The airline flight attendants fought and won some of the earliest and most important battles of the modern feminist movement. They successfully litigated against regulations that discriminated against them on the basis of age, marital status and pregnancy, and established precedents that benefited women in many other occupations. Now, the flight attendants are taking on the airlines on the same economic issues that are dominating industrial labor negotiations.

Employes throughout the airline industry have taken pay cuts, been furloughed and forced to accept two-tiered wage systems as airlines have cut costs and corners since deregulation began in 1978. Airlines and unions have been beset by strikes, the imposition of work rules, lockouts and a general pattern of labor unrest that has no business existing in an industry so directly involved in public safety.

A mark of the severity of union unrest in the industry came in the early stories about the crash of Northwest Flight 255 in Detroit, which raised the possibility of sabotage as a cause for the accident. The airline has been plagued by labor problems since it merged with Republic in October. There have been reports of vandalism, and the FBI, in January, investigated reports of tampering with Northwest planes in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The airline flight attendants have taken some of the toughest blows of any of the unions. Carl Icahn was able to cut labor costs at TWA in the third quarter of 1986 by 28.1 percent -- but he did so at horrendous cost to the flight attendants. He got concessions from the pilots and the mechanics earlier in the year, but when the flight attendants put up picket lines, he hired 2,000 people to replace them. The new employes had been trained in safety procedures but not in other aspects of the job, and the union has taken Icahn to court. In 1985, United went after the seniority rights of flight attendants who had honored the pilots' picket lines. At Eastern, in 1986, the flight attendants accepted 20 percent wage cuts and an increase in their workweek.

These are merely a few examples of brutal labor policies imposed on flight attendants, 83 percent of whom are women. One of the reasons the airlines have been able to get away with this is that the flight attendants have been represented by a number of unions, depending on the airline. That, however, appears to be changing.

The Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO, with 23,000 members, and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, with 12,000 members, have merged into the Association of Flight Attendants International, AFL-CIO, making it the largest union of attendants. One of the merger goals is eventually to bring all flight attendants into the union, which has set its sights on getting rid of the two-tiered pay scales. The immediate goal is to strengthen the attendants' hand in their fight with American Airlines.

Cindy Yeast, director of public relations for the Association of Flight Attendants, said that in that union a person can start as low as $787.50 a month at a two-tier airline, while someone else can start at $1,400 a month. Most airlines, she said, have implemented two-tier pay scales, under which newly hired people are paid less than people hired before the two scales went into effect. The new union's goal is to have all 79,000 flight attendants in one union, which would give it more clout to win back concessions made when the airlines were losing money.

"Because we're predominantly female, there seems to be the attitude that maybe we don't need to be taken as seriously among the airlines," Yeast says. "They don't see the fact that many are heads of households, or they are the main income in the family and have several children. We have flight attendants in their sixties. People want this to be a profession. They {the airlines} still have this image of wanting young, cute females on the aircraft. They keep forgetting we are safety professionals. They keep forgetting that airlines do crash and many crashes are survivable and that's why we are there."

The union merger, says Yeast, will help break down barriers. "You work for Braniff, I work for American, therefore we should be competitors," she says. "But it doesn't do the workers any good to not speak just because their companies are competing. The more we refrain from talking and sharing with each other, the more the companies can split us apart."

In unity there is strength, and it is a sign of the growing sophistication, and perhaps even militancy of American laboring women that two predominantly female unions are restructuring to achieve this.