Sara Nelson – the leader of America’s largest flight attendant union – grew up in Oregon. Her father was a lumber mill worker. Her mother was a teacher. Nelson, a proud graduate of Corvallis High School, went to work as a flight attendant at United Airlines in 1996, based out of Boston. Today she’s president of 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), a division of CWA, AFL-CIO. The Labor Press interviewed her by phone Nov. 16.
Not every union-represented flight attendant gets involved in their union. Why did you get involved? It was six weeks into working at United and I hadn’t gotten my first paycheck. So I went into the company office and asked if they could help. And the response was … “I’m sure you’ll get one next time.” Somehow I made it through the next two weeks, but at the end of two weeks, I didn’t get a paycheck again. I went back to the office and asked someone to help me, and I started to get the same rhetoric. All of a sudden I had this tap on the shoulder. I turn around and there was someone standing there who looked just like me. She was wearing the same uniform and she was asking me how to spell my name. She handed me a check for $800, and she said, “Number 1, you go take care of yourself, and Number 2, call our union.” I did call our union, and I had my paycheck the very next day. But I always tell everyone that I learned everything I needed to know about our union in that moment. What I learned that day with that fellow union member who stood up for me was that you have to have an advocate. You cannot stand there alone. When I called the union office, they asked me if I would be willing to do some work. I had no idea that people said no. I was so honored that they would ask me to do something. That was the hook. When you get involved in something and you see that it’s not operating at its full potential, for me that was about jumping in and making it even better. That’s what flight attendants had done for 70 years. It used to be that you had to quit if you got married. You had to quit if you got too old, if you got too “fat”, if you were not the right color or gender. And all of those issues were pushed back on by the union. So flight attendants identify with the Association of Flight Attendants because it’s the union that formed the career. It wasn’t the airlines. It wasn’t the companies. And as I learned about our union and the democratic process that the founders of our union set up, I fell more and more in love with it. I was very proud of the fact that I was a member of a union that celebrated dissidence, and was willing to listen and learn and grow from that.
Do you encourage people to fly unionized airlines? I really appreciate that some of your readers might be willing to choose union carriers, and the good news is that we in the airline industry are a highly unionized workforce. In the Pacific Northwest, flying on Alaska Airlines is great. They’re a great airline and they have been proud members of our union for over 60 years. And they have won incredible battles at work, including being the most progressive on maternity leave and the ability to have safe and clean space for lactation at work. United Airlines as well. And Virgin America is in the middle of a merger with Alaska; they will soon be AFA members.
On the other side, are there airlines that you choose not to fly because of their attitude toward the workers or the union? Yes: Delta Airlines and JetBlue are nonunion and very much antiunion. So while we certainly support all the flight attendants there, it’s good to send a message to management that you want to fly with union members. Union members are able to speak up at work when they see something they think isn’t safe or isn’t right for passengers.
The airline industry has been consolidating in the last few decades, and today four airlines control 69 percent of total market share. What does that mean for workers, and for passengers? Ironically, airlines have consolidated to cut capacity and be able to generate larger profit margins, but they have fought against sharing those profits with the workers. We’ve pushed back, and recently won contracts that have pushed careers forward. But Delta used consolidation to get rid of a major flight attendant contract — the contract for the flight attendants at Northwest. They ran a huge antiunion campaign and just barely turned out a vote that denied the flight attendants representation. Overnight they threw out 60 years of bargaining at Northwest Airlines.
AFA has a trademarked strike tactic – CHAOS – Create Havoc Around Our System™ in which flight attendants engage in intermittent strikes. Why hasn’t it been used lately, and what would cause you to bring it back? Under the Railway Labor Act, we have to go through a very laborious process to get to the point of having the right to strike. It’s not like contracts that expire under the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act is the law that spells out union rights for most private sector workers.] Railway Labor Act contracts become “amendable,” but they do not expire, and you have to go through an entire process that includes approval by the government to be able to set a strike deadline. So why hasn’t CHAOS been used? Essentially because we haven’t hit the legal end process to be able to use it. That doesn’t mean we haven’t threatened it. We’ve run strike votes and prepared the strike and used the threat of a strike and the power of solidarity that you can exhibit through informational picketing in order to get contracts. It’s just been quite some time since any airline group has been given the legal right to strike.
What’s the main difference between airline unions and the kind of unions most of our readers would be familiar with, like public sector, building trades, manufacturing and grocery unions? In the past 20 years, contract bargaining has gone from an average of a year and a half time in length to five years. Obviously that’s just unheard of in most industries, but that has become the new norm in the airline industry. Unions are pushing back against that. Part of it has just been that management has figured out that if they delay at the table, there’s no hard deadline.
To what extent are airline unions unified, or not? For example, flight attendants are represented by three unions — TWU, APFA, and AFA. We believe very strongly that we need to unite. We have a public call for APFA [the flight attendants union at American Airlines] to merge with AFA, to build power for flight attendants there. We don’t believe that there should be any groups that are out there standing alone or being in a position where they could be co-opted by company management. And so we have made a very public call for our unions to merge. We think that’s the only way forward. In terms of how are aviation unions working together today, I think that aviation unions are more united than they have ever been, and that has been because we have been taking on global attacks on our jobs and our rights.