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Sara Nelson is the face of the militant modern labor movement

The international president of the Association of Flight Attendants is devoted to worker dignity—and willing to strike to get it.

Sara Nelson is the face of the militant modern labor movement
Sara Nelson [Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call]

Last January, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, became a national face of the modern labor movement when she effectively ended the five-week government shutdown by threatening a strike by her members, which would have effectively shut down air travel in the country, and more broadly calling for a general strike of all workers. (The union thought unpaid and overworked TSA officers and air traffic controllers were creating a safety risk; the federal government reopened just a few hours later). As a 20-year union veteran, Nelson was well aware of unions’ power, but she says that in the past five years, she’s seen that knowledge spread throughout the population.

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“There’s an awareness by the younger generation that nobody took care of anything for them,” Nelson says. “They’re realizing this is not a ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ kind of moment. We’re all experiencing these huge issues that will only be resolved if we take action together.”

Nelson says the resurgent movement is focused on healthcare, retirement, fair scheduling, and the idea that “one job should be enough [to make a living].” It’s also much more diverse than previous generations, Nelson notes, which is also leading to important work around eradicating workplace sexism, racism, and other forms of bias.

Nelson points out that much of the most radical activism is coming from woman-dominated industries, including flight attendants, teachers, and hotel workers—to the surprise of their opponents. “When we started talking about action we were willing to take [during the shutdown], the immediate reaction I got from the government, the industry, the media, was ‘Well, what are the pilots willing to do?'” Nelson says. “It finally got through people’s heads: Planes don’t take off without pilots, but they also don’t take off if flight attendants aren’t there to staff them. Suddenly people were calling flight attendants powerful.”

She adds: “I think corporations and governments are very surprised about who’s stepping up, taking action together, taking a leadership role in our democracy.”

Nelson acknowledges that despite the labor movement’s new popularity among tech workers and media companies (Fast Company‘s editorial staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America-East), the 14 million union members that have been at this work for decades “aren’t chump change.”

While strikes have ebbed in recent years, Nelson expects today’s unions to succeed by using more “militant action,” instead of relying solely on union relationships to negotiate deals—like the teachers’ strikes that swept the country over the past few years. “We can get real results for people that way. They don’t have to wait for the next election,” she says. “The labor movement really is the check and balance in a capitalist system.”

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The airline industry is 80% organized, and Nelson hopes to raise that to 100%. She says she’s already heard rumors that Wall Street financiers aren’t happy about her union’s gusto—one week after the shutdown ended, Nelson says, there were proposals for laws that would make decertifying airline unions easier, a proposal she calls “laughable.” Airline workers and CEOs alike, she says, know their time is better spent “getting these deals, keeping things calm, trying to run the business.”

“You can write a law that says it’s illegal to strike, but there comes a day when that law means nothing,” she says. “When thousands of people put their hands in their pockets at the same time, there is no moving them.”

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