Sara Nelson on Flying During Covid, Unions, Biden and What’s Next

Sara Nelson believes in solidarity: When she speaks, she talks about collectivity, of worker power, of bread and roses.

As the head of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, Nelson, who started working as a flight attendant for United Airlines in 1996, can wield strength in numbers — the union represents over 50,000 workers at 20 different airlines. During the Trump era, it meant standing up to the former president on immigrant family separation and the 2019 federal government shutdown.

Under a new administration, Nelson is looking to a brighter labor future in America, as she believes the movement will capitalize on autoworkers’ and teachers’ strike victories, and an evolving sense of urgency among the working class.

“You look at the Millennials and Gen Z and they’re recognizing that for the first time no one has laid down a golden path for them,” says Nelson. “There is this idea of collectivity, this craving of solidarity, and also a very clear definition of the problems that we have to tackle and the issues that we need to organize around.”

Rolling Stone spoke to Nelson about being a flight attendant during the early days of Covid, the gig economy, and what changes are needed in the air travel industry. This interview is part of Rolling Stone’s “Next Wave” series on leaders who are shaping the future.

Rolling Stone: What is the first thing that you would do if Covid were eradicated tomorrow?
Sara Nelson: I’m going to suspend disbelief for a minute and just imagine that it’s gone. I would get right back to where we were and talk about what we have exposed in Covid and that is a jobs crisis, a wage crisis, a health care crisis. We’ve got to use this moment now to really make change for the long run. People can no longer be working two and three jobs just to survive. We have to have a life where people can have bread and roses, too. So that’s what I’d get to right away, is fighting forward and using this moment and this shared experience to make life better for all of us.

When’s the first time that you heard about the coronavirus outbreak?
I heard about the coronavirus outbreak in December of 2019. Covid-19. We fly to every corner of the Earth as flight attendants and so when there is a communicable disease outbreak, we often are hearing about it before anyone else because we have to be very aware. We have to put in place our procedures on the plane that help to stop the spread even before you know all the characteristics about it. There are things that we can do. So we started working on this and sharing good information with crews who were flying to Asia.

Early in the outbreak in April 2020, planes were still flying and there was a string of airline worker deaths that were believed to be linked to the virus. What was it like for flight attendants at that time to be still working?
Demand dropped off the week of March 13 to just three percent of what it had been the year before. So not a lot of people were flying at that point. Our planes were pretty empty. There were all kinds of stories, about [how] we flew one person to Boston to see her sick mother. We had two people on a whole plane. You could actually probably socially distance on a plane, which is not normally possible. But what was really concerning right in that moment in March and April was whether or not the airlines would even be able to meet payroll. This was such a dramatic and swift change that at that time, it was about getting the financial support so that we would have the ability to fight the virus. We used that time after we got that financial support to put those safety measures in place. So we immediately started advocating on the mask policies. We were also learning more about the virus at the time. But absolutely we know that there are flight attendants who got Covid at work in those early days, one of them is right behind me here, Paul Frishkorn. He was the first flight attendant to die, a friend and a union activist and someone who looked out for other people and was actually answering questions in the crew rooms about flight attendant benefits the week before he died. So it was scary and there were people who have conditions who were more prone to getting more sick or having more severe conditions with Covid. People were also really concerned about what they’d be bringing home to their families. It was a real concern. But we had the economic crisis collide with the health crisis and we were working on it all at once, and also dealing with that loss. It wasn’t very long before you couldn’t tell where someone was getting coronavirus because it quickly turned into a community spread. That was also painful because we know that we have stopped epidemics at transportation’s door before and if there had been a real plan with the federal government, we could have been a part of saving so many lives and possibly containing this virus and never allowing it to get to the point that it did here in the United States of America.

Do you feel safe flying today?
Let’s be clear, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. The airlines are one of the most controlled spaces in the country because we have clear policies about masks, about cleaning, about air filtration that is actually safer than being in an office building. There’s a lot of procedures in place that reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus. It’s, frankly, one of the safest places to be. CDC says the best thing to do is to socially distance and stay at home and not be in gatherings, so let’s be clear about what an airplane is and how people are packed in together. But the policies that we have put in place with the airlines do make it a controlled environment and it is one of the safer spaces if you’re outside your home.

The industry is obviously in upheaval right now to an extent, and sometimes a crisis provides an opportunity to overhaul a system. What sort of changes do you think should be instituted when it comes to air travel?
I do not want to see us go backward on our cleaning procedures on airplanes. One thing flight attendants can tell you is that we have never seen our airplanes so clean and we want to keep it that way. So we want to definitely keep that up. I think too that for a while here, we’re going to have to be clear about how we’re boarding. These mask policies are probably going to be here to stay for a little while. We have the ability to think more about the people on the planes rather than just the shareholders. We need to rethink how business is operating. So many people were so upset and rightfully so, that airlines gave $14 billion in stock buybacks. We, the employees among them, were some of the first to complain. We need to change the system, but that’s not just with air travel, that’s with our entire capitalist society. There needs to be some checks on capitalism to make it work for everyone in the country. So if we have businesses have the ability to reinvest in the business, to actually provide good jobs and to make this an experience that’s enjoyable and focus on the customers rather than the shareholders, that is something that could come out of this that would make air travel better and frankly, our entire economy.

Has the proliferation of gig economy jobs affected the labor movement’s efforts to organize, has it affected your efforts at all?
The gig economy and the concept of contract work exists in every single industry. I think about being on the GM picket line and standing out there and hearing the same exact issues that I might hear in a flight attendant local meeting. Having temporary workers or contract workers doing the exact same work, but getting half the pay and having no job security and being forced overtime and no access to benefits. What does that do? That undercuts the person who’s trying to get ahead, who’s trying to just keep up with inflation, with the good union contract and good union job that was formed there. So contract work, gig work, anything that defines work as outside of direct relation to the person who’s actually making the decisions about that work, a direct relation to the employer, is a threat to working people everywhere. We see that in aviation. We see that in every single industry out there and it’s something that we have to take very seriously. It’s all about that relation. But it’s also about how working people can stand up for each other. So one of the things that’s on the agenda for Joe Biden is to reinstate the right to secondary boycotts. What that means is that workers can stand up for other workers who are being mistreated, because as long as those other workers are mistreated, we’re all in jeopardy of having the standards eroded. All of that has to be at the forefront of our work and we’ve got to attack the worst of this gig economy and the idea of contracting, the idea that some work can just simply be defined as less than others because of the way that a boardroom wants to define it

When and how did you decide to become a flight attendant?
I went to college to become a teacher and I majored in English and education. I was doing my student teaching in the fall after I graduated and planning to start my career as a teacher. I was working four jobs at the time and a friend of mine that graduated with me became a flight attendant and we sort of kind of joked about it because she really wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, and she kind of fell into this and we thought it was funny. There was a very cold day, I was in St. Louis. It was snowing. I was miserable. I was working those four jobs around the clock and looking at my first year teacher salary that I would have the next year and thinking about setting up my classroom and paying back student loans and feeling pretty overwhelmed by all of it. And my friend called me and she said, “Guess where I am?” And she teased me that she had her toes in the sand at Miami Beach. She teased me a little bit about that and then she got serious and she said, “Listen, this job is not what we thought it was.” I get teared up because I’m thinking about the women who formed our union to make it possible for her to have that conversation with me. She described what was in the union contract and the pay, which was going to be better than my first year teacher salary. She described the flexibility. She described the lifestyle that was all created by that contract. She described the pension and at 23, working four jobs and being exhausted and being able to get a pension at age 50, which was what it was at the time, sounded pretty darn good. So ironically, that’s the thing that put me over the edge. I got in the car and drove to Chicago and interviewed at United Airlines the next day. That’s how I became a flight attendant. It was something I never expected, but it was because of that union contract.

How has the job changed since you started?
The job has changed in so many ways since I started in 1996. That was only three years after we won the weight case and made sure that flight attendants didn’t have to step on a weight scale before they went to work. There was still a lot of sexual discrimination and harassment and all of that just pervasive in the workplace. I remember a flight attendant pulling me aside after she had had a tussle in the office with a supervisor. Here I was a brand new flight attendant and she pulled me aside and she said, “Listen, I’ve spent thirty five years on the job.” So in 1996, think about that when she started, she said, “Listen, 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 we stick together, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.” That was a lot to take for a 23 year old fresh out of company training. But it’s the thing that sticks with me the most. And it was true. We have done a lot during that time. Since that time we got certified by the FAA. We have the same credentials that are required to do this work in terms of background checks and the seriousness of our job as the pilots on the plane and the mechanics who are fixing it. We have fought for that recognition. When the #MeToo movement broke, we were in a place where we could demand our management to denounce the industry’s sexist past and to hold us up as safety professionals and many of them did that. We got policies in place where people could actually report these incidents and be taken seriously. We’re changing so much in that way. But also what has changed, of course, is that five years after I started, September 11 happened. I was a Boston based flight attendant and I had flown Flight 175 regularly, that was the plane that ended at the World Trade Center South Tower and my friends were on it. That changed our profession forever because not only were we now aviation’s first responders responding to the safety and health of the people in our care, but all of a sudden we were aviation’s last line of defense too in aviation security. We had to fight in that moment for all of the things that the 9/11 Commission promoted in order to change our workspace. We had to get trained on these security threats. We had to think about that and carry that to work every day. But we also had the financial fallout that led to the airline bankruptcies. So that crisis was put on our backs and we lost that pension that made me drive to Chicago from St. Louis and get this job. We lost thirty to forty percent of our pay and we lost twenty percent of our fellow flying partners. Job losses and productivity changes that meant that they would never come back. 2020 was supposed to be the year that finally, after that crisis, we would get back to the bargaining table and be able to bargain across the industry for what we truly deserve and the value that we create at the airlines and the billions of dollars that the airlines were making prior to this immediate and overnight crisis. So the job has changed. The job has gotten harder. Some of the glamor has been taken out of it. And there’s fewer of us on the planes and more people than ever. There’s still an incredible camaraderie up there in the air and among the aviation family and maybe more so than ever. But it is not the same job it was when I started in 1996, some ways it’s much better with that recognition and respect that we have fought for. But we need to now turn that into making sure that everybody is getting a fair wage and not being able to have to work all the time in order to make ends meet.

How do you see the roles of unions changing in American society over the next 20 years?
This shared experience coming out of coronavirus, if we do our jobs right, we can organize in the millions and this can be a revival of the labor movement that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. I think that this is the moment. You look at the Millennials and Gen Z and they’re recognizing that for the first time no one has laid down a golden path for them. They’re going to have to stand together. So there is this idea of collectivity, this craving of solidarity, and also a very clear definition of the problems that we have to tackle and the issues that we need to organize around.

So we are prime to do massive organizing. If we do that, if we build up that union density, even by doubling that over the next 20 years, that will fundamentally change politics. More people will be engaged, more people will understand that they can get results. Look at the strikes that have happened over the last two years. That took a lot of organizing and a lot of background work by people who put that in place, but what the public saw and what each one of those union members experienced is that they took a stand together and in some cases they got results in hours, in other cases it took as long as 35 days. But they got results faster than any political process has ever provided for them. When you get results for people and when you show people that things can change and that there’s a way to do that and build that, and when they build their unions and have that legal standing now to make capital have to respond to working people, that will dramatically change our workplaces. It will change politics. It can change everything. But, we do have to seize this moment and we have to recognize the job that we have to do to help people understand how to grab that and hold on to it and lock it in. I think it’s amazing how ripe this moment is. We have a young computer programmer who knocked on her neighbor’s door, who is a labor organizer to ask, “What is the union and how do I get one?” Think about that. The worker is knocking on the labor organizer’s door to ask about the union. We have a real opportunity here to give working people real power and to give people the understanding that actually they can control their lives and they can control what happens in the broader economy and in the broader political spectrum.  I think that’s what’s going to happen. I think we’re going to seize the moment. I think we’re going to organize in the millions. And I think that we are going to fundamentally change things for the better because the issues are there, the shared experience is there and the desire to come together is just fomented with these next generations and with all the struggles that we’ve been through.

Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Flight attendants have gotten a lot of recognition for what we did in terms of saying that we wouldn’t work flights that were facilitating the family separation policy. We helped to put an end to that. We said that we were not going to continue to work flights with the government shutdown going on and people who are looking out for our safety and security, not getting a paycheck and stretching that system so thin. We’re going to continue to use our power to make sure that people are safe, our workspace is safe, and that we’re doing the right thing. A lot of people for a long time would say to me, “Well, what are the pilots doing?” And the pilots are absolutely good partners and we work with them directly. But at the end of the day, a plane won’t take off without a pilot flying it, but it also won’t take off without a flight attendant staffing it. So we have real power and we’re going to continue to use it.