How to Negotiate Like the ‘Most Powerful Flight Attendant in America’

Jul 12, 2019

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Flight Attendants, as a union, have been pushing change in the aviation world since the 1940s. They’ve helped move the industry away from antiquated sexist policies like a fixed retirement age of 32 and a “no-marriage rule.” The unions also pushed for changes that would eventually allow for men to serve along women as flight attendants.

These days, the unions are perhaps best known for representing flight attendants’ concerns to management. But there remain a number of social and safety issues that remain core to the union’s mission.

Sara Nelson, the current leader of the Association of Flight Attendants, has been on the front lines of some of the group’s key issues. Since joining United Airlines at 23-years-old as a flight attendant, she’s argued for change on issues surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX and upgrading antiquated onboard uniforms, among other items. She even had a hand in the release of Selene Roman, the DACA recipient and Mesa flight attendant, who was detained by ICE in March 2019.

While she might be considered a controversial figure to some, as an advocate for both the women’s labor movement and equal rights in the workplace — Nelson knows that being a good negotiator is an essential skill when it comes to fighting for change. What’s her strategy?

Earlier this week, TPG founder and CEO Brian Kelly spoke to Nelson on our weekly podcast “Talking Points.” Here, she told us how she honed her skills as a negotiator.

“As a United Airlines flight attendant, I was elected to a national position to do all of our communications after 9/11,” said Nelson. “I had been a local officer in Boston but then I took this national position. And so I was there day in and day out for 38 months during the United Airlines bankruptcy, doing all of our internal and external communications. That meant being in the union office from 7 in the morning til 1 at night, pretty much seven days a week.”

She describes this time as a “crash course” in not only the aviation industry, but also in union negotiations that required her to win over attorneys, economists and other experienced professionals who had a stake in the outcome.

“Because everything was moving so quickly, I was really working right alongside these professionals who had 20, 30, 40 years [of] experience in the business,” says Nelson.

As for the arguments themselves, Nelson notes that most negotiations “don’t move” until management has the desire to reach an agreement. “You sort of negotiate around the edges and on the non-cost items, try to get some momentum going,” explains Nelson. “But sometimes it takes getting out on the picket line and taking a strike vote and having them have to do a risk assessment of what’s going to cost them more, doing the deal or not doing the deal?”

To learn more about Sara Nelson and the complex world of union negotiations, you can listen to the full episode of “Talking Points” below, which posts a new episode every Wednesday. And if you enjoy it — make sure to subscribe, rate and review!

Featured image by Natalie Roe/The Points Guy

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