The 2019 government shutdown, the New York Times declared, made Sara Nelson “America’s most powerful flight attendant.” Through her bold leadership and willingness to threaten a general strike, Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, became one of the country’s most recognizable labor leaders, seemingly overnight.
Shortly after the shutdown’s end, Nelson joined Dissent’s Belabored podcast to talk about the symbolism of airport workers striking back against the president, the current wave of union militancy, and why so many of today’s dynamic unions are led by women.
Sarah Jaffe: Longtime labor watchers were struck by the fact that it was airport workers who helped end the recent shutdown, specifically air traffic controllers, considering Reagan’s attack on air traffic controllers was what crushed strike activity in the United States in the 1980s. Airports are becoming a center of protest and action in the Trump era—I’m also thinking about the taxi workers’ strike around the Muslim ban [at JFK in 2016]. Can you talk about the airport as a center of American life and the importance of the work that goes on there and how much power that gives airport workers?
Sara Nelson: First of all, we made a grave mistake in the past strike [the 1981 PATCO strike] in not understanding how we are all connected—not understanding how individual workers’ issues and their efforts to gain contracts and recognition for their work are directly tied to the rest of us being able to fight for the same issues. That was a grave mistake, we should learn from it, and we should never allow it to be repeated. Anyone who has any labor consciousness certainly can’t help but think of [PATCO]. There’s a general recognition of what happened, even if people don’t understand the full ramifications.
We do have tremendous power. If airline workers had stood together at that time, we could have stopped the attack and the signal from the government that it’s OK to plow over workers’ rights, to really just put them in a position of being forced to do what those with power and money want them to do.
We’ve seen a steady decline in both union membership and strikes in this country, and as a result, the American worker is working harder than ever for less pay. We’re seeing rubber bands break—all across the country. We’re seeing teachers rise up, people understanding their power in their workplace.
And to your point about power at airports, yes: airports are where people converge. People of all races, genders, cultures, and creeds come together and actually climb into a metal tube together. We have a microcosm of America on every flight. [The airport] is a central place that everyone can relate to, even those people who fly in corporate jets, because they take off and land at airports, too. They count on people buying tickets to come to cities where they’re putting on events and where they’re selling what they’re selling. Airports are places where people pay attention. There’s tremendous power in that; we should use it.
On a very separate track, we had an emergency webcast with the flight attendants [recently] to really define what’s at stake—to help them understand that they also have rights, separate and distinct from what we’re talking about in terms of a general strike. That is, to look out for their own safety. They are in these sensitive positions, where they’re looking out for the good of the public, and they see that there are lives in danger. They can withhold their service and say, I’m not going to participate in that: I’m not going to fly this flight because I believe that everyone is in danger. That is a right that they have today. We are making it very clear to our members that they have that right to withhold that service if the scene becomes too unsafe.
Sarah Jaffe: You trained as a teacher before becoming a flight attendant. It’s so striking to me that the leadership in labor is coming from teachers, flight attendants. It’s coming from workers, not on a factory line, but who work every day with people and who are responsible for the safety of people. Flight attendants are also literally in a field where the idea of emotional labor was invented. What is it about flight attendants, teachers, and nurses that’s making them the leaders of today’s labor movement?
Sara Nelson: Well, I love my brothers, but let’s be clear: all those professions you named have a high percentage of women. And women get results. Whether it’s [at work or] in the home, for our children, women are focused on the results, and they’re not afraid to speak with people who don’t agree with them or fight fiercely for the people they love. That’s really what’s going on here: you’ve got people who are saying that failure is not an option and that we are going to fight fiercely for the people that we love. The people we love are our students, our flying partners, and the passengers who are in our care every day. These people enrich our lives.
We also see on our planes, quite frankly, that we deal with the occasional jerk—and everybody remembers that—but let’s face it: flight attendants know firsthand that Americans are good people. There’s way more that we have in common than we have that’s different. If our country were really in a state that some people are trying to make us believe it’s in, there is no way those planes could take off and land. There’s just no way. You’re jamming people in completely uncomfortably, forced to sit together, who have to do things that they don’t want to do: stay in their seats with their seatbelt on when it’s bumpy, put their tray tables up, put their phones away, and then come through security. They have to behave themselves, and they do. And not only do they behave themselves, but they’re generally kind and nice to the people around them.
That’s what we see every day. In the teaching profession, the people who are on the frontlines, the people at our post offices, flight attendants, and people interfacing with the general public—we actually know that the vast majority of people in this country care very deeply for the people who are next to them. We know that we can lead a dialogue that actually brings people together.
In this moment, reversing PATCO, learning about power from labor being involved the shutdown, from the teachers’ strikes—all of this is about reviving a labor movement that really fights for the working class. We are learning that power starts in the workplace. If we understand that and come together in our workplace, the rest of American life will follow, including our politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.