There are 120,000 flight attendants in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But one of them, who flies for United Airlines, is being lauded as "America's Most Powerful Flight Attendant" by activists, media, and her fellow flight attendants.

Her name is Sara Nelson, and she first joined United Airlines in 1996. The source of her power is that she's the elected president the Association of Flight Attendants union -- and she's truly seized the moment.

AFA represents about 50,000 flight attendants in total, at United as well as Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Hawaiian, and some smaller airlines.

I first started talking with Nelson last year, after President Trump signed the massive aviation bill, which contained some truly surprising provisions that changed life radically for both flight attendants and passengers.

But it was the partial government shutdown earlier this year that truly gave Nelson, 45, a chance to flex. Actually, three chances, at least:

January 20: Day 30 of the shutdown. Speaking at an AFL-CIO event, Nelson called for a general strike -- a truly radical move by U.S. labor standards.

January 24: Day 34. Nelson spoke with passion at Reagan National Airport, pointing out that many of the air traffic controllers and TSA officers who were required to work without pay were veterans -- and warning that air travel was getting unsafe as a result of the shutdown.

January 25: Day 35. FAA workers start skipping work, and flights are canceled. Nelson issues a statement aimed squarely at the top Republican in the Senate, blaming him for the shutdown. "Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell?"

Later that evening, the Senate passed a bill ending the shutdown, and President Trump signed it. The pressure brought by aviation workers has been largely credited with being a major force in bringing the shutdown to a close.

Nelson still flies about once a year to keep her flight attendant status, but she's really 100 percent union leader now. 

Take her experience negotiating with Jonathan Ornstein, the head of Mesa Airlines. AFA represents about 1,000 Mesa employees.

In 2017, in the run-up to contract talks with Mesa, Nelson testified before Congress and called the airline "a 'bottom feeder' in terms of wages," according to The New York Times.

Her tough stance apparently worked, according to the Times. In a new contract, Nelson obtained a significant concession, allowing Mesa employees the right to picket their own airline.

"I think she is truly one of the most effective labor leaders I have ever met," Ornstein told the Times. "She kind of scares me."

Nelson got her start with the union about 16 years ago, when she became its chief of communications. That job gave her the fun task of threatening to use the union's CHAOS strike strategy, which stands for "creating havoc around our systems."

In short, rather than announce the time and place of a strike--which would allow airlines to prepare and compensate by moving other personnel around, the union's CHAOS strategy is a little more crafty.

Flight attendants announce only that they're planning to strike sometime -- but then choose the time and place with zero warning, so as to cripple their employer.

"We don't ever announce when or where. We might strike Paris. We might strike Texas," Nelson explained to the Los Angeles Times in 2005.

Now, a decade and a half later, it seems that Nelson's moment, and the union's, might have arrived.

Her speech at National Airport went viral. And her call for a general strike "drew commentary in publications as diverse as The Atlantic and Teen Vogue," as the Times put things in a recent profile.

The liberal Salon called her remarks, "the single most important pro-labor speech of the shutdown."

Which suggests that maybe her final destination might be beyond the flight attendants union, or even the aviation industry.

At the end of the Times profile, she started talking about what she'd do differently if she were the head of the AFL-CIO, which is the largest U.S. union organization with 12 million members.

Time will tell if that's ever a possibility. But until then, if you're flying, on United especially, be a little kinder to your flight attendant -- especially if you're not in the habit of checking name tags.

Published on: Mar 3, 2019
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