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Sara Nelson’s ‘Not Afraid To Strike Back,’ For The President Of The Association Of Flight Attendants, ‘Radical Politics Starts In The Workplace’

Published Sunday, May 12, 2019
by Sarah Jaffe/The Nation
Sara Nelson’s ‘Not Afraid To Strike Back,’ For The President Of The Association Of Flight Attendants, ‘Radical Politics Starts In The Workplace’

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - When I mention Sara Nelson, the President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), to people in the Labor Movement, the response is usually something like: “I would follow her to the gates of Hell.”

For a few years I’d heard Union Members and Staffers rave about Nelson’s fearlessness and willingness to show up in support of others, but she became a progressive superstar only in early 2019 when she called for a General Strike to end Republican President Donald Trump’s Government Shutdown.

In the Trump Era - with so much of Organized Labor wanting to see what it can extract from the president’s alleged populism - advocating for such a militant action made her instantly famous.

I sat down with Nelson in late April when she was in New York City for Organizing 2.0, a training event for Organizers, Agitators and Communicators.

When I arrived at The LCL, the bar at the Grand Central Westin in Midtown Manhattan, she and a Staffer were tucked at a table in the back, waiting on soups and grilled cheese.

Petite and blonde, Nelson wore a gray-jersey pullover and a hot-pink scarf.

She rose to hug me before we settled in with a couple of glasses of Malbec.

She shared personal stories comfortably, laughed easily, but when she talked about conflict - like the time she brought six Retirees to confront the CEO of United Airlines - there was steel in her voice.

It reminded me of how often women like her are underestimated and how, when they’re smart, they can use that to their advantage.

Her savvy was evident when she released a video calling Flight Attendants to stop working alongside the sick-outs of Air Traffic Controllers.

Just hours after the clip went live, Trump cut a deal to end the shutdown.

Nelson had a simple explanation for why her threat was so effective: “There was a real danger that people were going to get a taste of their power, and they did not want to have that happen.” 

I’d met Nelson last year in Baltimore at the Congressional Progressive Caucus Strategy Summit, a mostly off-the-record event where Nelson spoke about the Labor Movement’s efforts after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

When I reminded her of it, she repeated what she’d said then - that she was able to get a plane to bring Union Volunteers to the island because the CEO of United Airlines takes her calls - not, she laughed, “because I am a ‘nice’ Flight Attendant ‘and somebody that he likes hanging out with.’  ‘It is because I gained his respect by beating him at the bargaining table.’”

It’s that swagger and combative language - no talk of “value propositions” or “both sides” - that epitomizes the renewed fighting spirit in the Labor Movement.

That audacity has largely come from Women Workers- from Teachers, Retail and Hotel Workers, Nurses, and, of course, Flight Attendants.

While Trump and much of the media caricature the Working Class as White Men in hard hats, today’s rabble-rousers are really Service and Care Workers.

Despite growing up with a mother who was a Union Teacher and a father who was a Timber Worker, Nelson wasn’t aware of the power of Unions until she took a job with United Airlines.

“I went to the interview based on the contract that the Union had negotiated, ‘but I didn’t have any consciousness that it was the Union that did that,’” she said.

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