Host: Sara Nelson started working as a flight attendant in 1996. She had a job with the United Airlines working out of Boston, where she roomed with other flight attendants.
Sara Nelson: I got an apartment with seven other women because that was the only way we could survive and I started my flying career and about three weeks in, my fellow roommates got their first paycheck and they were so excited to get it and called my bank account. It was down to $12 I remember, $12.51 or something like that.
I went into the office and ask somebody, "You got to help me, I didn't get my paycheck." The answer I started to get from the company personnel in the office there in Boston was, "Well, people get their paychecks at different times for different reasons. We're sure you get it next time." I'm thinking, "I remember I'm supposed to watch it, not get upset, not cause a commotion while I'm on probation. I'll try to smile while I'm freaking out inside."
Host: It was ramen and meals on the plane until the next pay period. When that day came, there was still no check.
Sara: I went straight down into the office and asked "Somebody got to help me. I again, didn't get my paycheck." I started to get some of the same answer, "You get your paycheck at different times." I'm like, "It's the same rhetoric." They don't care, they don't see I'm a person standing here in crisis. The tears started to roll because I felt pretty desperate. All of a sudden, I had this tap on the shoulder.
I turned around and there was someone standing there who I'd never seen before. She looked a lot like me. She was wearing the same uniform. I do remember her union pins shining on top of her wings. She was asking me how to spell my name. She handed me a check for $800. She said, "Number one, go take care of yourself. Number two, you call our union." I did call our union. I had my paycheck the next day, but I always tell everyone that that was the moment.
Host: Sara Nelson went on to become the President of that union, the Association of Flight Attendants. The AFA represents some 50,000 workers in nearly 20 airlines and right now, there's a push to unionize Delta's flight attendants. Nelson is a frequent presence on Capitol Hill and her name often comes up as a candidate to head the AFL CIO. Staff writer, Jennifer Gonnerman recently profiled Sara Nelson for the New Yorker.
Sara: One of the first things that the public is usually very surprised to hear is that flight attendants are a highly unionized job. Our union has been in place since 1945 when we first organized at United Airlines and got our first contract in 1946.
Jennifer Gonnerman: Looking back on your early days as a flight attendant as a young woman, what were the conditions like for you? Did you feel sexually harassed when you were working? Did you ever feel groped by a passenger? Was there much of the passenger violence that we read about now going on, those so-called unruly passengers? What was it like for you as a young woman?
Sara: Passengers thought that there was hands-on all the time. You'd be walking down the aisle, they'd get your attention by touching your rear end. Some of it was not-- it didn't feel violent necessarily, it certainly was not something that I experienced anywhere else. There were also times when it was-- it did feel a little bit more violent and intrusive and intentional like the guy who walked up behind me while I was setting up the galley before we took off and he ran his hand along the outside of my hip and right down, almost around my rear end and said, "What, No girdle? How can you look this good and your uniform without a girdle?"
It was everywhere. It was everywhere all day long. It wasn't that much earlier in the career of flight attendants that airlines were using us as a marketing tool. We were totally objectified and that's the way that we were treated.
Jennifer: Did you have any recourse in a situation like that? What were you to do?
Sara: Never had anything like that happen to me before. No one had ever warned me something like that might happen, but ultimately, you rest on, no one's going to care, no one's going to do anything about this. There's no way this guy's going to be taken off the flight, so you try to just protect yourself and then tell the rest of your crew, "Hey, watch out for handsy in 5F."
Jennifer: Handsy on 5F.
Sara: Yes. Later I found out that that continued to persist. Anyway, that was hard when the Me Too movement broke and all of a sudden, I was the President overseeing a group of people who were continuing to live like nobody's going to do anything about this and it's something we just have to live with.
Jennifer: You mentioned the Me Too movement. Did you start hearing reports from your members about stories like this past and present, or what did it unleash within the world of flight attendants and the conversations that started happening?
Sara: When the Me Too movement broke, I realized, "Wow. First of all, they're talking about-- women are sticking together, holding each other up, and all of a sudden we really get to tell our stories. This is new. People care about this and they're going to listen to it and they're going to take it seriously. Wow." We really have a chance to push forward. I actually called my communication staff in and I said, "Get ready, the phone's going to start ringing."
They're like, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, they're going to be looking for stories in workplaces. The first thing they're going to do is say, 'Who should we call about who has probably experienced sexism in the workplace?' There was going to think of flight attendants." They were like, "Huh?" Sure enough, an hour later, the phone started ringing.
News Reporter: In tonight's signature segment, NewsHour Weekend's, Megan Thompson reports on the troubling stories of harassment and abuse taking place at 30,000 feet where there's often nowhere to turn.
Sara: We pushed really hard in that moment and actually called on the industry to denounce the sexist past, lift up our professions of safety professionals and demand that there be zero tolerance at every airline for any kind of this behavior so that it will send a message to everyone, whether they were in management levels or in the flight deck or to flight attendants themselves, so that they could report this and they would be safe and it would be taken seriously by the airlines. I have to say three airlines step up and do it, you can say it that way or only three airlines stepped up.
Jennifer: Do you have any sense of how things have changed or not changed in the years since the Me Too movement gained traction? Since you did your survey and going around to various forums, has anything gotten better?
Sara: I think that what has gotten better is that more people believe that this will be taken seriously. We've been able to get the FAA to talk about it and take it seriously. We've had legislation passed that increased the fines for this behavior. We got training for flight attendants to recognize and report human trafficking, which in a lot of ways was the same kind of lane about identifying that this is a unique crime and you have to not only recognize the crime.
It's one thing if someone's punched in the face, you deal with the physical impact of that and you know how to take care of someone at that point. Sometimes you need some training in how to support the victim in a sexual harassment or assault case. I think what has really changed is that in doing all of this and raising all of these issues, we've been able to actually change the way that the public sees us and talks about these issues and we started creating a foundation where flight attendants and our union could be seen as powerful.
News Reporter: A man is now banned from American airline planes after he allegedly attacked a flight attendant, breaking her nose.
News Reporter: The flight from New York to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana--
Jennifer: Last year in 2021, there seemed to be an endless stream of stories about passengers officially known as unruly passengers, but that obviously understates the problem of violence on airplanes, passengers acting up, refusing to wear a mask, flight attendants sometimes even being injured. Oftentimes, it seemed like alcohol was part of the story. Has that situation improved this year?
Sara: It has not improved yet. We've done a lot of work, a lot of PSA's with the FAA, communicating the consequences for acting like this.
Male Speaker: The FAA is strictly enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who caused disturbances on flights or failed to obey flight crew instructions.
Sara: They know from studying these reports that this is more than about masks. A lot of people were driving the idea that that would cut down on the conflict. We know and the people on the inside looking at the reports know that's just not the case. We've got a lot more work to do to get things under control and make sure that people don't think that when you get on a plane, you get to punch the flight crew.
Jennifer: Back in early April after the Amazon Labor Union prevailed in Staten Island, you said publicly that you thought the next big labor fight was going to be at Delta Air Lines, where your union has been working with flight attendants to organize. How's that fight going? Can you give us an update on what's been happening?
Sara: Off and on Delta flight attendants have been trying to get a union for 20 years. The last time there was an election was 2010 and flight attendants, narrowly lost. The idea that workers can't win was permeating not just at Delta, but across the labor movement, across all industries. Right now, as there's this resurgence in working people standing up and feeling like the corporate elite have taken way more than their fair share, that's the general sentiment and now that there's all this excitement and we have all these frankly younger workers driving this who were not even here for the prior election, there's a lot of momentum.
I believe that the Delta flight attendants are going to file for an election this year and it's going to be enormous. This is the biggest organizing campaign in one place going on anywhere. Certainly Chris Smalls is talking about organizing all of Amazon, so a half million workers, but this would be one election for almost 24,000 workers at a company that's based in the South and it's a big deal.
Jennifer: Are they paying close attention to what's going on at Amazon and how do you think that's affecting their approach?
Sara: Listen, union is in the water. All these news outlets for years had stripped away their labor reporting and labor reporters and so now you've got people who are tech reporters and health reporters, education reporters and everything else doing labor reporting because it's the hot thing. That used to be really, really difficult to talk about the union busting. You'd almost try not to do it. It was talked about in terms of inoculation, you got to inoculate people against all the union busting that will happen.
What's happening now is that you see at Starbucks and Amazon is these young kids are saying right out front like, "Give us our fair shot." We get free reign to decide here and they're using the union busting to expose the companies and they're actually using it as a part of the campaign to build momentum. Chris Smalls the fact that Amazon went out and arrested him for giving food to other Amazon workers, that all led to a win because people are seeing how far these companies that have billions of dollars in profits will go to try to keep workers down and keep us from being able to get our fair share.
Jennifer: Sarah, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to speak with us. We really appreciate it.
Sara: Thank you so much. I always enjoy talking with you.
Host: That's Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants. She spoke with Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer at the New Yorker.