SONIC LOGO (00:00): BRAZEN
SARA NELSON (00:06):
When Covid hit, I knew that we had to take control. We had to take the lead on what the solutions were going to be.
AIMEE KEANE (00:14)
This is Sara Nelson.
It's spelled without an H <laugh>, and I'm the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
AIMEE KEANE (00:23)
She represents about 50,000 flight attendants at 19 different airlines, approximately half of the US flight attendant industry. And in March, 2020, this industry quite literally came to a standstill.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (00:36):
Well, because the cancellations keep climbing and the bookings are just not there, the travel industry is already feeling a seismic impact.
AIMEE KEANE (00:44):
In the early days and weeks of the pandemic, governments imposed travel restrictions and passengers canceled trips, which led to major airlines cutting half or more of their scheduled flights. Meanwhile, flight attendants, along with pilots, baggage handlers, and other air travel workers - they worried about whether they'd have their jobs for much longer.
SARA NELSON NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (01:03):
Our union is working around the clock to ensure any government action is focused on delivering immediate, real help to flight attendants, working people and our families.
AIMEE KEANE (01:12)
Sara took to Twitter and the major news networks to make her case for pandemic aid.
SARA NELSON NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (01:16):
Relief to our industry is critical for our nation. The federal government must move swiftly to marshall the resources of our nation to flatten the curve of this pandemic.
AIMEE KEANE (01:27):
Airlines were in crisis mode. In March of that year, a group of executives gathered in DC to try to hash out a solution to save their companies. And the one person at the meeting who wasn't a CEO? Sara Nelson.
SARA NELSON (01:39)
I think about that moment, actually. I think about being in the Airlines for America boardroom with five CEOs around the table at the time, others on the phone. I was there alone, <laugh> late at night on March 18th. And, I looked around the table and the only other person who had been there for 9/11 was Doug Parker.
AIMEE KEANE (01:58)
Doug Parker being then-chief executive of the country's biggest carrier American Airlines. He and Nelson had crossed paths throughout their careers and had been at the negotiating table together before.
SARA NELSON (02:13)
I knew, we knew we were speaking the same language about this crisis moment and what it was gonna take, and that we were gonna do so much better if we did this together. So he was the one who actually called, to ask me to come down there, and we're speaking to all of the industry, and I said, listen, guys, the public does not like you.
AIMEE KEANE (02:36)
It was a sobering moment for executives getting ready to ask the government for money.
You've shoved them in these small seats. They're running through planes where they get to see first class big seats. They get to see America's inequity as they enter the plane, and they get madder and madder, and they're really pissed at you. And so you're not gonna get anything that you ask for. It doesn't matter who's in charge of the White House right now, you're not gonna get it. So you need us.
AIMEE KEANE (03:05)
Labor had the leverage and her pitch was enough to convince executives in the room that day. The industry would try to survive the pandemic, by taking care of its workers.
SARA NELSON (03:15)
And we fought hard for it, and we actually got the airlines to come with us and agree with us to work on that together. And we promoted this worker's first plan, and we left a few things undecided that night. I mean, there were a few things we agreed to disagree on, frankly, but the trunk of the plan we agreed on, and we went together to Congress and got something done that no other industry did.
AIMEE KEANE (03:42)
As one of the masterminds of the 25 billion payroll support program, Nelson had been fighting, at least in part, for something she learned about 10 years earlier when she and labor were right in the middle of a merger between two big airlines.
SARA NELSON (03:58)
Imagine if we had been ready when Doug Parker wanted to put US Airways and American together. Imagine if we had been ready to ask for what we really deserved in that moment and how we could have reset the industry. That's what it showed me about how labor needs to lead. I mean, we have to set the agenda and get ready to pivot when those moments come where power can increase exponentially.
AIMEE KEANE (04:23)
This is The Closer, the inside story of the deals that changed the world. I'm Aimee Keene. I'm a business journalist and podcast host and producer, and I used to cover a lot of deal stories. I always found tales of mergers and acquisitions to reveal the most interesting details about the people and organizations involved. It was a chance to see inside the usually buttoned down business world. Think of it this way, deals are like the emotional center of this world. The stakes and the risks are usually high, whether it's billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, the future of an industry or economy. Sometimes there's revenge, failure, even betrayal. It's basically everything you'd want in a good drama. And whether we realize it or not, a lot of what gets decided in a corporate deal ends up shaping some aspect of our lives, like the music we listen to or the way our privacy is protected online.
AIMEE KEANE (05:16)
On this show, you'll hear the stories behind these deals from the deal makers and insiders who know how it all went down. In this episode, we're looking at the pivotal role labor, and Sara Nelson, played in the 2013 tie-up between US Airways and American Airlines. It was the last in a wave of mergers that dramatically changed the shape of the industry. All of that consolidation led to higher than ever revenue and increased profitability, at least until the pandemic. For customers, though, it's made for a generally miserable experience. Think of the last time you flew: smaller seats, less legroom, extra fees and ticket restrictions. It's also become a more demanding job for workers. But for Sara Nelson, this deal changed the way she thinks about the role of labor and set her on a path to becoming one of the most prominent voices in the labor movement today.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (06:07):
No senator knows more about the airline business than Sara Nelson.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (06:11):
Don't be fooled by her playfulness. She's been called the most powerful labor leader in the country,
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (06:17):
One of the most effective labor leaders Washington has ever worked with.
SARA NELSON (06:22)
We are standing out here to fight for our fair share and we will not stop.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (06:25):
I love that you're calling it the Nelson plan, because this really is a plan that comes from Sara's advocacy for airline workers.
SARA NELSON (06:33):
Look around to everyone around you and tell 'em – I've got your back.
AIMEE KEANE (06:48)
We're back with Sara Nelson after the break.
AIMEE KEANE (06:57)
Sara Nelson didn't set out to make a career as a flight attendant, much less be the face of organized labor for the industry.
SARA NELSON (07:04)
I went to college at a small liberal arts school in Southern Illinois, and I intended to be a secondary English teacher.
AIMEE KEANE (07:11)
She graduated with an English degree and student loans to repay. So, while she waited for a full-time teaching position, she strung together a series of jobs to make ends meet. There was the home store, substitute teaching, waiting tables.
SARA NELSON (07:26)
So <laugh> not a lot of sleep involved. My girlfriend who graduated with me from college, she had become a flight attendant on a lark. We sort of laughed about it, we thought it was kind of funny. She'd do this for a few years and then move on. We didn't really know anything about the airline industry. And she called me on a very snowy, February day, and she razzed me about the fact that she had her feet in the sand on Miami Beach on a layover.
AIMEE KEANE (07:51)
A quick trip to Miami was appealing in the midst of the Illinois winter, but something else caught Sara's attention.
SARA NELSON (07:59)
And then she got really serious and she described the job, and she described the pay, which was going to be higher than my first year teacher’s salary. The flexibility, the healthcare, the dental, that we didn't have to fight for, because airlines wanted us to have nice teeth. And, also the pensions that allowed a flight attendant to retire early at age 50. And so I specifically remember her talking about that and thinking, well, I'm dead tired at 23, being able to get a pension and maybe do something else that I like at age 50 sounds pretty good. That's the age of our moms. They're super energetic. It'll all be fine.
AIMEE KEANE (08:41)
What her friend was describing were the terms of the United Airlines contract, which had been negotiated by the union, the Association of Flight Attendants.
SARA NELSON (08:50)
And I got in the car and drove to Chicago the next day. She was hired by United Airlines in 1996, and after six weeks of unpaid training, she was sent to work in Boston.
SARA NELSON (09:00)
It was a lot of fun. I had San Diego layovers and we would have our routine. One layover, we'd go to the zoo and another one, we'd go to a Padres game, and another one we'd go down to Tijuana. You know, it was exploring the world and having a good time, and in my twenties, and it was really great those first five years, frankly, until, September 11th happened. And that really did change everything.
AIMEE KEANE (09:26)
Sara frequently worked United Flight 175 to Los Angeles. But on that Tuesday morning, she happened to be in Chicago when Flight 175 flew into the World Trade Center’s south Tower.
SARA NELSON (09:38)
And on that flight were my friends Catherine and Michael and Amy and Alicia and another Amy and Al, and Robert and Maryanne and Jesus, it changed everything in Boston. We were a very small base. We were mourning the loss of our friends, trying to figure out what this new world meant to start.
AIMEE KEANE (09:59)
It meant job cuts in the tens of thousands.
SARA NELSON (10:02)
So not only were we mourning, we were also dealing with half of us losing our jobs.
AIMEE KEANE (10:09)
It also meant losses for the airlines. A reported $8 billion in total that year. Flights were granted for just a couple of days, but passengers had little interest in returning to the air so quickly.
SARA NELSON (10:22)
I learned very quickly, but even more so over time, that there were crisis capitalists who were taking advantage of that moment, thinking right in the moment on September 11 - this is painful to think about - but in the hours after my friends lost their lives, there were already people planning about how they were going to reset the terms of flight attendant and pilot and mechanic and gate agent and all aviation jobs.
AIMEE KEANE (10:51)
The government did offer financial support, but it wasn't much. There was 5 billion in cash and 10 billion in loan guarantees.
SARA NELSON (11:00)
So there was not an infusion of cash to help the airlines sort of recover from what was, a very permanent reduction in demand for a very long time.
AIMEE KEANE (11:11)
There were other forces to contend with.
SARA NELSON (11:13)
Oil prices also spiked.
AIMEE KEANE (11:15)
There was the SARS outbreak.
SARA NELSON (11:17)
We had the Iraq war also at the same time.
SARA NELSON (11:21)
That led to all of the bankruptcies.
AIMEE KEANE (11:23)
Bankruptcies that happened one by one across the airline industry.
SARA NELSON (11:30)
And I remember what a gut punch that was. When United filed for bankruptcy, the earth shifts underneath your feet and you're uncertain of what's going to happen and who you are and what your identity even is then going to work at a bankrupt airline. It's just, it's demoralizing.
AIMEE KEANE (11:48)
When a company files for bankruptcy in the US, it often does so through what's known as chapter 11 of the US bankruptcy code. The debtor, in this case, the company, continues to operate the business and proposes restructuring plans, but it's the company's creditors who vote on whether those plans will be accepted. And the creditors on what's known as the unsecured creditors committee tend to include people like vendors, service providers, and unions.
Sara joined the United Flight Attendants’ union shortly after she was hired. This was the Association of Flight Attendants, or the AFA, and by the time the airline was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, she was the National Communications Chair at United’s chapter.
AIMEE KEANE (12:35)
What did you learn from this experience of going through these negotiations during the bankruptcy?
SARA NELSON (12:40)
I mean, it was a 38-month long bankruptcy, and I had a front row seat. I was in charge of communicating everything internally with the union, externally with the media, and assisting our negotiators and our attorneys as well. And we fought every single day in every single way in that bankruptcy. So what did I learn? I became an expert in bankruptcy law. I became an expert in negotiations. I remember studying the numbers nonstop, working alongside our economist, trying to explain this to the members. People were angry and a lot of people left. Anyone who didn't need the job really left because the job became so much harder. And, you know, people don't forget that. They don't forget the sacrifices that they went through. You can't just redefine that. And I, know that Wall Street and the bankruptcy attorneys and the bankruptcy judge didn't care. And it was my job to try to organize that anger and that angst, and we were hanging onto as much as we possibly could so that we could live to fight another day.
AIMEE KEANE (13:50)
Between 2002 and 2010, dozens of airlines big and small went bankrupt.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (13:57):
The list of airline bankruptcies reads like the arrival board at an airport. Look at the last two decades before American, there were Delta, Northwest, US Airways, United, TWA, PanAm - 16 in all, some of them twice.
AIMEE KEANE (14:13):
But there was one airline that looked like it was going to avoid bankruptcy. Dallas-based American Airlines. It got close to filing in 2003, but managed to avoid it by negotiating some concessions with its pilot's union. By 2011, further contract discussions with Americans' labor groups had stalled, and chapter 11 was the executive team's best solution.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (14:35):
The only US airline company not to file for bankruptcy protection. In the wake of the September 11th terror attacks is now playing catch up.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (14:43):
American Airlines filed for bankruptcy today. The airline filed so that it can reorganize and break expensive labor contracts.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (14:51):
They really had no choice. It was time to push the nuclear button.
SARA NELSON (14:59):
I was at DCA on the day that American filed for bankruptcy.
AIMEE KEANE (15:03)
That's Reagan National Airport in Washington DC.
SARA NELSON (15:06)
And I ran into an American crew, and I remember, oh my God, I remember it just having to reach out to them. They were in shock. And I knew exactly what they were feeling and they sort of couldn't really even speak or put into words what they were feeling, but they just hugged me.
AIMEE KEANE (15:24)
Sara's union represented flight attendants at a lot of different airlines, but American flight attendants had their own union. It was called the Association of Professional Flight Attendants or the APFA. As American Airlines Executives got to work designing restructuring plans, they terminated the existing contracts with labor and proposed new ones, a common practice during bankruptcy. For APFA workers, the proposal included wage cuts across the board and new work rules that would allow for future staffing cuts if needed. Benefits were also slashed.
SARA NELSON (15:56)
It was not too long after that that we heard that the US Airways executives had a plan to take over American Airlines.
US Airways was based in Arizona and had filed and come out of bankruptcy twice already. Now, it was facing an increasingly consolidated industry. Delta and Northwest had merged as had United and Continental. US Airways needed to expand its network of flights or risk losing market share. And at the helm was none other than Doug Parker - the same Doug Parker Sara would meet up with years later to negotiate pandemic relief. Parker had become CEO at US Airways through an earlier deal with America West.
DOUG PARKER NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (16:36):
I mean, the reality is you take these two networks that are so complimentary and put them together and you create for both, independent units, connections that never could have existed before online. So that's the primary source of the value.
AIMEE KEANE (16:46):
As American Airlines was in the midst of negotiating new contracts with its labor unions, US Airways spotted an opening. They approached the unions and said, we know you're facing these concessions. We can do a deal with you that is only two thirds as bad as what you're facing, and we'll get this merger done, and then we'll be able to negotiate for something better because we're gonna create the largest carrier in the world. And, you know, they really sold the opportunities through that.
AIMEE KEANE (17:18)
So this was going to be a merger, not just of two companies, but also of several unions. What was that like?
SARA NELSON (17:24)
Yeah, so mergers are really tough on workers. Really, really tough. And no matter what people say, oh those job creators are gonna create all these opportunities, whatever, people are worried about their seniority. They're worried about their job security.
AIMEE KEANE (17:41)
Job security and seniority is really important for flight attendants for all workers. It informs schedules pay and how likely it is someone will be affected by layoffs.
SARA NELSON (17:51)
And in an earlier deal, when American merged with TWA, the TWA flight attendants were just added to the bottom of the American seniority list in the US Airways American merger. There was huge concern that that would happen again, that these unions that were in charge at American and was the bigger airline had bigger numbers, were just going to muscle their way forward and staple the US Airways employees to the bottom of the list. And we weren't about to let that happen. We knew right away that we had to get to work <laugh>
AIMEE KEANE (18:27)
US Airways executives successfully negotiated something called a conditional labor agreement with each of American's big three unions. It's exactly what it sounds like, a set of employment terms that would go into effect if the merger was completed and it would be temporary, in place until a joint contract could be agreed after a merger for American flight attendants. The conditional labor agreement was a better deal than what their employer in bankruptcy could offer.
SARA NELSON (18:53)
But for US Airways flight attendants, we were looking at that and saying, that's gonna be massive concessions for the US Airways flight attendants. That's not good. So we have to make sure that we changed that. And we had hoped actually that APFA would work with us on that, but it was a real fight.
AIMEE KEANE (19:10)
There were clashes between the two flight attendant’s unions and there were clashes within each union.
SARA NELSON (19:16)
Because the only way that we could possibly get our due in a merger is if we have our act together and we're able to put demands on management. And then when they've got two groups that are already fighting with each other, they don't have to worry about the unions. They can just let them fight with each other.
AIMEE KEANE (19:31)
Internal wrangling at the AFA eventually landed Sara the top job in the negotiations with the American Airlines flight attendants. But before this and before Sara could make the union's case to executives, she had to convince the American flight attendants of what was at stake.
SARA NELSON (19:47)
Ultimately, we had to start leafleting in Dallas about the better benefits of healthcare and some of the provisions. And, it wasn't too long before they came to the table and we at least were able to preserve the seniority.
AIMEE KEANE (20:02)
This is where the APFA representatives got to see what the US Airways contract offered.
SARA NELSON (20:07)
And there was this idea that because US Airways was smaller, and it was, I would say generally less respected in the industry, that there was just this idea that of course the American contract had to be better, but it wasn't. And it especially wasn't after that bankruptcy.
AIMEE KEANE (20:24)
In the end, Sara's AFA and the APFA were able to reach an agreement.
SARA NELSON (20:30)
We got a deal that said that they would match our, our constitution's seniority integration, and we got a deal on bargaining where we were going to be with them at the table as full partners, equal numbers of US Airways and American at the table, and a process that we had management agree to, for a negotiation that would be swift so that people could get the improvements quickly and, not have to live through all the host of horribles of mergers that drag on forever and don't ever get completed.
AIMEE KEANE (21:08)
Here's why all of this matters. The American Airlines Labor Unions had representatives on the American Airlines Creditors Committee, meaning they had a say in any major decision made by American executives including a possible merger. So Doug Parker went to the labor unions and said, if our two companies were to merge, I'll offer better employment terms than what your current company in bankruptcy's offering. That was a pretty attractive proposal. But this is where Sara Nelson comes in. She was representing US Airways flight attendants at the time. She felt that even though Parker's offer to American Airlines flight attendants was better than what their own employer was offering, it wasn't as good as what US Airways flight attendants already had. And she wanted to preserve as much of it as she could so that the combined bargaining power of US Airways and American Airlines flight attendants would be solid. And on February 14th, 2013…
AMERICAN AIRLINES AD ARCHIVE CLIP (22:04):
So starting now, we begin a new chapter, one written in passion and skill.
AIMEE KEANE (22:10):
With labor on board, the US Airways announced its 11 billion merger with American.
AMERICAN AIRLINES AD ARCHIVE CLIP (22:16):
So let's introduce ourselves to the world, not again, but for the very first time, the New American is arriving.
SARA NELSON (22:29):
The deal gave Americans creditors control of the newly combined company, which would keep the American Airlines name. And Doug Parker would stay on as CEO.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (22:37):
Doug Parker. He will be leading this new American Airlines, US Airways merged airline. It'll be the largest in the world, an $11 billion deal.
AIMEE KEANE (22:46):
Soon afterward, the negotiating committee of US and American flight attendants decided that the majority of the US Airways contract was the stronger set of provisions to propose to management. But instead of combining the two flight attendants unions, American’s APFA decided to remain on its own.
SARA NELSON (23:04)
We did a lot to shape that merger for the flight attendants, even though we weren't ultimately the representatives at the end of the day. And I think that ultimately we, we will be, I think that our unions are going to come together. People are understanding that the airlines have consolidated to build power. Certainly the unions should consolidate and build power so that we can meet them at the table on equal footing.
AIMEE KEANE (23:28)
But before the US American deal could be completed, another hurdle. This time, the US government.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (23:34):
Today, the government said it will try to block the merger of American Airlines and US Airways because it would hit the customers even harder.
NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (23:42):
All those mergers have left us with just five major airlines. But the government says, creating the world's largest airline by combining American and US Airways is the tipping point - bad for consumers.
AIMEE KEANE (23:55):
After years of approving several airline mergers, the last combination of big carriers was just one tie-up too far. But once again, labor, especially labor leadership, came to the deal's defense and one September day, representatives from all of the unions involved in the deal descended on Capitol Hill. They were there to convince legislators how it was a good deal for workers.
SARA NELSON (24:18)
American hosted people coming in and flew planes of people to come in to Capitol Hill and, hosted people at a nice hotel and had a beautiful reception and, and had a big rally on Capitol Hill with the employees cheering on a merger.
AIMEE KEANE (24:34)
You don't typically see this kind of unequivocal union support of a merger. What was different this time around?
SARA NELSON (24:41)
So if I'm being very real here, we agreed to support the merger because of the agreement on the negotiations and the protocol of the negotiations and preserving the value of the US Airways agreement. So let's be really clear, like we were supportive of that merger. One because I think that we were able to get from it value for flight attendants and we were able to preserve their position. But, you know, it was a little bit transactional. There were a lot of employees who were there who were excited because of the excitement and hype. We were there because we were pretty practical about it. We knew that we had gotten the best possible deal we could get. We also knew that, the alternative was not great. And so we were there fulfilling our end of the deal to support getting that through the regulators. The big difference with this merger is that the management at US Airways started with the unions and stayed close to the unions throughout. Doug Parker is to be commended for his career and, continuing to do the unthinkable to build the world's largest airline.
DOUG PARKER NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (25:53):
I mean, our unions are supporting because our employees are supporting.
AIMEE KEANE (25:56):
This is Doug Parker in an interview after the deal was announced.
DOUG PARKER NEWS ARCHIVE CLIP (25:59):
Uh, and employees have seen pay cuts and layoffs and all sorts of things that have been really difficult on them and their families. So to be able to put two airlines together and make one that's stronger, uh, without having to reduce at all - our employees are, have gotten excited about that because they know it's good for them.
AIMEE KEANE (26:14):
US regulators ultimately approved the deal. That is after the combined company agreed to give up some slots at major airports across the country. According to the Justice Department, the concessions would allow more space for low-cost airlines and therefore provide more choice to customers.
SARA NELSON (26:30)
I don't think that if he…
AIMEE KEANE (26:32)
He being Doug Parker
SARA NELSON (26:34)
…had taken another route and decided to just go it alone on promoting the American US Airways merger to Congress and to the regulators, that he would've gotten it through. The only way he won and he was coming off of that experience of creating the world's largest airline with the support of labor.
AIMEE KEANE (26:56)
When we come back, how all of this consolidation created the industry, many of us love to hate.
AIMEE KEANE (27:11)
The US Airways-American Airlines merger seemed like the best possible deal for labor in 2013. But 10 years later, the effect of this wave of consolidation has looked a lot different than what Sara and some of her union counterparts expected.
SARA NELSON (27:26)
I mean, I look at it for labor and I look at it for the consumer. So the seats are smaller and closer together. There's fewer flight attendants on the plane, fewer gate agents helping people with questions in the gate area, the terminals. There's the fees for baggage, there's the fees for an extra room seat. So all of that made it less enjoyable, I think, as passengers. And that made it harder for workers on the frontline who were taking the brunt of that. Then you look at the labor costs.
AIMEE KEANE (27:57)
Dollar for dollar flight attendant salaries have increased in the last decade, but many people, including Sara, point out that when you adjust for inflation, the actual value of that pay is eroding while the job itself is getting harder.
SARA NELSON (28:12)
And all of that productivity was just siphoned off to Wall Street.
AIMEE KEANE (28:17)
Meaning stock buybacks. In the 10 years from 2010 to 2020, the major US airlines spent almost all of their free cash flow and stock buybacks. That's according to Bloomberg.
SARA NELSON (28:29)
When the airlines started making money, it went straight to Wall Street. It didn't go into renegotiated contracts. That consolidation did not make our lives better. Uh, it made our work lives a lot harder and we're working harder than ever with more people on our airplanes who are uncomfortable and grumpy.
AIMEE KEANE (28:52)
So Sara, this is the state of flying today. Flight attendants are working harder, US passengers are uncomfortable and angry. How does this influence the work you're focused on now? And what does that mean for what's next for you?
SARA NELSON (29:04)
AFA is gonna keep supporting, organizing everywhere. Hopefully we are going to help spur organizing in the tens of millions that's necessary to actually get the political things that are popular in this country. So people want us to take on climate change, but they want us to do it with economic justice for working people. They want to have access to healthcare. They don't wanna have to have that be tied to a job. They want to be able to get an education and get ahead and not be sentenced to a debt sentence for your entire life. These are the things that flight attendants care about, have brought up at union meetings. What's next for me? I'm gonna be in the center of doing everything that we can to build power for working people so that we can do those things I was talking about.
AIMEE KEANE (29:54)
This work extends beyond the interests of flight attendants. She's done work to support Delta pilots with contract negotiations as well as Starbucks and Amazon employees trying to organize. But how did this once aspiring English teacher become an organizer in the first place? She said it started when she was waiting on her first paycheck at United and didn't get it.
SARA NELSON (30:16)
And so I went into the office the next day and said, somebody's gotta help me. I got sort of the runaround and I was screaming in my head, but, um, acting, uh, very calm and collected because I had been told on probation, you need to really watch it. And so I tried to make ends meet on $12 for the next two and a half weeks till I waited for the paycheck to drop.
AIMEE KEANE (30:39)
The paycheck never came.
SARA NELSON (30:43)
After taking my bank account down to zero, getting a lot of Top Ramen, hoping for reserve assignments, and unannounced calls from the airlines to work so that I could eat plane food, I didn't have my paycheck. And I went down into the office again to say there's something wrong. And I was feeling pretty desperate. Rent was due the next day - I couldn't eat. And so the tears started to roll, um, a little bit more than right now. And I got this tap on the shoulder and turned around. There was someone standing in front of me who looked a lot like me wearing the same uniform, but I'd never seen her before. Otherwise, she's holding her checkbook and asking me how to spell my name.
SARA NELSON (31:24)
She hands me a check for $800 and she says, number one, you go take care of yourself. And number two, call our union. And I did call our union and I had my paycheck the very next day. But I always tell everyone that I learned everything I needed to know in that moment when she was standing in front of me because I learned very quickly that unions are formed, to take on the tasks that we can't take on alone. And through our unions, we're never alone. That was a moment that really changed my life. But in the 26 years of retrospection on that moment, I learn more every time that I think about it.
AIMEE KEANE (32:04)
And after she resolved the paycheck issue, the union called her and asked if she'd get involved.
SARA NELSON (32:09)
And I said, yes, I'll do the new hire presentations. I don't want this to happen to anybody else. And I also was just so honored that they were asking me. I didn't know people said no.
AIMEE KEANE (32:19)
With all of that enthusiasm, she worked her way up the leadership ranks at the Association of Flight Attendants and is today the International President of the union. In the last few years, she's emerged as a new face of labor in the US playing a key role in ending the US government shutdown that started in 2018, and then in 2020 negotiating the industry's pandemic aid.
Sara isn't the typical union boss you might think of representing steelworkers or minors of the past. She advocates for a more progressive - to some even radical - labor movement than the more moderate action of the last few decades. She's a new type of labor leader for a new type of labor force.
SARA NELSON (33:01)
As it turns out, a strong sense of justice and a loud mouth will carry you very far.
AIMEE KEANE (33:12)
That's it for this week. Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, would you please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, or better yet, share the show with someone who might enjoy it and hit that subscribe button so you'll know every time we have a new episode.
AIMEE KEANE (33:27)
We're bringing you inside deal stories on The Closer. And now it's your turn. Tell us about a time when you were the closer. We're all involved in low-level deal making every now and then, even if we don't realize it. Think about things like negotiating salary, rent, maybe even your kids' allowances, or maybe you snagged a hotel upgrade or a bargain on that thing that's never on sale. Whatever it is, we want to hear about it. Here's how: send us a voice memo with your first name and where you're from. And then in just a few sentences, tell us what the deal was and what it meant to you. You can email your audio file to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll review all the submissions and we just might play yours on a future episode. Now, if you want more from the closer, we have the newsletter for you, go to TheCloser.FM to sign up. It's written by journalist and Closer producer Ben Walsh. And it's witty, informative, and it's the place where he'll dive into the mechanics of m and a and analyze deals in the news. You'll also get a chance to see show notes from each episode and more from our team. Again, you can sign up at TheCloser.FM. And if all of this isn't enough, you can also become a Brazen+ subscriber on Apple Podcasts. You'll get exclusive access to extended interviews and other bonus material from the show.
The Closer is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. Our show's produced by Isabelle Kirby-McGowan and Ben Walsh. Siddhartha Mahanta is our editor. Mariangel Gonzales is our project manager, and Lucy Woods is our fact checker and head of research. Golda Arthur is our showrunner. And Bradley Hope and Tom Wright are executive producers. At Project Brazen, Francesca Gilardi Quadrio Curzio, and Nour Abdel Latif are podcast strategists. Megan Dean is programming manager. And Ryan Ho is Design Lead. Thanks to Eric Gomez for audio engineering and sound design. Our composer is Alex García Amat.
I'm Aimee Keane. Thanks for listening.