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Consider the Flight Attendant

Why the JetBlue rank-and-file are pushing to unionize

Jan Pitman/Getty Images

Holiday travel season is here, and most of us are gearing up for stress of one kind or another. It’s not just the stress of the dreaded political arguments at the dinner table—it’s the process of getting there in the first place that has become a source of anxiety.

Though snarled highways and crumbling train infrastructure are certainly problems, air travel has become its own special kind of hell. In between the horror stories that make headlines, like the tale of the United Airlines passenger who was physically dragged from his seat, there’s a whole lot of everyday unpleasantness: being nickel-and-dimed for baggage fees, invasive security procedures and long lines, shrinking seat sizes, and the joyous experience of being reminded how rich you aren’t while waiting for first-class passengers to board. By the time the average airline passenger gets to their seat, they’re hardly in a good mood.

Now imagine that it’s your job to take care of a plane full of stressed-out customers without letting your smile flag. It’s perhaps not so hard to understand why JetBlue flight attendants want a union.

The flight attendants have filed for a union election with the National Mediation Board, looking to become members of the Transport Workers Union. TWU president John Samuelsen told me that the “overwhelming majority of flight attendants,” led by an organizing committee of the rank-and-file, have signed union cards. “JetBlue flight attendants are really the face of the airline,” Samuelsen argued. “They deserve to have their economic security looked after and the company’s not doing that.”

The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her landmark 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, coined the term “emotional labor” while studying flight attendants. The flight attendant’s smile, she noted, “is groomed to reflect the company’s disposition—its confidence that its planes will not crash, its reassurance that departures and arrivals will be on time, its welcome and its invitation to return.” That smile is part of the job of being a flight attendant, and it requires work to produce—the work of suppressing her own true feelings to make passengers feel safe and cared for. “[J]obs that place a burden on feelings are common in all classes, which is one reason why work is defined as work and not play,” Hochschild wrote. “But emotional labor occurs only in jobs that require personal contact with the public, the production of a state of mind in others, and ... the monitoring of emotional labor by supervisors.”

A JetBlue flight attendant involved in the organizing drive, who asked that her name not be used out of fear of retaliation, told me, “I love my job. My job is awesome. I have a great time. We, basically, are a funny set of people who decided that caring for people is what we want to do, but we didn’t want to go into the medical field.” Enjoying the work is important when the job description includes the maintenance of an agreeable countenance. But there are many things, the flight attendant explained, that make that smile hard to produce.

There’s the fact that the delays that so stress customers are also stressful for flight attendants. Not only will they have to deal with angry passengers, but they don’t actually get paid for the time they spend sitting around the airport waiting to board. “The only time we get paid is when the flight door is closed or an extended ground delay with people on the plane for more than 45 minutes,” the attendant said. “When we show up to the gate and the plane isn’t there and we are delayed, we are just as mad as everybody else because we are not actually getting paid for that. That is industry standard.” In practice, this means that attendants can sometimes work unpaid for hours.

JetBlue flight attendants also make less than other carriers, and work long hours. “Other airlines have provisions in their contracts that stipulate if you work over X amount of hours, you get paid at double time,” the flight attendant said. But with JetBlue, she would work at the same rate until she reached the FAA’s mandated limits. And after 12 years at JetBlue, flight attendants reach the top of the pay scale, though they still can receive bonuses.

Then, of course, there are the passengers, who often take their frustrations out on the crew. “I just try to remove myself and just be like, ‘How would I feel?’” the attendant said. “My sister said, ‘You have to treat everyone like they were your own grandmother.’” Most passengers, she said, were fine, but there were occasionally those that “make you want to pull a Steven Slater and jump out of the plane,” a reference to the famous 2010 incident in which a JetBlue flight attendant pulled the emergency-evacuation chute lever and slid off the plane after an argument with a customer.

Those customers, too, act as supervisors of the flight attendants’ emotional labor, with the threat of a report to the company, often encouraged by the company itself, hanging over the attendants’ heads. “Any passenger can write in a complaint letter and the next thing you know you are on the chopping block. You have no grievance procedure because we are non-unionized,” the attendant said.

In the #MeToo moment, it’s worth talking about the emotional labor that is required to put up with other kinds of pressure. When the customer is always right and wields the threat of complaining to management, what is a service worker supposed to do about flirting that gets out of hand? Much ink has been spilled worrying about “due process” for those accused of sexual harassment, but for the non-union flight attendants there is no due process. Instead they can be dismissed for failing to smile, so they take the abuse. Samuelsen said TWU is exploring what can be done in a union contract to mitigate the flight attendants’—still an overwhelmingly female workforce—exposure to such behavior. “Right now there’s no due process, the company gets to make a unilateral decision about employment, and that’s a very dangerous thing,” he said.

In her book, Hochschild noted that emotional labor is deeply gendered. More women than men are in jobs that require emotional labor, and the emotional labor expected of women is more likely to put them in a deferential position. The hierarchy of customers on the plane, as Helaine Olen has written, already underscores the inequality in this country, and that hierarchy can encourage customers to take their feelings out on flight attendants in a variety of ways, even more so when you add the hierarchy of gender to the equation. Things may have changed from the “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” days, when requirements related to height, weight, age, and marital status were codified, but the imbalance of power remains.

The working conditions flight attendants face are not limited to the friendly skies. More and more workers, even at the time Hochschild first began her research, were doing emotional labor on the job, as the U.S. shifted toward an economy driven by service work. These days, the fastest-growing jobs in the country are frontline service work—nursing, home health care, retail, and food service. These are jobs where sexual harassment is rampant.

The result is a situation where workers are dealing with pressure from customers and from the boss. They are pushed to work harder for longer hours and less pay, and at the same time they have to act as if they love their work—or pay the price. “All companies, but especially paternalistic, non-union ones, try as a matter of policy to fuse a sense of personal satisfaction with a sense of company well-being and identity,” Hochschild noted, and it remains true in 2017.

JetBlue’s attempts to remain union-free might be foundering. In 2014, the company’s pilots joined the Air Line Pilots Association, citing their low-quality health insurance, among other complaints. And after the flight attendants began their organizing drive, TWU began rank-and-file committees with the company’s passenger service agents and mechanics. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is organizing fleet workers at JetBlue as well.

This is happening as the Trump administration, counter to its populist pretenses on the campaign trail, has moved to make it harder for various workers to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board, now with a Trump-appointed majority, is moving to roll back an Obama-era rule that simplified the union election process, which employers often try to drag out for months while they press employees to turn against the union. The NLRB also overturned two precedents last week that had been seen as improving workers’ chances at winning union elections.

A JetBlue spokesperson emailed a statement saying, “We are aware that TWU has filed for an election to represent JetBlue’s inflight crewmembers. JetBlue has a long track record of caring for our crewmembers and was named a top 20 best employer in America by Forbes magazine in 2017. We respect our crewmembers’ right to consider a third-party proposal, and look forward to a conversation about how our direct relationship allows us to be the most responsive to the needs of our crewmembers.”

However, JetBlue’s opposition to the union drive includes referring to the union as “an opportunistic and negative third party” in communications to the flight attendants. Samuelsen says this doesn’t worry him. “This organizing drive was organized by rank-and-file JetBlue flight attendants who decided it was time to take their own economic security and put it into their own hands rather than in the hands of a JetBlue boss,” he said.

The flight attendant I spoke with didn’t want to be at war with her employer, but she was firm about why she wanted the union. “I helped build this company. I would like to continue to help build this. I just don’t want it to be on flight attendants’ backs. I want us to have a seat at the table.”