Sara Nelson (union leader)

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Sara Nelson
Sara Nelson.jpg
Sara Nelson at the AFGE convention in 2015
Born (1973-03-11) March 11, 1973 (age 50)
EducationPrincipia College (BA)
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseDavid Borer

Sara Nelson (born March 11, 1973) is an American union leader who serves as the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL–CIO.[1] A United Airlines flight attendant since 1996, she previously served as AFA's international vice president for a term beginning January 1, 2011. AFA-CWA represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Nelson was born and raised in Corvallis, Oregon.[3] Raised in the Church of Christ, Scientist, Nelson's mother worked as a music teacher and her father worked in the lumber industry. After graduating from Corvallis High School, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Principia College in 1995, where she majored in English and education.[4][5]


Nelson initially intended to pursue acting, but instead worked four jobs to pay off her student debt, including as a substitute teacher, waitress, linen salesperson, and temp at an insurance agency.[6]

Nelson has been a flight attendant with United Airlines since August 1996.[7] Soon after beginning her career, based in Boston for United Airlines, Nelson became an activist in the Boston AFA Local. She served in a variety of roles including the elected position of Council Representative. In 2002 Nelson was selected by AFA leaders at United Airlines to serve as Communications Chair.[8]

In nearly 10 years as the union's chief spokesperson for United flight attendants, Nelson played a central role in the union's strategic response to major events affecting the airline industry. In 2002, a year after the devastating impact of the September 11 Attacks rocked the airline industry, the SARS outbreak devastated international air travel. Airlines including United Airlines undertook cost-cutting measures, and Nelson served as the primary spokesperson for the union during those extensive pre-bankruptcy reorganization negotiations.[9] By December 2002, when United Airlines filed the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history, Nelson was leading both the internal and external communications response to what would become one of the longest corporate bankruptcies when it finally ended over three years later. When United used the bankruptcy to terminate the flight attendants pension plan, Nelson announced AFA's intent to engage in a strike.[10]

She later served simultaneously as the union's CHAOS strike chair during two rounds of labor negotiations, and provided communications support to other groups of AFA flight attendants, including those at Northwest Airlines where she served as AFA spokesperson during bankruptcy negotiations and strike preparations.[11] In 2011 Nelson left the communications post when she was elected International Vice President, the union's number two leadership position.


Shortly after her election as International Vice President, Nelson undertook the leadership of AFA's internal and external organizing efforts. Under her leadership AFA prevailed in an representation election versus the International Association of Machinists for the bargaining rights covering the combined flight attendant workforce of United Airlines, Continental Airlines and Continental Micronesia following the merger of those carriers. Covering nearly 25,000 workers, that campaign culminated in one of the largest private sector union elections in decades. She later led the union's successful organizing drive to represent the combined unit of flight attendants from Mesaba Airlines, Colgan Air and Pinnacle Airlines, following the merger that created Endeavor Airlines.

Nelson also led AFA's No Knives Ever Again Campaign in 2013.[12] The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reversed its decision to allow knives on passenger flights, after first announcing it would lift the knife ban. Their rationale was that national security would be advanced if TSA officers spent less time looking for knives and more time watching for explosives. AFA, with VP Sara Nelson leading the campaign, persuaded TSA executives that knives have no place on the aircraft.[13][14][15] Featured on the Today Show, Nelson was able to effectively challenge the TSA lifting the ban on allowing knives on passenger airplanes.[16] Morning Joe featured an interview with Nelson, citing "Growing Outrage" about the lifting of the ban.[17] Featured on BBC, Nelson took the campaign international to add growing pressure.[18] Forbes later interviewed Nelson, after the ban was reinstated.[19] According to Nelson, the campaign succeeded because it worked as a coalition with congressional leaders, was backed by a legal team, arranged demonstrations at airports, and exerted "pressure from all sides."[19]

International office[edit]

Nelson was elected to the position of AFA International President in April 2014 and took office June 1, 2014.[20] As International President, Nelson is the top officer of AFA, responsible for the overall leadership and direction of the union. She serves as chair of the union's annual convention, the AFA Board of Directors, as well as the union's Executive Board. She is the chief spokesperson for the union, and the primary liaison with other unions and labor organizations, airlines, industry groups and governmental agencies.

Taking office as International Vice President of AFA in 2011,[21] Nelson was responsible for the union's organizing, communications and leadership development programs. Nelson also testified regularly before the United States Congress on issues of importance to flight attendants, like the Known Crew Member Program and the No Knives Campaign.

In 2019 Nelson played a key role in the 2018–19 United States federal government shutdown.[22] On January 20, 2019, nearly a month into the shutdown, Nelson called for a general strike.[23] In a speech on January 24, 2019, Nelson excoriated government officials for the shutdown, citing 800,000 federal workers who were forced to work for free or furloughed without pay. Nelson argued that TSA officers and air traffic controllers were distracted by the burdens the shutdown placed on them, and that was eroding the safety of the airline industry.[24] The shutdown ended the next day as flights began to be cancelled at New York La Guardia Airport due to air traffic controllers no longer able to serve safely due to the impact of the shutdown.[25]

Nelson's militancy as a labor leader[26] and her skill as a communicator[27] have both been recognized as key to her effectiveness in the shutdown fight and beyond. InStyle named Nelson as one of its "50 Badass Women".[28]

Other positions[edit]

On August 12, 2014, Nelson was elected to the Aviation Steering Committee of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the global federation of transportation unions from 148 countries, representing a combined membership of 4.5 million, at the ITF Congress in Sofia, Bulgaria.

On May 13, 2020, Nelson was named co-chair of the Economy Task Force formed by Democratic nominee Joe Biden and former candidate Bernie Sanders to create a unity platform for the Democratic Party.[29]

After Joe Biden won the 2020 United States presidential election, Nelson was mentioned as a possible cabinet appointee for a position in the United States Department of Labor.[30][31] In February 2023, it was reported that Nelson was being considered by the Biden administration as a potential successor to secretary of labor Marty Walsh after his resignation.[32]

Personal life[edit]

Nelson and her husband, David Borer, live in Washington, D.C., and have one son.[33] Borer is an attorney serving as the general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Corvallis native elected president of flight attendants union". Portland, Oregon. June 4, 2014. Retrieved August 10, 2014.
  2. ^ Gonnerman, Jennifer (May 30, 2022). "Flight Attendants Fighting Back". The New Yorker. Retrieved May 23, 2022.
  3. ^ "Sky Rights: Union Leader Sara Nelson". The Corvallis Advocate. July 4, 2019. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  4. ^ "Corvallis native elected president of flight attendants union". Portland, Oregon. June 4, 2014. Retrieved August 10, 2014.
  5. ^ "Movers & Shakers (June 23)". Corvallis Gazette Times. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  6. ^ Kitroeff, Natalie (February 22, 2019). "The Shutdown Made Sara Nelson Into America's Most Powerful Flight Attendant (Published 2019)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  7. ^ Kelly, Kim (May 13, 2019). "Sara Nelson's Art of War". The New Republic. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  8. ^ "Flight attendants say morale is near rock bottom". USA Today. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  9. ^ Susan Chandler. "Deadline stalking United, unions". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  10. ^ "U.S. Takes United's Pensions". Los Angeles Times. July 1, 2005. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  11. ^ "Northwest Airlines crews prepare to walk out". USA Today. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  12. ^ "Knives On Planes Outrage Grows: Will Passengers And Crew Be Safe?". International Business Times. March 10, 2013. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  13. ^ "U.S. security agency scraps plan to allow small knives on planes". Reuters. June 5, 2013. Retrieved December 16, 2019 – via
  14. ^ "Flight Attendants vs. Knives: Anatomy of a Regulatory Win". Associations Now. June 6, 2013. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  15. ^ Nelson, Sara (March 27, 2013). "Opinion | Don't Let Knives Back on Planes". New York Times. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  16. ^ "Flight attendant: TSA change 'is outrageous'". Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  17. ^ "Outrage grows over TSA knives decision". MSNBC. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  18. ^ "Backlash over knives on US planes". BBC News. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  19. ^ a b Reed, Ted. "Flight Attendant Unions Score With 'No Knives' Campaign". Forbes. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  20. ^ "Welcome Ms. Nelson; SMS is a vehicle for AFA to expand its Aviation Safety Program | JDA Journal". June 5, 2014. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  21. ^ "Bloomberg". Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  22. ^ Kitroeff, Natalie (February 22, 2019). "The Shutdown Made Sara Nelson Into America's Most Powerful Flight Attendant". New York Times. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  23. ^ Loomis, Erik (January 25, 2019). "Is a General Strike What's Needed to End the Shutdown?". The Atlantic. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  24. ^ "Lives are at risk because of the gov't shutdown, and these airline workers want Trump to take that". January 24, 2019. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  25. ^ Keshner, Andrew. "Why the LaGuardia delays may have played a special role in ending the shutdown". MarketWatch. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  26. ^ "Meet the Militant Flight Attendant Leader Who Threatened a Strike—And Helped Stop Trump's Shutdown". Common Dreams. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  27. ^ Murphy, Bill Jr. (March 14, 2019). "With Just 22 Words, This United Airlines Flight Attendant Brilliantly Explained What's at Stake With the Boeing 737 MAX". Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  28. ^ "The Badass 50". Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  29. ^ Sprunt, Barbara (May 13, 2020). "Biden And Sanders Announce Task Forces To Find Party Unity Over Policy". NPR. NPR. Retrieved May 14, 2020.
  30. ^ Committee, The Ranking. "Opinion | Here's who Biden should pick for a dream Cabinet". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  31. ^ Politico Staff. "Meet the contenders for Biden's Cabinet". Politico. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  32. ^ Kaori Gurley, Lauren; Stein, Jeff (February 24, 2023). "Top labor official, union leader among contenders for Labor secretary". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 24, 2023.
  33. ^ "Leadership". Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  34. ^ "David Borer |". Retrieved November 8, 2020.

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