ON THE COVER
Sara Nelson on Center Stage
STORY BY ERIC MORSE (US’90)
“There’s lots of Prin in my story,” begins Sara Nelson (C’95). The Shakespeare devotee and Principia College English/Education double major knows a thing or two about a good story. Nelson—who, as International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, has been called “the country’s most prominent labor leader” by Forbes, “America’s most powerful flight attendant” by The New York Times, and “workers’ great hope” by Fast Company—has harnessed the power of personal narrative as well as anyone in modern public life.
BRIEFLY, HER NARRATIVE GOES LIKE THIS: after a stint of student teaching, Sara decided to try living a fun-filled, nomadic life as a flight attendant. But life at 35,000 feet wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Unruly passengers, on-the-job harassment, and corporate mistreatment left her overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated.
When an airline error resulted in a month without pay, Sara found herself hopping a roundtrip from Boston to Chicago, just to get the in-flight meal. After untangling red tape and arguing her case with an unhelpful airline representative, Sara was exhausted, frustrated, and at the end of her rope. That’s when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning around, she found a woman dressed in a flight attendant’s uniform identical to hers, holding a checkbook. She gave Sara two things that day: a check to cover groceries, and an admonition—take this, and then call our union.
Twenty-five years later, Sara has traveled the globe, met face-to-face with world leaders, and rallied crowds by the tens of thousands, all while paying forward that $800 check.
“My mission to lift people up”
Nelson made the call and the union put her to work. “I was just flattered they asked me,” she says. “I agreed to do new-hire presentations, to make sure that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to other people.”
This work turned out to be an uncanny combination—and culmination—of the studies and skills she had acquired at Principia College. “The Education Department pushed me further than I thought I could ever go and made it clear that my mission in life was to lift people up wherever I saw them on unequal ground,” Nelson says.
Shortly after celebrating her fifth anniversary with United, the industry changed forever on September 11, 2001. The Boston-based flight attendant lost seven close friends that day; speaking of the tragedy 21 years later, she still gets choked up. “The people I [lost] were the most amazing people in the world. They gave us an example to live up to. My work from that day on has been about honoring them, wanting to make their lives meaningful.”
In the wake of 9/11, “people were grieving and losing their jobs at the same time.” United filed for bankruptcy, and Nelson worked tirelessly to save her employer and protect her members’ jobs.
“A reason to be there”
In addition to her degree, Principia afforded Sara the opportunity to pursue her passion for acting. “One of my most important lessons goes back to my drama training from Richard Morse,” Nelson explains. “If you are on the stage, you’d better have a reason to be there. If you don’t, get out and come back when you figure it out. You’re wasting everyone’s time if you don’t have a purpose.”
This advice would prove salient and essential. As flight attendants were forced onto the frontlines of many of America’s battleground issues, Nelson found herself thrust into the center of the breach. In the two decades since 9/11, Nelson has navigated a cascade of crises and inflection points, along the way elevating an occupation once minimized and mocked.
Amid the economic collapse of 2009, Nelson again worked around the clock, mobilizing members and lobbying Congress.
“If you know your purpose and understand the needs of someone else, you can find out what to do to lift them up or help them . . .”
From bankruptcy to public safety—from good governance to best behavior—she has worked tirelessly to make air travel more safe, secure, and sane. Nelson spearheaded a 2013 campaign to keep dangerous weapons out of airplane cabins. She was the fearless face of frequently harassed flight attendants during the #metoo movement.
And she stood up on behalf of the thousands of flight attendants tasked with enforcing public health guidelines in the face of unruly—and occasionally violent—passengers through the Covid-19 pandemic. Sara co-authored the plan that provided the cornerstone of the worker protections in the CARES Act. “The Speaker of the House flew back to Washington, and we negotiated it right there, at 9:00 at night. Then we went in together—labor and management.”
“Gets results for people”
Nelson’s star turn was her leadership during the 2018–2019 government shutdown. The 35-day shutdown forced aviation workers to work without pay; 55 percent of TSA agents called in sick to search for other forms of income.
While receiving the AFL-CIO’s prestigious MLK Drum Major for Justice Award that January, Sara implored workers and organizers to “follow Dr. King’s lead and think big.”
Days later, she delivered an impassioned speech from Reagan National Airport. Her voice shook with emotion as she pronounced, “Many of these people are veterans. Many of these people are fighting for our country right now, and we are not paying them.” The clip went viral, and within 24 hours, politicians reached an agreement.
While some perceive her role of union leader as inherently pugnacious or partisan, Nelson insists nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s anti-political . . . Republicans, Democrats, and Independents engage with me because I represent the issues of their constituents. What could be more powerful than being able to talk with everyone and rise above politics to shape policy in a way that actually gets results for people?”
Her success with the Association of Flight Attendants has grown out of a unique combination of three important skills: understanding the needs of her members; rallying support by distilling those needs into a compelling story; and organizing strategy, tactics, and large groups of people.
“My education at Principia—built around finding a story and identifying urgency—that was fundamental to my understanding the world. It all dovetails perfectly with union organizing. If you know your purpose and understand the needs of someone else, you can find out what to do to lift them up or help them contribute more . . . I think about this all the time: it all comes back to Richard Morse asking, ‘Why are you here?’”