Our fascinating history
Published 6/22/2009 10:56:00 AM - ISR
On June 15th, NWA #96 held their monthly union meeting in Seattle, along with Delta flight attendants. The guest speaker was former NWA union activist, Mary Pat Laffey Inman. She told her story, giving particular praise to the union attorneys, Gil Feldman, (at that time the union was a predecessor union of AFA) and trial lawyer, Michael Gottesman.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included a prohibition against sex discrimination, along with discrimination for race, etc. Southern congressmen had inserted the word sex to muddy the waters in their attempt to defeat the entire bill. It turned out to be a very fortunate accident for women, and the union pounced on this opportunity to right some egregious wrongs in our career.
Northwest had male pursers at that time. Mary Pat described how things were:
They could be married,
They made more money,
They had single rooms,
They had a lighter work load.
Management reimbursed uniform cleaning for males but not females.
Men could wear glasses, females could not.
Men had no weight standards, women did.
The regulations actually stated: “If a male steward is on board he will always be in charge” Court records quote NWA stating“ (NWA)prefers males and intends to have them." ..”
In 1968 Northwest hired five male stewards and automatically placed them in purser roles. Many stewardesses were worried about bidding for the position for fear of retaliation from the males. Mary Pat took the initiative and was granted a purser position but the company put her at the bottom of the list; she had to be on reserve, flying into Vietnam during the Tet offensive. She was denied the purser salary.
In 1969 during new negotiations, NWA still refused to agree to female purser equality. The union filed a class action lawsuit under the equal pay act as well as the civil rights act.
The action went to trial in 1972, the trial lasted 5 weeks and in Nov 1973 the court found NWA to be in violation in every respect. They were ordered to raise salaries retroactive 2 years (all the law would allow) and pay the value of the difference between double and single rooms. The court also eliminated the requirement that FAs quit at the age of 32 and that they could not marry and the weight requirement.
NWA appealed. It took 12 years, until in 1984 the court of appeals in a 63 page ruling reaffirmed the lower court decision. The award was $52 million to be paid out to 3,352 FAs.
NWA appealed again, this time to the supreme court but they “denied cert”. Now the sum was $59 million plus attorney fees, the largest equal pay award ever.
The biggest payout was $56,000, with the average to each flight attendant $30,000 to $35,000.
Mary Pat told us she later asked the NWA lawyers why they continued to appeal and took such a hard core stand and they told her they hoped the courts would become more conservative and eventually overturn.
United and other carriers had similar cases pending and all settled based on the Laffey vs Northwest Orient case.
One FA told Mary Pat, “every time I walk around my hotel room naked, I thank you”.
Even though I was flying during these years, benefited from the changes we fought for, and have seen the video Turbulent Romance many times, I found myself thrilled by the amazing story in which Mary Pat – and the union - played a starring role.
Suzanne S Kirkpatrick, ISR