The ascent of Sara Nelson, workers’ great hope

i 1 summer 2021 sarah nelson

Sara Nelson was presupposed to be accepting a lifetime achievement award from the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions. After a quick video performed of her talking out in opposition to sexism and harassment within the airline trade, Nelson, the president of the Affiliation of Flight Attendants, took the stage on that January 2019 day and didn’t point out the problem as soon as. As an alternative, Nelson delivered a stem-winder concerning the ongoing authorities shutdown that had begun on December 22. A budgetary deadlock had been forcing 800,000 federal employees to report for obligation with out pay for 30 days. As brokers from the Transportation Safety Administration step by step stopped displaying up for work, Nelson’s voice had grown louder in calling for the top of the stalemate, talking on behalf of an alliance she’d cast of pilots, baggage handlers, and different airline employees whose security was now in danger. She extolled the facility of employees to push politicians to discover a answer.

Then she uttered the seven phrases which have outlined her since: “Finish this shutdown with a common strike.”

The United States had not skilled something remotely resembling a common strike—the place work stoppages throughout key sectors can shut down the financial system of a metropolis or nation—because the months after World Struggle II. Everybody from coal miners and autoworkers to meatpackers and prepare operators—4 million individuals in all—ceased working in protest of diminished wages and lack of management over manufacturing. Right this moment, the idea of a “common strike,” if recognized in any respect within the U.S., exists principally in delusion, a pale story from a bygone period of labor would possibly.

Right here was Nelson making the parable actual. It wasn’t merely that she had mentioned the phrases; she confirmed employees how they might manifest the menace by motion. As headlines blared her feedback, air site visitors controllers in New York began calling in sick in numbers massive sufficient to disrupt flights out of LaGuardia airport. As soon as the prospect of a major interruption of air journey grew to become very actual, Congress and President Trump acted rapidly: The shutdown ended just a few days later. “[Nelson] placing up the idea of strikes that disrupt manufacturing and trigger a major disaster for the political elite,” says Jane McAlevey, the influential labor organizer and creator, “is extremely necessary.”


Once I ask Nelson about her speech, two years later, she says, “[We have to] discuss what we will really do collectively, and have individuals really feel related by the concept that there are widespread calls for we’ve got as working individuals. It may not take a common strike to get these issues achieved. However speaking about it helps outline what our calls for are, and the urgency of these calls for, and really will get individuals to consider they’re value extra.”

The second catapulted Nelson to nationwide prominence, and her ascendancy couldn’t come at a extra auspicious, or daunting, time. The vibrancy of this second has but to indicate up in Bureau of Labor Statistics knowledge, which may seem bleak: Union membership within the company world is simply 6% of the workforce, and there have been simply eight strikes of greater than 1,000 employees in 2020 (in 1950, there have been 424). Silicon Valley, the avatar for financial progress and innovation, believes its type of enlightened capitalism places it past unions. However these days, most of its effort has been put into tech platforms reliant on exploiting low-wage employees, from ride-hailing and food-delivery drivers to achievement middle laborers to coders signing “income-sharing agreements” that some argue are a type of indentured servitude.

The decades-long imbalance between administration and labor could also be at a tipping level. Name it the brand new employee second, with contemporary organizing efforts in tech and media, radicalized academics, overworked nurses, and underpaid fast-food employees, and novel efforts to convey justice to employees by way of all the pieces from antitrust legal guidelines to shareholder activism. Folks organizing at present are as more likely to be ladies and folks of shade working as residence well being aides and AI scientists as they’re to be stereotypical soot- and grease-covered males in arduous hats. They’re warehouse employees keen to tackle one of the world’s most useful and fearsome corporations, run by the richest man on the planet, as a result of they don’t wish to be brutalized by algorithms that deal with them like robots. In keeping with a 2020 Gallup ballot, 65% of Individuals assist labor unions, a two-decade excessive. Nelson’s continued exhortations to all employees—unionized or not—to know the facility they’ve of their office has positioned her to coalesce these people right into a motion that may struggle to reverse labor’s downward tendencies.

“Folks’s expectations and aspirations are able to go,” says Harvey J. Kaye, a labor historian who grew to become pleasant with Nelson after the overall strike speech. “Sara Nelson would possibly effectively be the particular person to articulate them.”

Nelson’s bluntness and take-no-prisoners rhetoric have earned her the respect of each employees and the company leaders she’s difficult. “Folks wish to be an element of one thing that will get outcomes,” she tells me. “Administration both has to take a beating or [anticipate] the beating that they’re going to get in the event that they don’t take care of us.”

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

Nelson’s path to union president started with a lacking paycheck. After graduating from Principia Faculty, in 1995, she deliberate to grow to be a trainer. However sooner or later, whereas going through down her scholar loans and a first-year trainer’s wage, she bought a name from a former roommate who had grow to be a flight attendant. “She referred to as from Miami Seaside, to sort of razz me,” Nelson says. “After which she bought a bit extra critical: ‘No, however severely, hear, this can be a actually good job. And I simply must inform you concerning the pay.’ ” After listening to concerning the perks—together with a pension—Nelson drove from St. Louis to Chicago the subsequent day and signed up with United.


She labored out of Boston and instantly had a difficulty: Her paychecks weren’t arriving. Reluctant to trigger a scene, she meekly alerted HR and hoped the corporate would repair the problem, taking additional flights so she may eat airplane meals (“I may need met just a few dates on the airplane, so I had a pair of steak and lobster nights,” she says, slyly). At her lowest, with solely 25 cents left to her title, she couldn’t tip the van driver who took her residence from the airport. When her paycheck nonetheless didn’t come, she visited the hub workplace and bought extra runaround.

“This was the primary time in my life that I felt like I used to be only a quantity,” Nelson says. “The tears began to roll. And I really feel this faucet on the shoulder and I flip round, and somebody was standing there who I’d by no means met earlier than, however she seems to be similar to me. We’re in the identical uniform. And he or she requested me how one can spell my title.” The lady wrote Nelson a verify for $800. “She mentioned, ‘Why don’t you go take care of your self? And quantity two, you name our union.’ And I did. I had my paycheck the very subsequent day.”

Twenty-five years later, Nelson nonetheless will get choked up telling the story. “I discovered all the pieces I wanted to find out about our union in that second,” she says. “As a result of in our union, we take care of one another and we’re by no means alone.”

Would you give a brand new coworker $800? In case you can’t think about doing it, Nelson desires you to know that’s precisely what your boss desires you to suppose. Creating actual bonds between individuals who work collectively daily is the one factor that may enable them to be really empowered within the office. “That’s what solidarity is,” she says, “standing up for one another.” Nonetheless totally different you are feeling you might be from the particular person subsequent to you on the warehouse or the auto plant or the company workplace, you might be equally related by your work. “You’ve bought far more in widespread than something that divides you,” she says.

A rousing presence at union picket traces, senior flight attendants started calling her the Mouth. “It’s Boston, so that you’ve bought to have a nickname,” she tells me—and when an AFA contract that Nelson didn’t suppose supplied sufficient got here up for approval a 12 months later, she persuaded her coworkers to vote in opposition to it. Although the contract was authorised nationally, the Boston-based attendants overwhelmingly voted no, an expertise that taught Nelson to talk up when she needed extra and to face as much as management, in her personal union and outdoors of it. “It’s important to be keen to be confrontational,” she says. “It’s important to put it in stark phrases for individuals, and assist them perceive one thing that they hadn’t actually thought of earlier than. Studying about how one can be efficient within the union is what made me militant.”

Militant is the phrase maybe most frequently used to explain Nelson’s fashion; her first likelihood to exhibit it got here after 9/11, as a number of airways confronted chapter, most notably US Airways and her employer, United. (Nelson had the break day on September 11; the airplane that crashed into the south tower of the World Commerce Heart was on one of her traditional routes and she or he knew the crew effectively.) Because the airline confronted financial fallout, 1000’s of flight attendants had been furloughed, hubs had been closed, and pensions and healthcare advantages had been threatened with cuts. “It was a really up-close-and-personal training concerning the forces that attempt to extract all the worth from labor,” she says.

Nelson, then the nationwide communications chairperson for the AFA at United, says that when she heard United deliberate to furlough an extra 2,500 flight attendants as half of price reducing, she realized that any lodging the union made throughout these negotiations can be almost unimaginable to get again. “We fought them on all the pieces,” she says, getting choked up once more. The union picketed, protested, and threatened strikes, which might have concerned an AFA technique developed within the mid-’90s referred to as Create Havoc Round Our System (CHAOS) that used sudden actions at random airports to power airways to continuously transfer crews of substitute employees from airport to airport. Whereas the union was nonetheless pressured to make main concessions within the chapter, its relentlessness pushed United to restrict cuts to flight attendant retirement plans. “It’s important to struggle,” says Nelson. “You’ll be able to’t suppose that not combating is providing you with any energy. Utilizing energy builds energy.”

Erik Loomis, an assistant professor on the College of Rhode Island and creator of A Historical past of America in Ten Strikes, says Nelson’s power “provides voice and energy to the sort of techniques that when helped construct the labor motion, however haven’t been seen as respectable for a really, very very long time. That’s threatening to rather a lot of entrenched union leaders who grew up not likely shopping for that, who got here to energy with out partaking in these types of techniques.” George Meany, who led the AFL-CIO from its creation in 1955 till 1979, is the avatar of this conflict-averse coverage Nelson is rebelling in opposition to. She is keen to speak about strikes; Meany famously mentioned he had by no means been on a picket line throughout his time as a frontrunner of a plumbers union. Within the face of continued erosion of labor protections by Congress and the courts, prioritizing compromise and finishing up rearguard actions has led to a long time of political losses and declining union memberships, together with a dangerous notion among the many common public that unions exist solely as a entrance for corrupt officers or to implement guidelines that thwart pace and innovation.

Nelson, who grew to become president of the Affiliation of Flight Attendants in 2014, isn’t concerned with repeating the errors of the previous. As a flight attendant, she comes from a protracted line of fighters: Since AFA’s inception, in 1945, it has taken on sexual harassment, obligatory weigh-ins, objectification in airline promoting, smoking on planes, and extra. “I stand on the shoulders of the individuals who created this path for me,” she says. “It’s my job now to take it a step additional.”

Half of Nelson’s talent set is her capacity to make the political private, as she did when she used the rising nationwide sympathy for TSA brokers—usually a reviled group—to finish the shutdown standoff. Her efforts could now contain extra politicking than planes—she works full time for the union, doing the bureaucratic duties of operating a 50,000-person group—however she nonetheless maintains her certifications so she will be able to work an occasional shift (not not like company leaders who do frontline shifts to get nearer to the shopper expertise). “It’s important to have any individual’s face in thoughts while you go struggle like hell for them,” Nelson says. “You’re not simply combating for insurance policies, you’re combating for individuals.”

Because the pandemic raged on final spring and stress mounted for Congress to bail out the financial system, airways, whose enterprise had floor to a halt, would clearly want rather a lot of assist. Airline CEOs haggled with Congress over whether or not a bundle ought to embrace grants from the federal government to maintain payroll flowing and keep away from furloughs, or low-interest loans, which might forestall chapter however would seemingly lead to extreme staffing shortages.


However Nelson had her personal plan—developed with some ex-staffers of the Elizabeth Warren marketing campaign—and it showcased her understanding of energy. “I needed to guarantee that we had been making a bundle that might preserve these airways in verify,” she says. The situations Nelson demanded included freezes on each staffing reductions and inventory buybacks, limits on govt pay, and a dedication for neutrality in future union elections (at the least partially to assist an ongoing AFA marketing campaign to unionize the flight attendants at Delta). Nelson’s proposal reoriented the controversy from saving the airways—whose fame was so poor earlier than the shutdown that many, together with billionaires like Silicon Valley investor Chamath Palihapitiya, argued they need to be allowed to fail—to serving to airline employees.

She was additionally decided to make a deal, realizing that union energy and militant rhetoric aren’t value a lot if all of your employees find yourself shedding their jobs. Nelson needed to weigh her pro-worker calls for in opposition to the danger that the airways would merely hand over and declare chapter. In a convention room on the Washington, D.C., places of work of Airways for America, an trade commerce group, she negotiated with airline CEOs till they got here to an settlement to convey to Congress. “She cares a lot about what she’s combating for that she simply goes and fights extra,” says Doug Parker, CEO of American Airways, who commends Nelson’s willingness to seek out options that might assist not solely her members however her trade. “It’s with rather a lot of ardour for individuals, however all the time with a outcomes orientation, not simply rhetoric.”

With the assist of each labor unions and CEOs, the deal was extra more likely to command a majority in Congress. The airline portion of the CARES Act, which grew to become legislation in late March 2020, was essentially the most complete and worker-focused of any of the reduction efforts throughout the legislation, and included almost all of Nelson’s preliminary calls for. “The airways definitely didn’t put these in,” says Parker. “It was actually good coverage. It could have labored for lots of companies. It solely labored for ours as a result of we labored along with our labor unions to provide you with it in a manner that made sense.”

As air journey slowly returns and the trade appears on surer footing, due to the newest stimulus invoice, Nelson has turned her consideration to pushing the Biden administration on its labor insurance policies. She served because the cochair of the financial portion of the “unity job power” shaped by now President Biden after Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential major (she represented the Sanders aspect, although she didn’t endorse throughout the race). Nelson helped encourage the White Home’s determination to launch a video of Biden providing assist to the Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, throughout their union recognition vote, and she or he has began campaigning aggressively for the PRO Act, a invoice that handed the Home and is now earlier than the Senate that might essentially reshape U.S. labor legislation in favor of unions, reversing 70-plus years of the whittling away at employees’ rights that began instantly after that strike wave following World Struggle II. Enterprise and commerce teams have predictably lined up in opposition to the PRO Act; the Nationwide Retail Federation has referred to as it the “worst invoice in Congress.”

Nelson has grow to be the de facto face of America’s labor motion. So now the query is, Can she grow to be the official one as effectively? The AFL-CIO represents roughly 12.5 million employees from 56 unions, starting from academics to roofers to grocery employees to miners. The group serves as essentially the most outstanding middle of labor energy within the nation. However in an period when union motion is turning into extra decentralized, and the place many strikes are “wildcat,” that means they’re staged by employees with out the assist of union management, the AFL-CIO has begun to really feel moribund and out of contact. It initially supposed to carry elections for its subsequent president this coming fall, however has postponed till June 2022. The change permits for an in-person gathering, however it additionally addresses the surge of curiosity in Nelson in its place candidate to the present secretary-treasurer and institution decide. (Quick Firm’s editorial workers is represented by the Writers Guild of America, East, a member of the AFL-CIO.)

Ask Nelson if she’s operating, and she or he insists that she has not but determined. However she’s very blissful to supply a model of her platform, which makes clear that she thinks “extra of the identical” can be a elementary mistake. She desires to encourage and assist new organizing efforts. Assist current unions to exert their energy and struggle for higher contracts. Clarify to all employees what the labor motion, and the AFL-CIO, can do for them. “There are rather a lot of individuals strolling round on this nation wounded and feeling alone, and feeling like they don’t have any solutions or any solution to change their circumstances,” she says. “I really feel this extraordinary sense of accountability to ensure each employee understands that they will elevate their expectations, and may change their circumstances.”

After years of enterprise technique that referred to as for much less top-down management and a extra empowered workforce, these white-collar employees at the moment are asking what they will do with that empowerment. “When the employer has all the facility, there’s no solution to struggle again on issues of safety, on equality, and on equal alternative,” Nelson says. “The solely manner that you’ve an opportunity of combating again and making issues higher, and even sustaining any sort of high quality of work or high quality of life at residence, is to have a union and be capable of meet the employer on equal standing. It’s good for the office. It’s good for the enterprise. It’s good for customers, and it’s good for democracy.”

The pandemic has made it much more abundantly clear that low-wage employees—grocery staff, cooks, supply drivers—are important. However these identical people usually struggled to get hazard pay and even PPE from their employers. The grocery chain Kroger, for instance, closed shops in Los Angeles after a neighborhood ordinance required a $5-an-hour hazard-pay enhance for an extra 4 months. Will this be a radicalizing occasion for American employees? And will Nelson, on the forefront of the labor motion, undergirded by a presidential administration extra pleasant to labor than any in current reminiscence, push that radicalization right into a wave of new unionization and employee protections?

Nelson stands to learn from the truth that many of essentially the most outstanding current labor actions have come from industries—instructing, healthcare, quick meals—which might be led by ladies, who ostensibly align together with her militant fashion. These industries are the place any potential AFL-CIO plan to foment extra organizing might want to take root. “If you’ve needed to push by conditions the place you’ve been forged apart and even held in contempt, as a result of of your gender,” Nelson says, “you must be keen to tackle battle.”

If Nelson’s boldness has earned her any enemies—throughout the labor motion or outdoors it—they’re largely quiet for concern of operating afoul of her. Once I ask Parker, the American Airways CEO, how he felt when Nelson successfully referred to as him a bloodsucking capitalist, he replies, “I feel she believes it, and she or he’s out combating for individuals. So I’ve no qualms with it. Not these precise phrases that you simply used, however once I hear issues she mentioned that I may not say, that’s her perspective.”

However organized labor, with members that span the cultural spectrum, can have bother discovering consensus on social and political points. Common healthcare and local weather laws—priorities Nelson returns to usually—have been opposed by different AFL-CIO members. A flyer put out by the highly effective (and in any other case radical) Las Vegas native of the culinary union throughout the 2020 Nevada primaries, for instance, learn: “We’ve got fought for 85 years to guard our well being care. Why would we let politicians take it away?” Racial justice is one other fault line, however Nelson talks about Black Lives Matter in the identical breath as she does stronger contracts. “You can’t separate financial points from social points. They’re fully intertwined,” she says. A Black lady going through discrimination at work wants a union’s safety as a lot as a white man who’s being fired with out simply trigger. Corporations working to cease a union from forming will pit these needs in opposition to one another, saying one can solely be solved on the different’s expense. “They’re the instruments of the union buster . . . or they’re the gas of solidarity,” Nelson says.

Different employees within the AFL-CIO—reminiscent of coal miners—have a tough time supporting local weather laws that might basically finish their industries. To Nelson, that is simply one other organizing problem, and one she’s already begun going through. She grew to become shut with Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Employees of America, after Nelson demanded, efficiently, that the AFL-CIO make a precedence of passing a legislation defending mine-worker pensions. That show of solidarity has created a maybe unlikely alliance and allowed her to mediate between the wants of each fossil-fuel employees and environmental teams. “Labor wants charismatic leaders, individuals who know how one can get issues achieved, and she or he wades proper into each battle on the market,” says Roberts, who himself led a profitable 10-month strike in opposition to a coal firm in 1989. “She’s making an attempt to make herself out there to each union and each employee, whether or not they’re making an attempt to type a union, whether or not they’re making an attempt to win a strike, whether or not they’re making an attempt to maintain their membership employed. She is concerned herself in all of these struggles. And I feel it’s benefited each one of us.”

With employees already embracing her name to know their worth, their energy, and their combating spirit, even when Nelson loses, she’s already gained.