional career and many felt that calling any association of Flight Attendant’s a ‘union’ downgraded their status and job prestige. For this reason Lauterbach and her counterparts always referred publicly to the proposed organisation as an ‘Association.’

Lauterbach’s career had also started at United Airlines in 1944. “I had planned to fly one year and quit,” Lauterbach told the Knight-Ridder News Service in 1986, when she had finally retired after 42 years. “It was a male-dominated industry and they weren’t anxious to have women hang around.”

Edith Lauterbach

“After we flew for a while, we realised it wasn’t as glamorous as we thought,” Lauterbach said in a 1995 release, marking the union’s 50th anniversary.

“We had to crawl on our hands and knees during rough weather and deliver meals in the turbulence, clean up after the passengers when they got sick…. Those little planes were all over the sky in bad weather,” she continued.

On one flight in the 1940s, she fielded marriage proposals from each of 21 sailors returning home after World War II. “We were the glamour people, I suppose, with elegant uniforms,” Lauterbach told the Times of London in 1995 and pointed out that she had graciously said ‘no’ 21 times.

United Airlines were very responsive to the new union. William Patterson, then President of the airline, believed that unions served important functions in industry and society. He also recognised that since his crew held, in effect, short term positions, it would be easier to work with a collective voice, rather than trying to bargain with each individual.

Within two months 75 per-cent of United’s crew had signed ‘Authorisation-to-act’ cards and elections were held. Ada Brown became president; Frances Hall, vice president; Sally Watt, secretary; Edith Lauterbach, treasurer and Sally Thometz, Confree. 

A constitution and bylaws were written, which officially established the group as the Air Line Stewards Association (ALSA) on August 22, 1945. 

The group was initially entirely within United but its goal was to eventually represent crew across all airlines. Indeed, today the organisation, now known as ‘Association of Flight Attendants’ is part of the Communications Workers of America and represents almost 60,000 cabin-service personnel. 

ALSA’s first success came on April 25, 1946 when Brown, Thometz and Hall signed the first contractual agreement with United serving to legitimise the profession, increase wages and improve working conditions. It also established a grievance procedure and legal protection from harassment and unfair labour practices. They also forced the airline to recognise the Association as a Union – the first formal recognition of any Flight Attendant organisation. 

But one rule they couldn’t change immediately was the ’No marriage’ policy which put an end to Ada Brown’s career in 1947.

By 1950 their collective efforts had raised the average salary to $170 a month to start, reaching $350 a month depending on seniority, hours and the types of aircraft flown. They had also introduced bidding systems that determined a stewardesses schedule, giving those with the most seniority first choice of schedule allowing considerable flexibility. 

The union also fought for improvements in safety. In 1952 Edith Lauterbach assisted in the creation of Federal regulations for Flight Attendant safety and evacuations along with fellow ‘Angel Of The Sky’ Iris Peterson. Her assistance helped establish an evacuation process that serves as a basis today. 

Her devotion to collective bargaining rights also resulted in improving the lives of Flight Attendants through Association of Flight Attendants negotiated contracts. In addition to increasing Flight Attendant compensation, Edith was instrumental in getting rid of the mandatory 32-year-old retirement age and became the first Flight Attendant to celebrate 40 years at an airline.

Lauterbach passed away in February 2013 aged 91. She was The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) last remaining founding member.

Lauterbach flanked by two of her colleagues.

“Today, the Flight Attendant community lost our hero, our guiding light – Edith Lauterbach. As our heavy hearts remember our friend and trailblazing founder, we reflect on Edith’s contributions to our profession and our union each and everyday. The evolution of the flight attendant profession and the legacy of Edith Lauterbach go hand in hand,” the union said in a statement.

“Her fearlessness and devotion to advancing rights at work … paved the way for thousands of flight attendants. And for nearly seven decades, her role and involvement in our union has been invaluable to hundreds of Flight Attendant leaders and an inspiration to countless activists. Edith’s legacy to our profession still touches each and every Flight Attendant across the country.”

Sam Risoli, United’s then Senior Vice President of Inflight Services said, “On behalf of the entire United family, we are deeply saddened by the loss of our former co-worker Edith Lauterbach, Edith was a pioneer at United and for the entire flight attendant industry. Edith leaves us with a lasting legacy that we are proud to carry on.”

And a pioneer she was, along with her colleagues Ada Brown, Frances Hall, Sally Thornetz and Sally Watt, who all left a lasting legacy to our industry. 

© by Dan Air.

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