Sara Nelson (union leader)

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Sara Nelson
Corvallis, Oregon
OccupationFlight attendant/union leader
TitleInternational President

Sara Nelson is 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. Today, AFA-CWA represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.

Early career[edit]

Nelson has been a flight attendant with United Airlines from August, 1996 through the present.[2] Soon after beginning her career, based in Boston for United Airlines, Nelson became an activist in the Boston AFA Local. She served there in a variety of roles including the elected position of Council Representative. In 2002 Nelson was tapped by AFA leaders at United Airlines to serve as Communications Chair.[3]

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 every major event affecting the airline industry and, by extension, the members she helped to represent. 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8][9][10] Featured on the Today Show, Nelson was able to effectively challenge the TSA lifting the ban on allowing knives on passenger airplanes.[11] Morning Joe featured an interview with Nelson, citing "Growing Outrage" about the lifting of the ban.[12] Featured on BBC, Nelson took the campaign international to add growing pressure.[13] Forbes later interviewed Nelson, after the ban was reinstated.[14] 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."[14]

International Office[edit]

Nelson was elected to the position of AFA International President in April 2014 and took office June 1, 2014.[15] 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,[16] 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 was widely credited for playing a key role in ending the 2018–19 United States federal government shutdown.[17] On January 20, 2019, nearly a month into the shutdown, Nelson called for a general strike.[18] In a viral 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.[19] 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. [20]

Nelson’s militancy as a labor leader [21] and her remarkable skill as a communicator[22] have both been recognized as key to her effectiveness in the shutdown fight and beyond. Even pop culture outlet InStyle Magazine took note, naming Nelson as one of its “50 Badass Women”. [23]

Even as she fought to end the shutdown, Nelson was doing battle on a wide range of other issues:

  • passage of the FAA Reauthorization bill [24];
  • sexual harassment in the workplace[25][26][27];
  • the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max[28] and,
  • even mobilizing to free a flight attendant wrongly held in an ICE detention facility[29]

Following her role in these and other public policy battles, many news outlets have mentioned her potential to become not only the first woman to lead the AFL-CIO, but also the one to lead a resurgence of Labor more broadly: [30][31][32][33]

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.


Nelson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Principia in 1995. She majored in English and Education.[34]


  1. ^ "Corvallis native elected president of flight attendants union". Portland, Oregon. June 4, 2014. Retrieved August 10, 2014.
  2. ^ "Sara Nelson's Art of War,", by Kim Kelly The New Republic, Published May 13, 2019.
  3. ^, by Chris Reiter USA Today/Reuters, Published July 30, 2007.
  4. ^, by Susan Chandler Chicago Tribune, Published March 9, 2003.
  5. ^, by LA Times, July 1, 2005
  6. ^, by Jewel Gopwani, USA Today, Published July 13, 2006.
  7. ^, by Mark Johanson, International Business Times, Published March 10, 2013.
  8. ^, by Reuters, Published June 5, 2013.
  9. ^, by Associations Now, Accessed August 10, 2014.
  10. ^, by The New York Times, Published March 27, 2013.
  11. ^, by the Today Show, Accessed August 10, 2014.
  12. ^] by MSNBC Morning Joe, accessed August 10, 2014
  13. ^ [, by BBC, accessed August 10, 2014.
  14. ^ a b, by Forbes accessed August 10, 2014.
  15. ^, by JDA Journal accessed August 10, 2014.
  16. ^, by Bloomberg Business Week accessed August 11, 2011.
  17. ^ The Shutdown Made Sara Nelson Into America’s Most Powerful Flight Attendant, by Natalie Kitroeff New York Times, February 22, 2019.
  18. ^ Is a General Strike What’s Needed to End the Shutdown?, by Erik Loomis, The Atlantic January 25, 2019.
  19. ^ Lives are at Risk bec of the government shutdown., accessed August 18, 2019.
  20. ^ Why the LaGuardia delays may have played a special role in ending the shutdown., by Andrew Keshner, Market Watch, January 25, 2019.
  21. ^ Meet militant flight attendant leader who threatened strike and helped stop Trump's shutdown, by David Dayen
  22. ^ With just 22 words this United Airlines flight attendant brilliantly explained what's wrong with Boeing 737 Max, by Bill Murphy, Jr.
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ (at 27:50)
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ (at 42:22)
  29. ^
  30. ^ “Sara Nelson, the new face of labor unions”:
  31. ^ New Republic, “Sara Nelson’s Art of War”:
  32. ^ The Nation, “Sara Nelson is not afraid to strike back”:
  33. ^ Splinter News, “Sara Nelson Wants to Run That Militant Line All The Way to the Highest Seat in Labor”:
  34. ^ "Corvallis native elected president of flight attendants union". Portland, Oregon. June 4, 2014. Retrieved August 10, 2014.

External links[edit]