Sara Nelson

Gruber Distinguished Lecturer in Women’s Rights: Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson

Women and Unions: Solidarity is a Force Stronger than Gravity

Sara Nelson delivered the Fall Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Women’s Rights on October 17, 2022. Nelson currently serves as the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO.

Nelson began her career in the flight attendant industry in the 1990s when she joined United Airlines, becoming a union member shortly thereafter in 1996. She held a local officer position before moving up the ranks to become National Strike Chair and National Communications Chair at the United Airlines chapter of the AFA, and later assumed the role of International Vice President. Since 2014, Nelson has served as the AFA’s International President, overseeing a labor union representing nearly half of all flight attendants in the entire industry. Elected to her second four-year term in 2022, Nelson has furthered her mission of achieving fair compensation, job security, and improved quality of life for flight attendants. Under her leadership, the AFA won eighteen legislative victories in the 2018 Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act and secured $54 billion in relief for flight attendants affected by the pandemic. She also led the “100,000 Eyes in the Skies” program which mandated trainings for flight attendants to recognize and report human trafficking.

Nelson’s lecture, titled “Women and Unions: Solidarity is a Force Stronger than Gravity,”was structured as a conversation with Professor of Law Amy Kapczynski as well as inviting questions from the audience. Nelson discussed her initial job as a flight attendant and how that career has evolved over the years. She emphasized that from the industry’s beginning, flight attendants, the majority of whom are women, had to operate under a number of discriminatory practices. Currently, she noted, the increased demand for flying as the world bounced back from the halt wrought by the pandemic has also contributed to difficult work lives for flight attendants. Nelson spoke to her own organization’s demonstration of grit when faced with employer negligence. She presented the AFA’s approach to tackling union objectives as a formula: define the problem, state demands, and add urgency. She commented on the strategy’s success: “We had run that formula to keep knives off our planes in 2013. We had run that formula during the government shutdown. We had run that formula during every contract fight since we formed CHAOS and it worked again.” The AFA’s strike tactic CHAOS, “creative havoc around our system,” refers to its practice of unannounced, intermittent strikes, as permitted in labor laws. Nelson highlighted the level of creativity and militancy required of labor unions like her own in order to achieve tangible, well-deserved change on behalf of workers.

Regarding the future of the labor movement as a whole, Nelson reiterated the importance of combating racism and sexism head-on as they manifest in new ways. “Some unions were at the forefront of fighting for civil rights,” she recognized. However, “With the exception of our union’s constitution, I don’t know that there’s a union out there that puts equal rights for women at the core of its values and policies and advocacy.” She discussed the role immigrants and people of color play in the formation and success of labor unions. To that end, she believes that it is crucially important that organized labor --going forward-- highlight the inclusivity of its movement, and that its diversity be represented among its leadership. “We have to organize in the tens of millions. This is the only way that we are going to not only save democracy, but actually make democracy fulfill its promise in this country,” she remarked. She explained that unions should not limit themselves to addressing only their immediate goals but should dare to address broader social issues that fundamentally characterize the systems in which they operate. She offered an example in which the AFA used the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement to condemn instances of sexual discrimination in the workplace for flight attendants.

After responding to a few questions from the audience, Nelson concluded her talk by inviting guests to join her in singing “Solidarity Forever,” a trade union anthem of the twentieth century.

Following her lecture the next day, Nelson joined a panel discussion co-hosted by the Law and Political Economy Project at Yale with other speakers including Eric Blanc, Assistant Professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University; Charles Du, Associate General Counsel at the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ; and Lorena Lopez, Organizing Director at UNITE HERE Local 11, a hotel and restaurant union representing hospitality workers in Southern California and Arizona. The conversation was moderated by Gabriel Winant, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

Watch the video of Nelson's Lecture here.