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Sara Nelson’s Art of War

The flight attendant union leader knows how to strike fear in the heart of bosses—and not just in the airline industry.

The most powerful labor leader in the country right now is about 5’5” in sneakers, though her work uniform generally adds an extra inch or two. As the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and veteran flight attendant who has worked for United Airlines since 1996, Sara Nelson is no stranger to wearing heels—but after spending some time with her, one gets the distinct impression that she’d be just as comfortable in combat boots.

Nelson has fast become a rising star in the labor movement, as well as one of its most unapologetically militant voices. As the head of a union that represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, she reacted to the government shutdown in January with dire concern for both her membership and the passengers they are charged to protect, and—unlike many of her peers in union leadership—decided to do something drastic to fix it. It was her call for a general strike, delivered during her acceptance speech for the 2019 AFL-CIO MLK Drum Major for Justice Award on Sunday, January 20, that was widely credited for jump-starting the endgame of President Donald Trump’s brutal five-week shutdown. When I met with her not long after the shutdown had concluded, she explained that she was moved to action in part because she found the government’s refusal to take care of back pay for the federal workers to be simply “wrong, completely immoral.”

It’s been a good while since American labor leaders—known mostly these days for resisting confrontational strike tactics and seeking to influence electoral outcomes via campaign donations—have resorted to such “which side are you on” appeals. But for Nelson, they’re her rhetorical stock in trade. During the shutdown crisis, she warned that the aviation industry had only a few more days before it began to truly collapse, and would soon face a massive wave of flight cancellations. Millions of air passengers would be put at risk thanks to the industry’s reliance on a grossly understaffed, unpaid federal security workforce, she prophesied. She went on to paint a dystopian picture of abandoned airline infrastructure not unlike what readers had encountered in the blockbuster line of Left Behind novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye: security checkpoints closed, safety inspectors absent, federal cybersecurity staff on furlough, and airport security personnel forced to work without pay. “As I have said many times in recent days, safety and security is non-negotiable,” she said at the AFL-CIO event. “The TSA was created for the same reason my friends’ names, along with 3000 others, are engraved in bronze at the 9/11 memorial in New York. If they can’t do their job, I can’t do mine. Dr. King said, ‘Their destiny is tied up with our destiny. We cannot walk alone.’ ”

Nelson was the first labor leader to dare utter the phrase “general strike” publicly—and to urge other AFL-CIO leaders to talk to their memberships about taking mass action. “Go back with the fierce urgency of now to talk with your locals and international unions about all workers joining together,” the call rang out from the blonde woman commanding the podium, “to end this shutdown with a general strike!”

That speech had an almost immediate real-world effect, as the substance of Nelson’s warning began to unfold in real time. Two days after her January 20 call to action, workers at several major Northeastern airports began calling in sick, causing major flight delays at Newark, Philadelphia, and New York City’s LaGuardia, as well as in Jacksonville, Florida, and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. Individuals had been doing this sporadically since as early as January 4, but once Nelson’s words rang out, the trickle became a flood. According to TSA national statistics, on January 21, the day after her speech, the unscheduled absence rate in the agency’s workforce was 7.5 percent, more than double what it had been on the same date a year previously. By January 21, 10 percent of TSA workers were calling in sick. On Wednesday January 23, the AFA-CWA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and the Air Line Pilots Association International issued a joint letter stressing the urgent safety concerns associated with the ongoing shutdown, condemning the circumstances that forced their members to work without pay, and calling on Congress to take action immediately.

By January 25, the end of that workweek, air traffic controllers began an informal sick-out in protest of their second missed paycheck, which resulted in more flight delays at several high-traffic airports. Nelson recorded a message to her membership saying, “We have hit the breaking point,” and urged them to flood the phone lines of their congressional representatives. The AFA was mobilizing, very publicly, and with a deliberate agenda in view. That same day, Nelson released a statement emphasizing the human and economic impact of the shutdown and pointing toward the workers who’d been staging the mass sick-out. “Do we have your attention, Congress?” she pleaded.

They did.

A few hours later, the shutdown was over; Trump abruptly agreed to reopen the government, via an interim funding accord extending to February 15. (A threatened follow-up shutdown over wall funding for that date never materialized, no doubt because Republican pollsters and strategists were finally able to pull Trump away from such futile brinksmanship.) With a GOP leadership in Congress continuing to cravenly do Trump’s bidding at every turn, Nelson moved into the gaping power vacuum in Washington to serve as the efficient cause of the shutdown’s demise. “There was growing frustration among workers and among many people in the labor movement about the fact that as the shutdown dragged on, there wasn’t a stronger voice of condemnation out there,” says Joseph McCartin, a Georgetown University labor historian who’s specialized in the aviation industry. “What was missing was a voice of anger about the fact that these workers were being expected to continue to report to work even as they were not being paid, and that’s what Sara was able to give voice to. I think by doing that she played a really important role ... and the fact that she was speaking out so openly helped push things to a conclusion.”

Nelson and her comrades had won the battle—but with the reprieve only temporary, it meant that there was still a war to win. The AFA-CWA trained its laser focus on preventing another shutdown, telling its membership to be prepared for the worst—and if the government was not open on February 16, to flood the airports themselves in protest.

A website, General Strike 2019, appeared, under the AFA-CWA’s imprimatur. It stated plainly, “A true general strike would take months of planning. But we cannot allow that to stop us from taking action now. We must do what we can immediately. Working people have power when we come together. If Congress chooses the chaos of a continued lockout, we will use our power.” The message spread like wildfire; even Cher tweeted about it. Ultimately, a second shutdown was averted—the AFA-CWA and Nelson had successfully called Trump’s bluff.

“There was a recognition that aviation workers could end this,” she explains. “When I first started talking about that, the immediate question that was asked, every single time, was ‘Do you have the pilots with you? Where are the pilots?’ And I love my union brothers and sisters who are pilots, but in a few weeks time, that conversation quickly washed away, because I kept talking about what we were willing to do, as flight attendants, and in doing that, people started to realize, ‘Oh, flight attendants, these women who maybe we didn’t think had any power, actually have the power to stop the whole damn thing on their own.’ ”

The AFA-CWA has long been recognized as an unusually strong union, something that McCartin chalks up in part to the key role that its membership plays in aviation safety. In addition to fulfilling their service and hospitality duties on board, flight attendants are also first responders; they’re security workers and safety workers, and have a litany of responsibilities that the public often forgets, or doesn’t know about. As such, flight attendants approach their work with the utmost seriousness, especially when it pertains to the safety of the flying public.

“I think that’s something that’s indelibly imprinted on Sara, because she remembered well 9/11 and the way in which members of her union were the people who first had to deal with the terrorist attack,” McCartin explains. “These are people who do very important jobs and ensure the safety of other people, and I think that flight attendants take their work very, very seriously. When many other unions were quiet, it was the flight attendants who were most vocal, through Sara, about the dangers that the system was careening toward if the shutdown wasn’t stopped. I think that grew out of the sense that exists in that union among its members that they have to speak out if they feel that the flying public is in danger, and I think Sara really stood up during that shutdown in a way that was really out at the forefront of the entire labor movement.”

Nelson’s willingness to invoke labor’s nuclear option in order to ease the suffering of the 800,000 federal workers struggling to survive the shutdown has propelled her to the national stage. When we met up at a low-key D.C. hotel lobby, she had just gotten off a train from New York City (where she’d taken her son to see the new Harry Potter play on Broadway as a belated special Christmas present), and was due to fly out to London later that evening for a meeting of the International Transport Workers Federation’s Civil Aviation Steering Committee. A flurry of press greeted her following that fateful speech, including a splashy New York Times profile, and she confided that the sudden exposure made her feel as though she was being “carved up.” The previous week, she had also appeared in front of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to testify about the shutdown’s impact on the aviation industry, telling the committee, “We can never allow it to happen again.” It was not a request.

Even amidst a chaotic schedule, Nelson was in a preternaturally good mood; she showed up wearing blue jeans and a cozy grey sweater, and her ready laugh and megawatt smile immediately put everyone in her orbit at ease. Ever the seasoned communications professional, she punctuates her sentences with a peppy “right?” to make sure you’re following along. Talking with her can feel more like dishing with someone’s frighteningly cool big sister than with a tough-as-nails union boss, but like any truly effective leader, Sara Nelson contains multitudes.

Sara Nelson has a formidable number of weapons in her arsenal: “I can rock a string of pearls, or be the hellraiser on the picket line, right?”

Nelson was born in Corvallis, a small, verdant university town in western Oregon. Her mother was a music teacher, and her father, who worked in the lumber industry, was an alternate on the Olympic biathlon team. She credits him with instilling that “Olympic spirit” in her, and emphasizing the value of teamwork in a “dog eat dog world.” Her mother was a union member, and while she wasn’t particularly active in her local, Nelson remembers connecting the dots between her mom’s teachers’ union benefits and the fact that her mother had solid retirement savings and health care, and also brought home more money than her father. (“Sorry dad, I’m outing you!”)

“I was brought up on the idea of partnership, and equality in our home,” she says. “And of course, my religion was founded by a woman, who talked about all the qualities of God that man and womankind expressed, and that those qualities are not necessarily defined to a specific gender, you know? They’re cross-pollinated, and can be expressed by anyone at anytime. I think those were really important concepts for me to grow up with.”

Her parents were both Christian Scientists, and Nelson attended a Christian Science liberal arts university, Principia, where she studied English and Education and did her student teaching in inner-city St Louis. She had originally planned to become a teacher like her mother, and spent her first year after college juggling four jobs as a waitress, a substitute teacher, a retail worker, and a temp at an insurance company. However, pressure from student loans and alluring stories from a close friend who was having a ball working as a flight attendant led her to consider another path, and once she heard that United Airlines was hiring, she hopped in her car and drove the 300 miles to Chicago to apply. That was 23 years ago, and she’s been with United ever since. (These days, she works about one flight a year.)

Her coming of age in a household practicing a then-rare brand of religiously inspired gender equity gave Nelson a firm grounding in elementary social justice—a schooling that would serve her well in her early adult struggles to retire her post-collegiate debt, as well as in her later efforts to organize the flight-attendants rank-and-file. A self-described “granola,” Nelson recalls her brusque introduction to the gendered world of flight-attendant work at United. During her first day on the job, she witnessed a disagreement between two coworkers who both had more than 30 years of flying experience under their neatly clasped belts and were arguing over how the new recruit was going to fit into their routine.

“They enforced their contract, right there in front of me, and then they pulled me aside because they wanted to make sure that I understood that this wasn’t about me, this was about the principle, and it was about their contract,” she recalls. “And this woman says to me, ‘Listen’— I can still hear the tone of her voice—‘management thinks of us as their wives, or their mistresses, and in either case they hold us in contempt. Your only place of worth is with your fellow flying partners. And if you wear your union pin, and we stick together, there’s nothing we can’t do.’”

That was far from the first lesson in workplace solidarity that her fellow aviation workers gave her that first year. Apart from her mother’s membership in a teacher’s union, Nelson’s own experience with labor and unions was slim when she got to United. It took a missed paycheck, a few miles of red tape, and an encounter with a kindly coworker to open her eyes to the possibilities—and necessity—of collective action, and turn her into a labor activist.

“I’ve done new hire presentations for several thousands of flight attendants, and often I would say to them, ‘You know, when I became a flight attendant, I didn’t know anything about unions. I knew the name Jimmy Hoffa, I knew that didn’t turn out well,’” she says with a chuckle. “Luckily, my flying partners immediately gave me a tutorial, and my airline actually gave me the best introduction to my union, because they failed to pay me. I couldn’t get anybody at the airline to help me, but a fellow flying partner saw my distress, handed me a check for $800, and said, ‘Number one, you go take care of yourself, and number two, you call our union.’ She showed me more compassion than anyone else had, and for me, she is the symbol of all the flight attendants that I’ve flown with, and who I believe we are. I really learned in that moment the power that we have by being joined together, and the voice that we can have at work.”

As McCartin notes, it’s projected that by 2025 most union members in the U.S. will be women, and they are often predominant in some of the most important sectors of the modern labor movement, from the ongoing teachers’ uprisings in West Virginia, Oklahoma, California, and elsewhere, to the founding of so-called alt-labor organizations like Jobs With Justice and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Now, as ever, Nelson’s line of thinking is ahead of the curve.

Workers “who are in roles that deal with people, and hear stories, and understand what it means to be marginalized ... can hear the stories of other people in a different way; they hear things that individuals who have never experienced being marginalized can’t,” Nelson continues, getting into the meat of her explanation of why women have emerged as the most effective leaders of today’s labor movement—and why flight attendants now find themselves on the organizing vanguard. “It’s now finally the day when we get to not just say that we have each other’s back, but that we can call upon the broader social discussion to say, ‘We’re not going to accept that as a society. No, we’re going to say that every woman and man is a feminist.’ And if we can hear each other’s stories, then it’s more likely that we’re going to find our common ground, and if we find our common ground, that is where our power lies, and that is where the change is effected. And that’s why I believe that women are going to lead the revitalizing of the labor movement.”

As a newly minted union activist, Nelson threw herself into her Boston AFA-CWA local; she became the Boston chapter’s communications chair in 1997, and was promoted to AFA’s national communications chair in 2002, a position she held for nearly 10 years. That same year, United Airlines filed for bankruptcy, and as the union’s spokesperson, Nelson had a front-row seat to the carnage. As more and more doomsday financial reporting came out in the press, worker morale dipped and the public expected the quality of their service to suffer as well; however, Nelson says that perception provided the union’s members with the motivation to go above and beyond, and taught her a valuable lesson about the power of dignity of work. Within that first month of bankruptcy, the airline led the industry in most performance metrics, which saved the company from going into Chapter 7. (This upturn landed them in a Chapter 11 reorganization instead, which Nelson still describes as “hell.”) Unsurprisingly, Nelson was in the thick of it all.

“I was already a rabble rouser,” she tells me, her lips curled in a Cheshire cat grin. “I had been leading a strike vote a year earlier, a year before 9/11, and United threatened to fire me. You want to fire me, that’s fine. But all you’re going to do is have one pissed-off person who’s in her late 20s, who doesn’t care, and will take you on, right?”

Despite the pride she felt in her fellow workers for the superhuman effort they put in and her resolve to fight tooth-and-nail for the best deal possible, Nelson still chokes up slightly when thinking back on the bankruptcy’s human costs. She was constantly called upon to communicate on the emergency pay cuts, furloughs, base closures, and all the other very bad news coming in through the pipeline. One day, the dam broke.

“Here I was, 29 years old, doing this non-stop, and I just said, ‘I just have to take a second and cry,’ because it was day in and day out, bad news,” she remembers. “And so I sat there and cried for a minute—this was a real defining moment for me—and then I said, ‘You know what? There’s no time for tears. We just have to fight as hard as we can, to hang onto as much as we possibly can, so that we can get to a place to fight for what people deserve.’

The union spent the next two years embroiled in bankruptcy negotiations for its members’ jobs and pensions, a painful battle that affected thousands of workers, spilled over onto Capitol Hill, and finally saw then-Senator Barack Obama step in to mediate a final deal.* Ultimately, they made it out alive, but Nelson sees it as a turning point in her development as a union leader. It certainly helped her develop her trademark no-fear approach to negotiations, whether they were with a CEO or a president.

“The point is, right up close and personal I understood immediately the power of a collective idea of dignity of work, and power of people actually working together, and understanding that there is an interplay here, actually, between labor and business, where when you work together you can actually have a better business,” she explains. “And in many ways, management was forced to work with labor during that time; while they had the upper hand in bankruptcy, and we had to negotiate with a gun to our head, they couldn’t have turned that airline around if it wasn’t for the employees. The whole bankruptcy was really a master class in understanding that you can be bold, and you can have bold ideas, but if people are not there with you, it’s not going to matter.”

Nelson’s bold ideas have served her and her union well. She was elected president of the AFA-CWA in 2014, and remains the chief spokesperson for the union. The AFA-CWA itself has a long history of, quite simply, getting shit done. As she likes to remind people, in the late 1980s, they took on Big Tobacco before almost anybody else, and won (yes, we can thank them for the rigorously enforced smoking bans on commercial airlines).** As the union’s vice president (a role she ascended to in 2011), Nelson spearheaded 2013’s successful 90-day No Knives Ever Again Campaign in response to an announcement from TSA that it would begin allowing pocketknives on airplanes—and in 2017, the AFA-CWA launched another campaign that made sure the ban was upheld in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. She fondly looks back on a successful 1993 Alaska Airlines strike that was quickly resolved via the union’s aggressive use of its deeply destabilizing CHAOS (Create Havoc Around Our System) tactic. The airline’s executives implied at the time that they saw flight attendants as “replaceable”; the AFA-CWA soon taught them otherwise.

This turnaround happened mostly thanks to CHAOS—a strategy of intermittent, unannounced strikes; as Nelson explained in a Jacobin interview, the basic thinking behind CHAOS is that “the strike is going to take any form and we are not going to give you any warning.” CHAOS is terrifying to management, and brutally effective; Alaska Airlines was so shaken by the tactic and so intimidated by the AFA-CWA bargaining committee that bosses settled the contract via fax—and inadvertently gave flight attendants a massive raise in the process.

“They settled that contract over fax machine,” she recalls. “We asked them if they wanted to meet, and they said, ‘No, no, no, every time we meet with you something bad happens, so we just want to settle this tonight.’ They came back to us the next week and said, ‘We didn’t know how this one provision was going to impact us, and this means that flight attendants are going to make 60 percent more than they make today. You can’t possibly hold us to that.’ And we said, ‘No.’ So, overnight, a large portion of the workforce was making 60 percent more. With power comes respect. Flight attendants don’t ever believe that it’s impossible, which is another key element to success. And still today, we just settled a merger contract without a single picket line, or anything, because the power still exists there. They know that the threat is real.”

When Nelson says, “We beat them to a pulp!” she sounds a little more like the chest-beating union boss of postwar memory. You start to get a feel just how intimidating she must be across the bargaining table. That’s a tactic, too. Really, she’s a one-woman manifestation of CHAOS.

“We have an advantage, because management doesn’t have the market cornered on smarts,” she explains. “They have figured out how to play from a playbook that was written for them, and it’s almost hilarious—the union-busting playbook is the same everywhere. It doesn’t matter, it can go from industry to industry and it’s the exact same, so we have to be creative.”

Nelson makes frequent mention of her “toolkit”—the constantly shifting set of tactics she’s acquired that she uses to navigate difficult situations, whether that’s dialing up the charm or bringing down the hammer. In her estimation, women have an edge in negotiating settings, whether in the workplace or at home, as a parent or as a union official. (Here, Nelson is again representative of many of her rank-and-file members, pulling double duty as a working mother.)

“I have a slew of tactics in my arsenal that is really broad, and with experiences on the job as a flight attendant, and experiences in my personal life, and then in my union work, I can just pull out these different tactics and use them where they’re appropriate,” she says. “And from my view, the only thing that really matters is that you have to believe that you can change things. That is the most important ingredient to success. And then beyond that, to not just believe that you can change things, but understand that it actually takes a strategic plan.”

This is where she quotes one of her favorite aphorisms, one that’s often attributed to Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and his classic treatise The Art of War. “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” she says. “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Nelson is used to being underestimated due to her gender, her looks, and stereotypical assumptions about her job. And as she avows, she’s more than equipped to use such superficial impressions to her advantage, and deploy yet another item in her toolkit. As McCartin observes, “People underestimate her at their own peril.”

“I can rock a string of pearls, or be the hellraiser on the picket line, right?” she says with a devilish glint in her ice-blue eyes. “It all matters, and I think that it’s another example of the versatility of women who hold all these different roles.”

For Nelson, dealing with sexism, misogyny, and sexual harassment has been a part of her job description since she first donned her United uniform. (The basic rigors of dress on the job are still a subject of great workplace regimentation for flight attendants—but thanks to pushback from the union, they are no longer subject to draconian discriminatory age, weight, or marital status restrictions.) She’s spoken in front of Congress about the unacceptable levels of objectification, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that flight attendants—80 percent of whom are women—experience in their workplace. She has noted in her testimony that a AFA-CWA survey showed that three out of four flight attendants have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Gender-based violence isn’t the only health and safety issue confronting her membership. Another shutdown would hamstring the full implementation of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018, which provides critical protections for aviation industry workers, and specifically seeks to address the issue of flight attendant fatigue. Until the bill’s passage, pilots were entitled to ten hours rest, while flight attendants—as Nelson notes, “by the way, one of them is sitting all day, the other one is pushing 300-pound carts up and down the aisle”—only got eight. It was also a matter of gender equity, given that pilots are majority male, and flight attendants predominantly female (who also, according to a recent Harvard study, are at a significantly higher risk of getting breast cancer or melanoma due to exposure to radiation—and a lack of uninterrupted sleep).

This is all part of why Nelson is so passionate about another critical inequality issue: affordable and reliable health care. She sees it as a potential locus for future wide-scale organizing efforts. Now that the threat of another government shutdown has been averted, she’s gearing up for the next challenge—and in true rabble-rousing fashion, has set her sights on one of the most contentious and thorny issues in American politics.

“We won the eight-hour work day, and the child labor laws, and the 40-hour work week because people joined together, and there’s no way that we can take on the issue [of health care] today without people joining unions in their workplace,” she says. “We can do something that raises the standards for all Americans. We have to set a floor. Right now, the floor is the grave. Everyone who has a union contract has better health care than the rest of America, but every time we go to the table now, the conversation around health care is, ‘How much of it can we save?’ Not ‘how much of it can we make better?’ There are people who had been led to believe that some sort of universal health care is going to diminish union contracts. It’s not true, no. We’re going to set a floor, and what that does is that raises our ability to negotiate something better at the table in our union contracts.”

“It doesn’t even matter if we have all the flight attendants organized demanding good health care; we are not going to get there if we’re not joined together with our sisters and brothers across different industries to resolve this issue,” she continues. “That’s what’s really going to push the movement forward—to understand that there’s a general consciousness of solidarity that is tied to the big ideas that matter to all of us, and the ideas that are never going to get pushed forward and allow us to succeed if we’re not in this together.”

The gutsiest labor leader in a generation continually returns to the idea of the collective, and brushes off the reams of attention she’s gotten as an individual. “I’m really struggling with it, and I have to tell you, headlines like ‘Meet the most powerful flight attendant in the world,’ I have two problems with that,” she says. “The first and biggest problem is that my power comes from the people that I represent, not from me. My second problem with that headline is that, in an article that describes all of the sexism and marginalization that I have experienced, I think it’s interesting that the editors at The New York Times chose to say that I was the most powerful flight attendant. The country just learned just how powerful flight attendants are, so I wear that with a badge of honor, of course. But I have to ask, what was that about?”

No matter how the media or broader world want to describe her or her accomplishments, Nelson knows exactly who she is—and so do the rank-and-file union members she’s spent decades fighting alongside at the bargaining table, on the picket line, and in the trenches. To her, solidarity is more than just a slogan, or even a tactic (thought it surely occupies a place of honor in Nelson’s toolkit). For Sara Nelson, solidarity is a way of life, and as much as she loves the 50,000 flight attendants she represents, you also get the distinct impression that she’s destined for something even bigger.

“I wish I could come out and say, ‘Let’s have a general strike for every single thing that’s going on,’” she tells me. “Let’s have a general strike over the fact that we’re not doing anything to reverse the effects of climate change. Let’s have a general strike over ending Citizens United. But, I’m keenly aware of the fact that the only way that you can really run a general strike, and the only way you can really affect change, are actually both one and the same: by finding where you can bring people together. You can’t just be a badass.” She’s right, of course—but in Sara Nelson’s case, it certainly helps.

*A previous version of this article said President Obama mediated a pension deal between the flight attendant union and United. He was a senator at the time.

*A previous version of this article stated that the flight attendant union pushed for a smoking ban on airplanes beginning in 2000; that fight began in the late 1980s.