America’s Most Powerful Flight Attendant

Filed Under: Unions

Fortunately the government isn’t shut down anymore, though late last year and early this year we had the longest partial government shutdown ever.

While federal workers weren’t being paid, it’s interesting what seemed to tip the scales in reopening the government. As the government shutdown lasted over a month, an increasing number of air traffic controllers called in sick, to the point that it looked like it could impact the integrity of the system.

With this — and the danger at large that this posted to the public — the government was reopened.

What’s interesting is one of the powerful voices behind the shutdown, in spite of herself not being a federal employee.

The New York Times ran a story yesterday about how the shutdown made Sara Nelson the country’s most powerful flight attendant. Now, in fairness, there aren’t many “powerful” flight attendants, at least in a mainstream sense. So arguably Ms. Nelson doesn’t have much competition there.

Sara Nelson is 45 years old and has been a United flight attendant for about 23 years, since 1996. She’s the President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, which represents over 50,000 flight attendants at over 20 airlines.

And it’s pretty incredible how much influence she has had well beyond internal airline issues. When it came to the government shutdown, she was one of the most vocal people about the dangers of not paying federal workers. She made several news appearances, she met with Bernie Sanders, she attended the State of the Union, etc.

For example, here’s part of a passionate speech she gave about how the shutdown was putting lives in danger:

And here’s a news appearance from her:

I’m not here to rewrite the whole New York Times story, but if you have a few minutes, I think it’s definitely worth a read. It’s fascinating to see not only the impact she has had with this current shutdown, but how she got to this point in her career, the sexism she has dealt with, and the impact she has had on the labor movement on the whole, as the number of workers who are unionized in the US has continued to decrease.

I suppose this is inherently political — my goal here isn’t to debate the merits of unions — but I do think the story is very interesting for anyone who likes airlines, especially as it gives you a sense of just how much of an impact someone in charge of an airline union could have on our government shutdown.

  1. I love strong woman and how they elicit fears in straight men about their masculinity. She sounds awesome. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Her achievements in her field are not trivial.

    However, it seems like she’s being used as a prop/tool by the politicians and media for advancing their own agenda.

  3. I had heard/read about this before. So glad someone stood up to support the federal workers who were caught in the middle of this political issue. Theses people made sure it wasn’t going to happen again either.

    When 10ATC controllers called in sick and pretty much shut down down the eastern seaboard air corridor, she stepped up to support them. There will not be another shutdown. The non federal employees won’t stand for it. It’s about time.

  4. She has been effective at self-promotion and likely a degree of luck and being in the right place at the right time. She was only hired on at UA in 1996, and a significant portion of the time has been with AFA at various level as opposed to line flying.

    She climbed to the top of AFA after the former international president, Alaska F/A Veda Shook only served a three year term, despite her predecessor Patricia Friend serving for decades in that role.

    As an organization AFA is no longer the industry juggernaut it once was as mergers have resulted in membership loses. Sara has called for APFA to merge into her union, but most AA F/As like the smaller, more accountable, member driven and democratic APFA that is not AFL-CIO affiliated.

    APFA members elect national officers, AFA-CWA has delegates.

  5. @Mike @RR
    If you follow Debit’s sarcasm, it is surprisingly true. Just a bit too extreme for most people

    I find this excerpt very disgusting.

    “We don’t ever announce when or where,” Ms. Nelson told The Los Angeles Times in 2005. “We might strike Paris. We might strike Texas.”

    Really sweet, she uses passengers as hostage. That’s why people hates union. She came to power by playing other people’s misery. She is just another power hungry politician, like Trump of aviation. Wait till she wants to build a wall in the galley.

  6. Forgot to add this.

    Really, allying with Uncle Bernie???
    Do you want airlines to become the next public bus system?????

  7. The ATC nor anyone else has a problem with striking and shutting the system down.

    No one has a problem working a second job, or not paying their bills, or taking an extra day or two off,

    But a two week late paycheck us a real problem,

    When we start a business Many if us has went far longer before we could take a draw, and I never received a paid vacation,

  8. Unions are in bed with the corporations and only interested in money put into their own pockets.
    Get Union Job to experience this yourself. I was a Teamster for 2-1/2 years.
    They are one of the most CORRUPT elements in the American system.
    Corruption and Greed = Unions

  9. She was so quiet about Dr. Dao.
    Oh, because she is a professional politician.
    Right, #METOO for politics, #WOMEN for politics.

  10. Lucky:

    Have you ever had a job where you were on a business payroll?

    Have you ever adhered to a work plan or procedure because that is why you were being paid?

    I have been in a union and now I am not. There seems to be a lot of fraud and conflicts of interest for many union leaders, where the leaders lead a lifestyle like those of a politician.

  11. @ Bob — The only job I’ve had is on my own business payroll, but I’m guessing that’s not what you’re referring to. And to your second question, nope, I’m grateful to have the independence to do what I’d like.

    I’m not sure if my post came across differently, but my intention wasn’t at all to suggest that I’m 100% pro-union, at least in the context in which they exist. I take a lot of issues with a lot of union decisions. However, I also take a lot of issues with the misaligned goals and actions of executives who are raking in eight figures per year while arguably worsening an airline.

    Call it checks and balances, if you’d like — I think the union leaders and airline management are way off base.

  12. No big organization is purely selfless- and sure, Unions have their share of problems, and occasionally, they may do more harm than good (e.g., protecting bad employees who clearly should be fired). But, as Lucky says, it’s about having checks and balances in the system, and that’s why Unions are important.

  13. For the record, this book published in 1952 explores the issues: John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power. “In it he argued that giant firms had replaced small ones to the point where the perfectly competitive model no longer applied to much of the American economy. But not to worry, he added. The power of large firms was offset by the countervailing power of large unions, so that consumers were protected by competing centers of power.” (

    Sorry for the length, I work in a University and need to cite my sources 😉

  14. The irony is that my fiancé and I saw a story about this on one of the TV networks, saw her scowling face (the TV story had a much less flattering still store than what is shown on this article here), and immediately thought, “She must work for United!” We went Googling, and sure enough, she does!

    /Worked for unions before, not a fan of them. They seem to protect employees who are worthless/mediocre and ultimately caused more jobs to be lost in the USA (think manufacturing, like GM & Hostess) than they’ve protected.

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