WSara Nelson, the president of The Association of Flight Attendants started to be the most vibrant labor leader since years. Her calls for arms for all workers in the country made it newsworthy. The new face of the labor movement was…a flight attendant? Nelson appeared often on TV, on picket line, and in her United Airlines uniform. She was certainly not the militant union leader that most people associate with.
As I found out while researching for my new book, Rebellion of the Great StewardessFlight attendants are a key part of the labor movement and have been for many decades. Back in the 1960s and 70s, flight attendants used their unions to make huge change in their workplace, including eliminating the “no marriage” rule (until the mid-1960s, flight attendants were fired when they wed) and the age limits (most airlines fired flight attendants at 32). The changes also had wider implications, opening up opportunities for women in many industries across America. Flight attendants have always been at the forefront of the labor movement. TIME, among others, described flight attendants as “the new face” of labor in 1993 when nearly 21,000 American Airlines flight attendants struck.
Flight attendants continue to lead the charge today. In America, nearly all flight attendants are unionized and have been since more than 50 years. Except at Delta Airlines. This could change.
Right now there’s a major union drive going on to bring the flight attendants at the country’s second-largest airline into AFA, which currently has around 50,000 members. Delta has approximately 24,000 flight attendants. This is an enormous prize. Delta has been fighting the drive with all it’s got—the company makes no secret of its distaste for unions—but for possibly the first time, unionization seems like a real possibility.
Learn more U.S. Labor Unions are Having a Moment
What’s different now? The AFA attempted to organize Delta flight attendants 3 times over the course of the 20-years, but lost each vote. Nelson assured me that this time, however, is different. Nelson first cites the evolving political landscape. The labor movement is in the news now more than it’s been in years, with workers at Starbucks, REI, and Amazon forming unions. She said that the pandemic has made it clear how vital it is for workers to be able to speak up about their work. And finally, Nelson says, “The biggest thing that’s different about this campaign is that’s really being driven and fueled by the next generation. It’s not as if we don’t have people who have been around for decades involved, but the activists who are working on it day in and day out, putting in real time, putting their faces out there and working hard on this is the next generation.”
Also, the current industry situation has had an influence. The news is almost every day about passengers who refuse to wear masks and who even punch or scream at flight attendants. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration had 5,981 instances of unruly passengers in 2017. COVID also keeps sick workers away, meaning that other people have to take over the work. Being a flight attendant is a difficult job. Nelson states that this is an important part of the job. “It’s a different environment, and it’s combative. It’s unsettling. [Flight attendants] weren’t necessarily assigning blame to Delta, but when it’s unpleasant like that, then you’re looking for support. And if you feel like you’re not getting it, that’s a problem.” But, she added, Delta policies are also to blame. Just before the pandemic Delta made a sudden change to its pay policy, instituting a bi-weekly system that Nelson says wreaked havoc on flight attendants by reducing flexibility to construct their own schedules—something many flight attendants counted on. Some Delta uniforms had caused allergic reactions in 2018 and some attendants complained that they were making it worse. There was also a suggestion that Delta attempted to conceal the true extent of the problem. Delta had sent earlier this month an email to Congress announcing their anti-union website. “Delta has a long track record of driving change based on your feedback – without AFA,” the website says.
When flight attendants in the 1960s and 70s banded together to fight back against sexist policies (in addition to getting rid of automatic termination upon pregnancy, marriage, or turning 32, they make myriad smaller changes, too—eliminating mandatory high heels, for example, something important when you might clock up 8 miles in a single shift!They were laying the foundation for decades of activism. They fought —and won—battles for basic equality. The stakes today are higher. The cabin is now manned by men, no girdles or visors, and attendants can also wear glasses. (Yes, those were prohibited in the past). Nelson explained to me why Delta was important. Although 24,000 flight attendants is a significant win for the labor movement it would not be enough to make it a major milestone, Nelson’s goals are much greater.
In November 1993 Striking American Airlines flight attendants sang slogans as they marched along a picket line.
Eugene Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
“Fundamentally unions were formed to take on the bigger issues that individual workers could never take on. We wouldn’t have social security, we would never have had pensions or any other means to save for retirement without unions,” she pointed out. “We bargain in our workplaces first, oftentimes, to break through on these ideas, but if we don’t keep organizing we’re never going to address the big issues of today. Student debt, housing, healthcare, a secure retirement…all of the existential threats and all of the big issues that matter to working people across this country, no matter what state they’re in, no matter where they work—those things are only going to be solved if we organize.”
Whether or not AFA wins at Delta this time, any vote is another step forward for a labor movement that’s been seeing a renaissance in recent years after decades of stagnation, a sign of the changing times, and workers’ renewed determination to get a seat at the table. As usual, flight attendants will be leading the charge.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME