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Labor leader Sara Nelson says workers must fight together—across industries

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Nelson drew parallels between flight attendants and miners fighting for their basic worker rights.

Labor leader Sara Nelson says workers must fight together—across industries
Sara Nelson [Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images]
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Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), says she was at a recent White House meeting with union leaders, when President Biden looked up from his notes and remarked to the group: “Sometimes, I think that you don’t even understand your own power.”

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That’s a sentiment with which Nelson very much agrees. “Let me just be really clear: that power exists with workers all the time,” Nelson said at the 2021 Fast Company Innovation Festival. Yes, corporations have money, and control, but workers are the ones creating all of the value in the economy. “If every industry were to simply stop working,” she said, “the corporate elite would yield to any and all demands, because the world could simply not go on.”

Nelson was once an aspiring teacher struggling financially to even set up her own classroom, when a friend persuaded her to become a flight attendant. Since 1996, she’s been a United Airlines attendant, and in 2014, became president of the AFA. But, despite her job representing flight attendants, her message is very clear: workers across industries need to join together, because they are fighting much the same fights. “We have to be everywhere for everyone,” she said.

And, she has been. Nelson’s spent time fighting alongside coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, where workers for Warrior Met Coal have been striking since April for better conditions. When she first arrived in Alabama, people wondered why she, a flight attendant, was there. But: “The conditions that are in that mine are the same conditions that we experience on planes following bankruptcies,” she told Clendaniel. “So, whether it’s 2,000 feet below the ground, or 35,000 feet in the air, we’re the same.”

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Across sectors, the battle ultimately boils down to the fact that “productivity of the American worker has gone through the roof, while wages have remained stagnant and flat.” It’s the same, she says, with Nabisco workers striking across the country, principally against a proposal to turn eight-hour shifts to 12, without overtime; and an ongoing nurses’ strike in Worcester, Massachusetts, the longest in the state’s history, reacting to a lack of safe working conditions. And, in her own industry, with Delta flight attendants who’ve long been trying to organize. Eighty percent of aviation workers are unionized, but Delta has stood out, with the corporation reportedly spending $38 million in less than a year to keep unions away. “They’re really mature union-busters,” she said. “I think that Delta would be far better off if they would simply get out of the way and allow their employees the respect to be able to choose having a union.”

What may surprise white-collar workers—who may feel comfortable in perk-filled office roles—is that Nelson insists they, too, are in the same. In the age of mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds with little care for companies’ or employees’ futures are regularly buying up businesses and consolidating entities. “All of those pressures are going to ultimately create a race where your job is eroded,” Nelson says. Her words of warning: “You don’t need a union until you do. And when you do, it’s usually too late.”