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The ascent of Sara Nelson, workers’ great hope

The Association of Flight Attendants president has become America’s most prominent labor leader. Now she’s poised to help the entire worker movement take off.

The ascent of Sara Nelson, workers’ great hope
[Photo: Jared Soares ; Makeup: Carla Presley at The Artist Agency]
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Sara Nelson was supposed to be accepting a lifetime achievement award from the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions. After a brief video played of her speaking out against sexism and harassment in the airline industry, Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, took the stage on that January 2019 day and didn’t mention the issue once. Instead, Nelson delivered a stem-winder about the ongoing government shutdown that had begun on December 22. A budgetary impasse had been forcing 800,000 federal workers to report for duty without pay for 30 days. As agents from the Transportation Security Administration gradually stopped showing up for work, Nelson’s voice had grown louder in calling for the end of the stalemate, speaking on behalf of an alliance she’d forged of pilots, baggage handlers, and other airline workers whose safety was now at risk. She extolled the power of workers to push politicians to find a solution.

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Then she uttered the seven words that have defined her since: “End this shutdown with a general strike.”

The United States had not experienced anything remotely resembling a general strike—where work stoppages across key sectors can shut down the economy of a city or country—since the months after World War II. Everyone from coal miners and autoworkers to meatpackers and train operators—4 million people in all—ceased working in protest of diminished wages and lack of control over production. Today, the concept of a “general strike,” if known at all in the U.S., exists mostly in myth, a faded tale from a bygone era of labor might.

Here was Nelson making the myth real. It wasn’t simply that she had said the words; she showed workers how they could manifest the threat through action. As headlines blared her comments, air traffic controllers at two East Coast facilities called in sick in numbers large enough to disrupt flights out of LaGuardia airport. (A spokesperson for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says “Air traffic controllers are prohibited, by law, from engaging in any strike or work slowdown . . . . They would never engage in a job action. Ever.”) Once the prospect of a significant interruption of air travel became very real, Congress and President Trump acted quickly: The shutdown ended a few days later. “[Nelson] putting up the concept of strikes that disrupt production and cause a significant crisis for the political elite,” says Jane McAlevey, the influential labor organizer and author, “is incredibly important.”

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When I ask Nelson about her speech, two years later, she says, “[We have to] talk about what we can actually do together, and have people feel connected by the idea that there are common demands we have as working people. It might not take a general strike to get those things done. But talking about it helps define what our demands are, and the urgency of those demands, and actually gets people to believe they’re worth more.”

The moment catapulted Nelson to national prominence, and her ascendancy could not come at a more auspicious, or daunting, time. The vibrancy of this moment has yet to show up in Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which can appear bleak: Union membership in the corporate world is just 6% of the workforce, and there were just eight strikes of more than 1,000 workers in 2020 (in 1950, there were 424). Silicon Valley, the avatar for economic growth and innovation, believes its form of enlightened capitalism puts it beyond unions. But lately, most of its effort has been put into tech platforms reliant on exploiting low-wage workers, from ride-hailing and food-delivery drivers to fulfillment center laborers to coders signing “income-sharing agreements” that some argue are a form of indentured servitude.

The decades-long imbalance between management and labor may be at a tipping point. Call it the new worker moment, with fresh organizing efforts in tech and media, radicalized teachers, overworked nurses, and underpaid fast-food workers, and novel efforts to bring justice to workers via everything from antitrust laws to shareholder activism. People organizing today are as likely to be women and people of color working as home health aides and AI scientists as they are to be stereotypical soot- and grease-covered men in hard hats. They’re warehouse workers willing to take on one of the world’s most valuable and fearsome companies, run by the richest man on the planet, because they don’t want to be brutalized by algorithms that treat them like robots. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 65% of Americans support labor unions, a two-decade high. Nelson’s continued exhortations to all workers—unionized or not—to understand the power they have in their workplace has positioned her to coalesce these folks into a movement that can fight to reverse labor’s downward trends.

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“People’s expectations and aspirations are ready to go,” says Harvey J. Kaye, a labor historian who became friendly with Nelson after the general strike speech. “Sara Nelson might well be the person to articulate them.”

Nelson’s bluntness and take-no-prisoners rhetoric have earned her the respect of both workers and the corporate leaders she’s challenging. “People want to be a part of something that gets results,” she tells me. “Management either has to take a beating or [anticipate] the beating that they’re going to get if they don’t deal with us.”

To co-opt the parlance of tech bros, Nelson is a builder.

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Nelson’s path to union president began with a missing paycheck. After graduating from Principia College, in 1995, she planned to become a teacher. But one day, while facing down her student loans and a first-year teacher’s salary, she got a call from a former roommate who had become a flight attendant. “She called from Miami Beach, to kind of razz me,” Nelson says. “And then she got a little more serious: ‘No, but seriously, listen, this is a really good job. And I just need to tell you about the pay.’ ” After hearing about the perks—including a pension—Nelson drove from St. Louis to Chicago the next day and signed up with United.

She worked out of Boston and immediately had an issue: Her paychecks weren’t arriving. Reluctant to cause a scene, she meekly alerted HR and hoped the company would fix the issue, taking extra flights so she could eat airplane food (“I might have met a few dates on the plane, so I had a couple of steak and lobster nights,” she says, slyly). At her lowest, with only 25 cents left to her name, she couldn’t tip the van driver who took her home from the airport. When her paycheck still didn’t come, she visited the hub office and got more runaround.

“This was the first time in my life that I felt like I was just a number,” Nelson says. “The tears started to roll. And I feel this tap on the shoulder and I turn around, and someone was standing there who I’d never met before, but she looks just like me. We’re in the same uniform. And she asked me how to spell my name.” The woman wrote Nelson a check for $800. “She said, ‘Why don’t you go take care of yourself? And number two, you call our union.’ And I did. I had my paycheck the very next day.”

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Twenty-five years later, Nelson still gets choked up telling the story. “I learned everything I needed to know about our union in that moment,” she says. “Because in our union, we take care of each other and we’re never alone.”

Would you give a new coworker $800? If you can’t imagine doing it, Nelson wants you to know that’s exactly what your boss wants you to think. Creating real bonds between people who work together every day is the only thing that will allow them to be truly empowered in the workplace. “That’s what solidarity is,” she says, “standing up for each other.” However different you feel you are from the person next to you at the warehouse or the auto plant or the corporate office, you are equally connected by your work. “You’ve got way more in common than anything that divides you,” she says.

A rousing presence at union picket lines, senior flight attendants began calling her the Mouth. “It’s Boston, so you’ve got to have a nickname,” she tells me—and when an AFA contract that Nelson didn’t think offered enough came up for approval a year later, she persuaded her coworkers to vote against it. Though the contract was approved nationally, the Boston-based attendants overwhelmingly voted no, an experience that taught Nelson to speak up when she wanted more and to stand up to leadership, in her own union and outside of it. “You have to be willing to be confrontational,” she says. “You have to put it in stark terms for people, and help them understand something that they hadn’t really thought about before. Learning about how to be effective in the union is what made me militant.”

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Militant is the word perhaps most often used to describe Nelson’s style; her first chance to demonstrate it came after 9/11, as several airlines faced bankruptcy, most notably US Airways and her employer, United. (Nelson had the day off on September 11; the plane that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center was on one of her usual routes and she knew the crew well.) As the airline faced economic fallout, thousands of flight attendants were furloughed, hubs were closed, and pensions and healthcare benefits were threatened with cuts. “It was a very up-close-and-personal education about the forces that try to extract all the value from labor,” she says.

Nelson, then the national communications chairperson for the AFA at United, says that when she heard United planned to furlough an additional 2,500 flight attendants as part of cost cutting, she realized that any accommodations the union made during these negotiations would be nearly impossible to get back. “We fought them on everything,” she says, getting choked up again. The union picketed, protested, and threatened strikes, which would have involved an AFA strategy developed in the mid-’90s called Create Havoc Around Our System (CHAOS) that used sudden actions at random airports to force airlines to constantly move crews of replacement workers from airport to airport. While the union was still forced to make major concessions in the bankruptcy, its relentlessness pushed United to limit cuts to flight attendant retirement plans. “You have to fight,” says Nelson. “You can’t think that not fighting is giving you any power. Using power builds power.”

Erik Loomis, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, says Nelson’s strength “gives voice and power to the kind of tactics that once helped build the labor movement, but have not been seen as respectable for a very, very long time. That’s threatening to a lot of entrenched union leaders who grew up not really buying that, who came to power without engaging in those sorts of tactics.” George Meany, who led the AFL-CIO from its creation in 1955 until 1979, is the avatar of this conflict-averse policy Nelson is rebelling against. She is eager to talk about strikes; Meany famously said he had never been on a picket line during his time as a leader of a plumbers union. In the face of continued erosion of labor protections by Congress and the courts, prioritizing compromise and carrying out rearguard actions has led to decades of political losses and declining union memberships, along with a damaging perception among the general public that unions exist only as a front for corrupt officials or to enforce rules that thwart speed and innovation.

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Nelson, who became president of the Association of Flight Attendants in 2014, isn’t interested in repeating the mistakes of the past. As a flight attendant, she comes from a long line of fighters: Since AFA’s inception, in 1945, it has taken on sexual harassment, mandatory weigh-ins, objectification in airline advertising, smoking on planes, and more. “I stand on the shoulders of the people who created this path for me,” she says. “It’s my job now to take it a step further.”

Part of Nelson’s skill set is her ability to make the political personal, as she did when she used the emerging national sympathy for TSA agents—typically a reviled group—to end the shutdown standoff. Her efforts may now involve more politicking than planes—she works full time for the union, doing the bureaucratic tasks of running a 50,000-person organization—but she still maintains her certifications so she can work an occasional shift (not unlike corporate leaders who do frontline shifts to get closer to the customer experience). “You have to have somebody’s face in mind when you go fight like hell for them,” Nelson says. “You’re not just fighting for policies, you’re fighting for people.”

As the pandemic raged on last spring and pressure mounted for Congress to bail out the economy, airlines, whose business had ground to a halt, would clearly need a lot of help. Airline CEOs haggled with Congress over whether a package should include grants from the government to keep payroll flowing and avoid furloughs, or low-interest loans, which would prevent bankruptcy but would likely result in severe staffing shortages.

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But Nelson had her own plan—developed with some ex-staffers of the Elizabeth Warren campaign—and it showcased her understanding of power. “I wanted to make sure that we were creating a package that would keep these airlines in check,” she says. The conditions Nelson demanded included freezes on both staffing reductions and stock buybacks, limits on executive pay, and a commitment for neutrality in future union elections (at least partially to help an ongoing AFA campaign to unionize the flight attendants at Delta). Nelson’s proposal reoriented the debate from saving the airlines—whose reputation was so poor before the shutdown that many, including billionaires like Silicon Valley investor Chamath Palihapitiya, argued they should be allowed to fail—to helping airline workers.

She was also determined to make a deal, knowing that union power and militant rhetoric aren’t worth much if all your workers end up losing their jobs. Nelson had to weigh her pro-worker demands against the risk that the airlines would simply give up and declare bankruptcy. In a conference room at the Washington, D.C., offices of Airlines for America, an industry trade group, she negotiated with airline CEOs until they came to an agreement to bring to Congress. “She cares so much about what she’s fighting for that she just goes and fights more,” says Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, who commends Nelson’s willingness to find solutions that would help not only her members but her industry. “It’s with a lot of passion for people, but always with a results orientation, not just rhetoric.”

With the support of both labor unions and CEOs, the deal was more likely to command a majority in Congress. The airline portion of the CARES Act, which became law in late March 2020, was the most comprehensive and worker-focused of any of the relief efforts within the law, and included nearly all of Nelson’s initial demands. “The airlines certainly didn’t put those in,” says Parker. “It was really good policy. It would have worked for a lot of businesses. It only worked for ours because we worked together with our labor unions to come up with it in a way that made sense.”

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As air travel slowly returns and the industry seems on surer footing, thanks to the most recent stimulus bill, Nelson has turned her attention to pushing the Biden administration on its labor policies. She served as the cochair of the economic portion of the “unity task force” formed by now President Biden after Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary (she represented the Sanders side, though she did not endorse during the race). Nelson helped encourage the White House’s decision to release a video of Biden offering support to the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, during their union recognition vote, and she has started campaigning aggressively for the PRO Act, a bill that passed the House and is now before the Senate that would fundamentally reshape U.S. labor law in favor of unions, reversing 70-plus years of the whittling away at workers’ rights that started immediately after that strike wave following World War II. Business and trade groups have predictably lined up against the PRO Act; the National Retail Federation has called it the “worst bill in Congress.”

Nelson has become the de facto face of America’s labor movement. So now the question is, Can she become the official one as well? The AFL-CIO represents roughly 12.5 million workers from 56 unions, ranging from teachers to roofers to grocery workers to miners. The organization serves as the most prominent center of labor power in the country. But in an era when union action is becoming more decentralized, and where many strikes are “wildcat,” meaning they’re staged by workers without the support of union leadership, the AFL-CIO has begun to feel moribund and out of touch. It originally intended to hold elections for its next president this coming fall, but has postponed until June 2022. The change allows for an in-person gathering, but it also addresses the surge of interest in Nelson as an alternative candidate to the current secretary-treasurer and establishment pick. (Fast Company’s editorial staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America, East, a member of the AFL-CIO.)

Ask Nelson if she’s running, and she insists that she has not yet decided. But she’s very happy to offer a version of her platform, which makes clear that she thinks “more of the same” would be a fundamental mistake. She wants to inspire and support new organizing efforts. Help existing unions to exert their power and fight for better contracts. Explain to all workers what the labor movement, and the AFL-CIO, can do for them. “There are a lot of people walking around in this country wounded and feeling alone, and feeling like they don’t have any answers or any way to change their circumstances,” she says. “I feel this extraordinary sense of responsibility to make sure every worker understands that they can raise their expectations, and can change their circumstances.”

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After years of business strategy that called for less top-down control and a more empowered workforce, those white-collar workers are now asking what they can do with that empowerment. “When the employer has all the power, there’s no way to fight back on safety issues, on equality, and on equal opportunity,” Nelson says. “The only way that you have a chance of fighting back and making things better, or even maintaining any kind of quality of work or quality of life at home, is to have a union and be able to meet the employer on equal standing. It’s good for the workplace. It’s good for the business. It’s good for consumers, and it’s good for democracy.”

The pandemic has made it even more abundantly clear that low-wage workers—grocery employees, cooks, delivery drivers—are essential. But these same folks often struggled to get hazard pay or even PPE from their employers. The grocery chain Kroger, for example, closed stores in Los Angeles after a local ordinance required a $5-an-hour hazard-pay increase for an additional four months. Will this be a radicalizing event for American workers? And could Nelson, at the forefront of the labor movement, undergirded by a presidential administration more friendly to labor than any in recent memory, push that radicalization into a wave of new unionization and worker protections?

Nelson stands to benefit from the fact that many of the most prominent recent labor actions have come from industries—teaching, healthcare, fast food—that are led by women, who ostensibly align with her militant style. These industries are where any potential AFL-CIO plan to foment more organizing will need to take root. “When you’ve had to push through situations where you’ve been cast aside or even held in contempt, because of your gender,” Nelson says, “you have to be willing to take on conflict.”

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If Nelson’s boldness has earned her any enemies—within the labor movement or outside it—they are largely quiet for fear of running afoul of her. When I ask Parker, the American Airlines CEO, how he felt when Nelson effectively called him a bloodsucking capitalist, he replies, “I think she believes it, and she’s out fighting for people. So I have no qualms with it. Not those exact words that you used, but when I hear things she said that I might not say, that’s her perspective.”

But organized labor, with members that span the cultural spectrum, can have trouble finding consensus on social and political issues. Universal healthcare and climate legislation—priorities Nelson returns to often—have been opposed by other AFL-CIO members. A flyer put out by the powerful (and otherwise radical) Las Vegas local of the culinary union during the 2020 Nevada primaries, for example, read: “We have fought for 85 years to protect our health care. Why would we let politicians take it away?” Racial justice is another fault line, but Nelson talks about Black Lives Matter in the same breath as she does stronger contracts. “You cannot separate economic issues from social issues. They are completely intertwined,” she says. A Black woman facing discrimination at work needs a union’s protection as much as a white man who is being fired without just cause. Companies working to stop a union from forming will pit those desires against each other, saying one can only be solved at the other’s expense. “They are the tools of the union buster . . . or they are the fuel of solidarity,” Nelson says.

Other workers in the AFL-CIO—such as coal miners—have a hard time supporting climate legislation that would essentially end their industries. To Nelson, this is just another organizing challenge, and one she’s already begun facing. She became close with Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, after Nelson demanded, successfully, that the AFL-CIO make a priority of passing a law protecting mine-worker pensions. That display of solidarity has created a perhaps unlikely alliance and allowed her to mediate between the needs of both fossil-fuel workers and environmental groups. “Labor needs charismatic leaders, people who know how to get things done, and she wades right into every struggle out there,” says Roberts, who himself led a successful 10-month strike against a coal company in 1989. “She’s trying to make herself available to every union and every worker, whether they’re trying to form a union, whether they’re trying to win a strike, whether they’re trying to keep their membership employed. She is involved herself in all of those struggles. And I think it’s benefited every one of us.”

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With workers already embracing her call to understand their value, their power, and their fighting spirit, even if Nelson loses, she’s already won.

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly FastCoExist.com. Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at] fastcompany.com

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