Sara Nelson is the labor leader we need

Journalist Esther Wang speaks to the Flight Attendants Union President about the future of the labor movement

Sara Nelson, the charismatic head of the nation’s largest flight attendants’ union, loves the word “strike.” During our 50-minute conversation recently, Nelson, who’s often described as America’s “most prominent labor leader,” used the term no less than a dozen times. It’s fitting, as it was her invocation of a general strike, uttered in January 2019 during a speech that subsequently went viral, that helped to end Donald Trump’s government shutdown. “Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike. Say it—it feels good,” she once proclaimed in the New York Times. A strike is a reminder of the ultimate power that workers possess—the power to withhold their labor and their time. In embracing it, Nelson is a bit of a throwback, and maybe also a figurehead that the U.S. labor movement needs in this particular moment.

Her industry needs her too. Flight attendants have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, and subject to shocking levels of abuse and at times physical violence from irate passengers. Last year saw a 500 percent increase in the number of violent incidents on airplanes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. In May 2021, to cite just one example, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant was punched by a woman after she asked her to put on her mask and follow other safety procedures. And airline executives have only made the lives of flight attendants more miserable, furloughing and laying off staff disproportionately, and pushing to reinstitute alcohol sales on planes.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA began a union drive at Delta shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it picked up steam in December 2021 after the airline publicly pushed the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reduce its recommended quarantine period for people with breakthrough infections—a move that Nelson described as “brazenly choosing the economy over workers’ lives.”

She and the AFA-CWA immediately went on a media blitz. “This wasn’t just about being critical of the CDC and Delta,” which had pressed the CDC for the change, Nelson said. “This was about being as loud as we could” to “spread the word to workers everywhere and get it into everyone’s consciousness—do not force people to come back to work.” As for Delta, the company eventually budged, amending its original policy in response to the union’s criticism. “They didn’t give us credit for that, but they changed their policy,” Nelson said, more than a hint of satisfaction in her voice.


Flight attendants aren’t alone in their demands for the safer workplaces and fairer pay that they—and all of us—deserve. Workers across industries are increasingly fed up, fueled by the indignity of being pandered to as “essential workers” even as they were being thrown to the wolves. During the pandemic, “what we saw was a consistent view of workers being disposable,” Nelson said. “And so now workers are like, listen, it’s not just that there’s all this inequality,” she said. “You don’t even give a damn about our lives. You don’t care if we live or die.” To Nelson, there is “a recognition that nothing is going to change if we don’t change it collectively.” This, she says, explains why support for unions is at its highest point in decades, and the flurry of unionization drives at Starbucks stores and Amazon warehouses. “Workers are saying, ‘Wow, the only way to take on someone who could be a trillionaire—and who leaves the rest of us with a burning Earth as he shoots off to Mars—is to organize in our workplace,’” Nelson said.

That’s the hope, at least. What has been dubbed the “Great Resignation”—a turn of phrase that neatly captures the mood of millions of Americans—is less a mass movement than a whole lot of individuals fed up and finding better jobs. But while workers may have a little more negotiating power now, that can change quickly. (Better pay and benefits, as anyone who has been sexually harassed on the job knows, are not the only markers of a decent workplace.) “The only way these gains are lasting is if we organize in the millions,” Nelson told me.

“And so now workers are like, listen, it’s not just that there’s all this inequality. You don’t even give a damn about our lives. You don’t care if we live or die.”

I asked Nelson what she would tell someone who wanted to bring that Norma Rae spirit to her own job—a working mom, for example—but was unsure where to begin. “Join unions, run unions. It’s that simple,” she said. If your workplace isn’t unionized? “Figure out how to organize one.” Easier said than done, but Nelson, who began her career as a flight attendant in 1996 before becoming the president of her union in 2014, is keenly aware of how unions can transform the lives of women. She recalled going to the White House in 2012 for a forum on women and the economy, where much of the discussion centered on closing the gender wage gap. At one point, she raised her hand to speak. “And I said, ‘You know, we’ve talked about the wage gap all morning. But why have we not talked about the one thing that would immediately close the wage gap and give women power in their workplace and give women power to actually collectively bargain, and bargain for their worth together? Why have we not talked about making it easier for women to join unions?’” According to Nelson, silence ensued. “And the moderator waited a minute, and then just called on someone else. And that was it.”

A lot has changed in the decade since. Fast-food workers are organizing for a union not just to raise their wages, but to combat pervasive sexual harassment. In June, Nelson may challenge current AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler for the federation’s top job. (“That’s something that feels like a real calling and a duty,” she told me when I asked, declining to give a definitive answer.)

And in the meantime, she says she loves the work. “I just have to share with you that my day started off right today, because the first thing that I got was a picture of Delta flight attendants over at the Starbucks in Atlanta, where they’re organizing,” Nelson told me, her voice cracking with emotion. The name one of the flight attendants gave the barista for her order? “Solidarity.”