Sara NelsonSara Nelson is a badass.

There’s no better way to describe the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), although the New York Times did call her “the most powerful flight attendant in America” on the front page of its business section. Nelson recalls with a smile that the same edition had a profile of the CEO of Delta – on page four.

In her time as a union activist, Nelson has been making headlines as a fierce and savvy defender of AFA members and all working people. She was credited with ending the U.S. government shutdown (two days after threatening a general strike) and winning big gains for her members.

Nelson’s union developed a job action strategy called “CHAOS” in which individual flights are struck without letting the company or public know in advance. After striking just seven flights with Alaska Airlines, the company was so insistent on settling the dispute quickly that they proposed language that inadvertently gave flight attendants a 60-per-cent raise.

Sexual harassment is a significant problem in airlines, a problem Nelson says has roots in the industry’s early days.

“Flight attendants were used as sex objects to sell tickets, and that has never been denounced by the industry,” said Nelson. “So first thing we said was, we need to denounce that sexist past.”

While the roots of the problem go back to the early days of aviation, Nelson says harassment and assault among flight attendants are still at levels unheard of in most workplaces. According to an AFA survey of members working for 20 different airlines, 68 per cent have experienced sexual harassment, with an eye-popping one in five reporting physical harassment within the last 12 months.

“I could certainly tell my stories. I’ve only been flying since 1996, and I can think of a dozen right of the top of my head that are really, really disgusting, so this not an old issue. It is prevalent today.”

Nelson is passionate about the advantages of unions having women leaders.

“People who have been marginalized have had to figure out how to make things work all their lives,” said Nelson. “We have to be more creative, we lead without ego, and we’re results oriented. That allows us to find different strategies and ways to get a settlement.  That’s typically the edge that women have in the labour movement.”

“We have to tackle the issue of sexism and bring up women leaders to understand that they have power,” said Nelson.

“That matters to men as well, because if you have a certain number of members of your workplace who are marginalized, or discriminated against, or thought of as something less than you, then you are weakening your own bargaining power. It’s critically important that the labour movement seek out women and people of colour to make sure we have a diversity of representation, to make sure the workers understand that unions are for all workers. That’s the only way we are going to beat back multinational corporations that are looking to squeeze us more and more and take more for themselves.”