Sara Nelson, often referred to America’s most powerful flight attendant, has said wildcat strikes could hit airlines if workers are pushed too far. Nelson, who as international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) represents some 50,000 crew at 20 different airlines, says she doesn’t advocate such an approach but warns there’s “growing sentiment” throughout the industry.
“I should be very clear that that’s not what I’m advocating for in any way,” Nelson said in an interview with the Associated Press about a possible wildcat strike (where workers down tools without following the proper process and without the backing of a union).
But Nelson claims there’s growing sentiment in support of such action, telling airline executives that it’s “something that needs to be taken very seriously by everyone who is in a leadership position in this industry.”
Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s so hard for flight attendants to actually access the right to strike under the Railway Labor Act. There is, however, a point Nelson says “at which it just becomes too much for people. And at a certain point, laws are not going to stop workers from standing up.”
“There is a natural backlash to workers being pushed too far and feeling a common cause together and taking action on their own.”
Nelson is currently fighting battles on many different fronts. One of the most high profile campaigns of recent times has been protracted wage negotiations with Hawaiian Airlines – flight attendants recently voted by over 99 per cent in support of industrial action.
Talks have been dragging on for many months but little progress has been made. Flight attendants have been taking part in demonstrations at Honolulu International Airport – but only on their days off.
But flight attendants would need to be approved by the National Mediation Board to turn those picketing events into a walkout – and that’s a very long way off (and may never actually be approved).
AFA also recently launched a campaign to unionize Delta’s flight attendants. Nelson claims a lot has changed since the last vote was held back in 2010. “More than 40% of the seniority list has been newly hired since that last election,” she says of Delta’s flight attendants.
“There’s a general positive view of unions in this country, led by the youngest generation. So all of those factors lead to really ripe conditions for organizing at Delta,” she continues.
But some of the biggest battles for Nelson and her team are at the smaller regional airlines where wages lag way behind the massive profits these airlines are now turning over.
“Airline employees took incredible cuts during the bankruptcies,” she says of the early 2000’s. “30% to 40% cut in pay, loss of pensions, a shift of costs and burden for health care — and not all of that has been recovered.”
“Our staffing has been cut to minimums so that we are working harder than ever when we are at work, and we are all working longer hours to make the same amount of pay. The airlines are profiting in the billions of dollars, and we expect our fair share.”
Nelson certainly has her work cut out for her. She obviously has a message for airline leaders – start dealing with unions or workers will take matters into their own hands.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.