Sky Rights: Union Leader Sara Nelson

Corvallis native Sara Nelson is a force to be reckoned with. A rising star of the U.S. labor movement, she garnered national attention after using her AFL-CIO award acceptance speech as a call to action, urging all union members to unite to fight the previous federal government shutdown. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders even publicly thanked Nelson and her union, for motivating congress to end the 35-day shutdown. 

As International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, Nelson spends her days advocating for equality in the workplace, as well as for airline safety. Her social justice achievements include lead roles in the #MeToo in the Air campaign and human trafficking project, 100,000 Eyes in the Sky.

Growing Up in Corvallis
“Now that I’ve travelled all over the world and even all over the United States, I know just how lucky I was to grow up in Corvallis,” said Nelson. 

While growing up, Nelson said one of the highlights of her childhood was singing in the Heart of the Valley Children’s Choir (HVCC) – from the mid-1980s until she graduated high school. HVCC was founded by her mother, Carol Nelson. 

Originally, Nelson planned to pursue a career in education like her mother. Those plans changed, however, after a phone call with a college friend who had just started working as a flight attendant. After hearing about the job, the pay, and the benefits, Nelson decided to apply, and was eventually hired by United Airlines. 

The Union
When becoming a flight attendant in 1996, Nelson also became a union member. Nelson said that today, the airline industry is almost fully unionized. 

“It was my union that took care of me when I didn’t get my first paycheck,” said Nelson. “You have a voice where otherwise you would be voiceless… [or] just a number”

Having experienced the benefits of union membership early in her career, Nelson took an active role. She served in a variety of positions over the years, including international vice president, and as a member of the communications team – all leading up to 2014, when she was elected to the position of International President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA). 

AFA-CWA represents over 50,000 flight attendants working for more than 20 airlines. As president, Nelson gained national attention due to her advocacy work and her role in ending the government shut down by calling attention to its impact on flight safety through social media, media interviews, and her widely reported acceptance speech.

#MeToo Strikes Air
When asked about her favorite aspect of being a flight attendant, Nelson noted that she enjoys the camaraderie of the airline team, as well as being charged with the care of the passengers. She sees a flight attendant’s role as a first responder, ensuring both the safety and comfort of travelers. 

When asked what she dislikes about her job, she described the history of objectification and sexist stereotypes about the women and men in her profession. For example, Southwest Airlines required “air hostesses” to wear hot pants and go go boots during flights. In 1971, “Time Magazine” reported that National Airlines spent $9.5 million on their “Fly Me” campaign. These television and print ads featured young “stewardesses” along with tag lines like, “I’m Cheryl, Fly Me.” National Airline flight attendants even wore “Fly Me” buttons pinned to their uniforms.

Although airlines no longer use sexually objectified images of flight attendants in their advertisements, sexual harassment is still an all-too-frequent reality for those in the profession. In 2018, an AFA-CWA survey of 3,500 flight attendants uncovered that 69 percent of them had reported instances of sexual harassment. This survey was part of the #MeToo in the Air campaign, which promoted a working environment free of sexual harassment. 

“It is frustrating how hard we have had to fight to be heard and how hard we have had to fight against discriminatory practices and the stereotypes about flight attendants.” said Nelson.

She recalled a conversation she had as a new flight attendant in 1996, when an experienced flight attendant explained to her that some people will see her as a “mistress or wife.” To put things into perspective, these kinds of incidents were still happening, despite the profession already coming a long way from the “Fly Me” campaign, and when “Coffee, Tea, or Me” was a best-selling book. 

In a 2017 op-ed published in the Washington Post, Nelson stated that, “Even today, we are called pet names, patted on the rear when a passenger wants our attention, cornered in the back galley and asked about our ‘hottest’ layover, and subjected to incidents not fit for print.”

Taking Lead
As president of the AFA-CWA, Nelson has led initiatives to stop sexual harassment during flights, calling for airline industry executives to denounce their prior treatment of flight attendants.

“We want to work with the industry. Our message is: work with us now,” said Nelson. “There’s no way we can go back and fix what’s happened before. But we do need to denounce that era and set a new marker here and move forward”

Additionally, Nelson worked with congress to address sexual misconduct in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, including the development of standard procedures for reporting in-flight incidents, whether they were instances of sexual harassment of flight attendants or passenger-on-passenger harassment. 

This work is why the AFL-CIO awarded Nelson the 2019 MLK Drum Major for Justice Award. Each year, the union recognizes leaders who are “advancing justice, peace, and freedom for workers and community members in their daily work.” 

“I feel that we have taken incredible strides on that. Especially this year with the action we took… to bring an end to the government shutdown,” said Nelson. “There is real recognition of our role as safety professionals and also as people who can set a tone that includes solutions for the country.”  

Speech to End Government Shutdown
Always looking to leverage one step forward for another, Nelson decided to use her acceptance speech for the 2019 Drum Major for Justice Award to call for an end to the government shutdown.

“Sometimes, you get awards because of things you have done, and other times, you get them because there is an imperative for what you are yet to do, and I really felt this was about encouraging me to earn it,” said Nelson. “I had the opportunity with that speech to talk about the shutdown, what was at stake, and to call on the labor movement to use their power at work to end it through a general strike.”

According to Nelson, flight professionals were painfully aware of what was at stake when Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, air traffic controllers, and other federal workers were furloughed or working without pay. As a flight attendant in 2001, she grieved for lost colleagues and watched as her industry changed overnight, as a result of the September 11 attacks – one of those changes having been the establishment of the TSA.

“During the shutdown, the layers of safety and security were being stripped down and thinned out, [meaning] we were all in jeopardy,” said Nelson. “Every day that went by, we really became louder and louder, and more committed to making the shutdown end. Because we knew we were fighting for lives and we were fighting to keep catastrophic accidents or terrorist events from happening.”

“We’ve had safety accidents where we lost our friends in the past. If there was any way we could have turned back the clock [on 911]  to save our friend’s lives we would have done it.”  

While some credit Nelson’s speech calling for a general strike with ending the shutdown, it was just one example of  AFA-CWA’s activism. Nelson said that she and other union members participated in rallies, marches, and other awareness building activities. They spoke with and wrote to members of congress, expressing their concerns, while coordinating efforts with other airline and transportation unions.

Human Trafficking:100,000 Eyes in the Skies
The AFA-CWA’s history of advocating for passenger safety is also something that Nelson said makes her proud. The union’s 100,000 Eyes in the Skies project aims to empower flight attendants to help stop human trafficking. 

“We know human trafficking is a growing business around the world and that air travel is a key way for those traffickers to move people around the world,” said Nelson. “Our workspace could actually be used to deny people their freedom and their joy, and potentially their health and wellbeing. Stopping this is the ultimate way to save lives.”

Under her leadership, the union lobbied congress to pass a law requiring mandatory training for all flight attendants to recognize signs of trafficking, and how to report suspicious incidents. Within one year of taking on this project, the law was passed as part of the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, and flight attendants received the training.

Union Advocacy Continued
In addition to staff working conditions, Nelson said that the union intends to carry on with their work in advocating for passenger safety. She mentioned that many people don’t realize flight attendants led the charge on initiatives like banning smoking from airplanes, keeping knives out of air cabins, and ensuring that water meets EPA standards. Reflecting on these strides in social justice, Nelson believes that unionizing is one of the most effective ways to enact change. 

“It is immediate – you don’t need to wait for an election to effect change, and you are building power in your local area,” she said. “You can join together with other people who share a common cause with you. It is nonpartisan and it breaks down the divisions that are often used to keep us separate.”

By Samantha Sied