Monday, September 10, 2012

United Airlines Is for Lovers

         The significant shift in cohabitation in the 1980s was the decline in the criminalization of cohabitation and the rise of cohabitation as an “incomplete institution,” a form of relationship recognized in law and in benefits provided by private and public employers. In Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2012) I told the story of the origins and development of domestic partner benefits. Ryan Patrick Murphy, “United Airlines is For Lovers” Flight Attendant Activism and the Family Values Economy in the 1990s” Radical History Review 111 (Winter, 2012): 100-112, picks up the story at the end of the 1990s.  He frames the fight for domestic partner benefits in San Francisco in terms of a coalition of flight attendant labor activists allied with AIDS activists and gay rights organizations. 

            In 1997 United Airlines went to court to avoid having to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees in San Francisco and elsewhere. They argued that San Francisco’s domestic partner ordinance violated the interstate commerce clause because it allowed a municipality to govern commerce outside of the state of California. They further claimed that the law violated the airline regulation act because it forced airlines to raise prices in order to pay for rising mandated labor costs. After two years of litigation, United Airlines eventually withdrew its suit, apparently when the company replaced its old CEO. But when they capitulated, they created an unusual two-tier benefit that promoted marriage and compensated same-sex couples for the denial of being able to marry. Thus, United’s same-sex couples received health and pension coverage; unmarried domestic partners got the right to bereavement leave.

        Murphy thinks an important theme in U.S. history in the 1990s is corporate cost cutting, labor activism, gay activism, and the recognition of nontraditional families. He argues that discourse about “family values” is not simply a backlash against the sexual revolution but a response to the fact that with fewer social supports, the working class has had to rely much more on family and kin for social support. His particular call to action is that “we must move nontraditional families from the margins of political practice” to “the center of demands for a fair economy.”