Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), is leading the charge to encourage unionization across all industries.
“We have to live a life where people can have bread and roses, too,” Sara Nelson declared to Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2021. Nelson doesn’t want to stop at being an advocate for members of the AFA (even though that’s over 50,000 people); she wants to be a voice for every working individual.
Unionization is not only an issue for the airline industry—it’s crucial for all industries. As more and more workers at companies such as Amazon and Starbucks are trying to unionize, Nelson’s words are more potent than ever.
Sara initially went to school to become a teacher and completely changed course when she was 23-years-old. At this pivotal moment in her life in 1996, she worked four jobs to stay afloat, and her friend called to tell her about an incredible union contract she received as a flight attendant. Within a few days, Nelson interviewed for a position at United Airlines, and her career as a flight attendant took off.
As a flight attendant, Nelson watched as the union adapted to the changes brought on by 9/11.
Sara Nelson and Joe Biden
speak about worker rights at
The White House.
Since the union contract was the key factor in her decision to change her life for the better, it’s no surprise that Nelson has made waves as the President of the AFA. Since 2014, she’s been a fierce advocate for her union members and for people trying to unionize. Take a look at her Twitter account, and you’ll see what we mean.
Throughout the uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic, Nelson and the AFA have worked tirelessly to ensure that all flight attendants are taken care of, even if another union represents them. She worked with congressional leaders to build pay protections for airline workers into the rescue bills during the pandemic, with language built in to prevent executives from doling out bonuses to themselves.
In her interview with Rolling Stone, Nelson went on to say that “this shared experience coming out of coronavirus, if we do our jobs right, we can organize in the millions and this can be a revival of the labor movement that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. I think that this is the moment… there is this idea of collectivity, this craving of solidarity, and also a very clear definition of the problems that we have to tackle and the issues that we need to organize around.”
I guess you could say that flight attendants are trendsetters for just about everything—even workers’ rights.
Let’s Talk About Why Unions Matter
Especially in light of the COVID-19 crisis, it would be an understatement to say that unions are important. The Economic Policy Institute’s latest data shows that workers covered by a union contract earn an average of 11.2% more than their nonunionized peers in the same industry and occupation with similar education and experience.
Not only does unionization help everyone receive the wages they deserve, unions are especially essential for lending a voice to minority groups. The same study showed that unionized Black workers make an average of 13.7% more than their nonunionized Black colleagues, and unionized Hispanic workers make 20.1% more than their nonunionized Hispanic colleagues.
An individual going against an entire corporation can seem daunting, but change can happen when you have a collective of people channeling their energy toward the same cause. Many nonunionized “essential” workers were forced to keep working through the pandemic without protective gear or sick pay. Any who spoke up with health and safety concerns were fired. This is where unions can make a difference—they can demand safe working conditions for their members.
Other known benefits of unions include economic growth, increased productivity, competitiveness, quality product or service delivery, better training, decreased turnover, improved workplace health and safety, and we could go on and on.
Why Is There Corporate Backlash Against Unions?
If there are so many benefits to unions, why do big businesses seem to hate them so much?
It’s a great question.
The number of unions in America has decreased significantly. In 1981, 20.1% of employees were union members, and in 2020, that number was at 10.8%. It’s also important to note that unions are more popular for public-sector employees such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters. In fact, 34.8% of public-sector workers are unionized compared to 6.3% of workers in the private sector. But that still accounts for less than half of all public-sector workers and less than an eighth of private-sector employees.
The decline in union popularity has a lot to do with opposition from government and large business leaders. Outspoken disapproval of unions weakened the power of the unions, and the transfer of manufacturing jobs overseas certainly didn’t help. Additionally, “right-to-work” laws have traditionally added obstacles for unions to organize cohesively.
Some of the reasons big corporations state that they’re anti-union include:
“the companies will take an economic hit if the employees unionize” (read: it will cost us more money to pay employees living wages or foster workplace safety)
“we don’t want an outside organization interfering with how we run our business” (read: we don’t want to spend more money than we have to or go out of our way to take care of our employees)
“unions are too broad to have our employees’ best interests at heart” (read: the union doesn’t have the executives’ best interest at heart)
For an example of corporation vs. unions, let’s look at the attempt for union organization by Amazon workers in Alabama in Spring 2021.
6,000 Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, decided to vote on forming the first union for the company (which is the second-largest private employer in the US behind Walmart)
Calls for unionization were driven by strenuous working conditions, long hours, lack of job security, and payment that didn’t make up for the workplace atmosphere
Amazon has been openly anti-union, and this situation was no different—they aired anti-union ads, put up signs in bathrooms, and even changed the traffic signals to keep traffic from bottling up where the workers were canvassing
In the end, Amazon won as the workers voted not to unionize
Pro-union voices are still optimistic that there will be a time for union organization within Amazon. However, the final result in Alabama shows that there’s still a way to go. Still, with powerful voices like Sara Nelson’s encouraging people to take a stand, an increase in unionized labor is imminent.
Is It Time to Unionize?
According to Nelson and the AFA, there’s no time like the present to join or form a union.
“We are prime to do massive organizing. If we do that, if we build up that union density, even by doubling that over the next 20 years, that will fundamentally change politics. More people will be engaged, more people will understand that they can get results,” Nelson told Rolling Stone.
“When they build their unions and have that legal standing now to make capital have to respond to working people, that will dramatically change our workplaces. It will change politics. It can change everything. But, we do have to seize this moment, and we have to recognize the job that we have to do to help people understand how to grab that and hold onto it and lock it in… I think we are going to fundamentally change things for the better because the issues are there, the shared experience is there, and the desire to come together is just fomented with these next generations and with all the struggles that we’ve been through.”
We think it’s just good Jetiquette to enable workers to speak up for themselves, and we’re proud of the AFA and Nelson for leading the way to a healthier corporate future.
Association of Flight Attendants: https://www.afacwa.org
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO): https://aflcio.org
Gailen is an air-travel enthusiast and historian.