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America’s Most Important Labor Leader

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I was happy to be interviewed for this profile of Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson, who is America’s most important labor leader. No, she’s not (currently) the head of the AFL-CIO. But she is the only labor leader anyone in the country talks about outside of the labor movement, which is a pretty damning indictment of the rest of the movement that is supposed to represent the organizing of American workers. Anyway:

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.

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.

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.”

This is all despite her being an Oregon State sports fan. Though she is from Corvallis, so what can you do.

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