AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson: "Using power builds power."
By Brendan O’Connor
Earlier this month, more than a thousand socialists gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss the next two years of the Democratic Socialists of America. Delegates from around the country deliberated proposals on topics from electoral strategy to antifascism to internal structural reforms, but not before hearing from Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, a fifty-thousand member union that helped end the government shutdown and has fought Trump's immigration regime. "We are in the midst of crisis, but this is our moment to change the course of history—to fulfill the promise that we are all equal and worthy of happiness," she said. "All too often workers feel overwhelmed and powerless and desperate. But in my union I have hope."
Nelson opened with the story of a union of washerwomen in Atlanta who organized a strike for better pay in 1881, not two decades after the Civil War. "Most would have said that what they were attempting to do was impossible: there were no labor laws to protect them, there was no single employer with whom they could negotiate, and their low skilled work could be easily be taken over by others," she said. "They didn't back down in the face of arrests and massive fines. With creative tactics, the women, most of them former slaves who had only recently gone to work for pay, boxed in the elite families of Atlanta, forcing them to make a decision: Would they grant the pay raise demanded by the women, or hold out, and risk the strike spreading to other domestic workers? In the meantime, who's going to do the laundry? Outmaneuvered by the washerwomen, they granted the raises."
"The law wasn't on the side of these women," she continued. "The political environment was not in favor of these women. The economy was not in their favor, but they were smart, creative, and fearless." With this anecdote, Nelson, who is rapidly becoming one of the most popular labor leaders in the country, reminded the audience how much has changed, even as so much else remains the same. "People think power is a limited resource," she said, "but using power builds power."
Strikewave spoke to Nelson after her speech. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Strikewave: That was amazing. You were getting a little emotional!
Nelson: Yeah, well, I believe this stuff.
Strikewave: There was one turn of phrase that you used: "overwhelmed, powerless, and desperate." It's hard not to feel that way in the labor movement and other social movements sometimes, particularly when we're constantly on defense, constantly responding to crises. How have you fought against that? How do you reach beyond that feeling?
Nelson: Gosh, I don't think that I have ever felt desperate. I have certainly felt overwhelmed, and questioned whether or not we had any power at different times, but I do feel like I was lucky enough never to feel desperate because I did have my union and I was engaged right away. My training ground really was that 38-month-long bankruptcy at United. Certainly I have had lots of other experiences since then, but that was seminal to my training. What we had in the office was incredible solidarity. It was the worst of the worst, every single day there was bad news. And I think the Wall Street Journal had some sort of record on reporting on United Airlines during that time. And you know, none of the reporting was good, right?
Strikewave: It's never good news.
Nelson: And I talk about, like I said in there, they were holding the airplanes together with duct tape. It was a real morale buster, but the people in the office were totally united. I mean, we had each other's backs. So I think about the beginning of that process when the people that we were representing were coming to us and saying, "Please just save my job." I mean, they really were feeling desperate and powerless and really just didn't know what to do other than to tell the union to give everything up. And we really had to fight against that. And we fought very, very hard. We were out talking to people all the time just to make sure that they were talking to us and not saying that to the company!
But it was sort of an arc. First of all, the union was there for them. So they got used to understanding where they could go for good information, and that was foundational. And then the next thing that happened was that people got tired. They got tired of having everything taken away. They got tired of telling their kids they had to go without. They got tired of having to fight with their spouse because they were stressed over finances or actually going through a divorce or going through a personal bankruptcy.
And over a period of time, the people who maybe had other options, left the job. Because it was too difficult during that time. The other thing the corporation was doing was scheduling people at their max number of hours. So you had no flexibility and if you couldn't hack it, you didn't stay. So the people who really counted on this job and who had given so much to the airline, then started to see through the bankruptcy process that the executives were awarding themselves. There was real outrage at that.
At first it was very scary, because the airline really could have gone out of business, and that would have been terrible. But then, as it went along, it became more and more clear to people that [the bankruptcy] was being used as a tool against the workers to reset what Wall Street calls our market rate. And they were like, "F your market rate, we're real people who are busting our butts out here to make this airline work. And on top of it, you're making us have to sacrifice at home too."
So people really got fed up, and because the union was there communicating with them from the beginning we could communicate in those moments and then direct that energy in a positive way. It started just with petitions. We collected a petition and went to Kellogg Business School and delivered it to the Dean of Kellogg Business School, who is also on the United Airlines Board of Directors. We delivered this, and it was like, give the money back—give those bonuses back to the airline and to the workers. We took over the classroom and did that. We had actions where people were a part of something, and we kept them engaged the whole time, and they were a part of something.
It started with just being willing to sign their name to a petition to say this wasn't okay. That led to picketing and leafleting at the airport. And that led to the first ever online hearing with George Miller and Jen Schakowsky in the House [of Representatives] about the loss of our pensions. We actually—in a Republican-controlled White House and two chambers in Congress—got the House to vote to keep our pensions in place. Ultimately we couldn't get movement in the Senate, but with a Republican-controlled House we generated enough worker power and there were enough phone calls that these members of Congress just said, "Fine, make them stop calling." They literally called our office and said, "Please make them stop calling.".
Strikewave: Make it stop!!!
Nelson: From there, we took a strike vote. People said very clearly what they were willing to do. It was a whole process, but it really started with information and being there and ready to capture when people are willing to start to air their grievances, and then to focus on those and move that to collective action. Even though we never actually were able to exercise that strike threat, the threat of the strike is what got them to come to the table and give us double what they were willing to pay. We got that done in bankruptcy. And we saved retiree healthcare. I mean, there were other wins within the context of bankruptcy.
Strikewave: Those kinds of defensive victories are so important, but you're not quite taking the fight to the bosses or to the capitalists in quite the way you might like. In the context of a bankruptcy, you're kind of just trying to hold onto what you have.
Nelson: Yeah, exactly. There was this recognition that, okay this is really bad. Everything is against us and we have to fight them on everything. And we did! We fought them on those bonuses. They wanted an unlimited amount of bonuses that they could take. We had it capped. We got a court-appointed examiner to go in and examine all of their finances. These are things that we did, and we were out there exposing the CEO for taking a $4.5 million pension trust. He had to answer that. He had to answer to the court. And he had to answer to the court of public opinion on that. And it was a time period when I think—this was the early 2000s, and frankly I think that what we were still living under was an era that Reagan started—was about: the government is not the solution, it's the problem. And started a narrative about you should be lucky to have a job. And if I don't have something that you have, I'm going to pull you down instead of asking for a hand up. When we had that big fight, we definitely were united as a union, but we felt very much like our issues were ours alone.
It was very important for us to have those fights. It was very important to show that we could be militant and that we could mobilize, and that it's not just based on one press release. It was based on real deep organizing. That readies you then to take on the next fight. I still don't think we're exactly where we need to be, but we did get a contract a couple of years ago that had thirty and in some cases forty percent raises and is leading the industry by far. We have a lot more to do, but I think that what's different today. One, the economy is better. I mean, people see the economy's better, but [individuals are] doing worse. So there is this anger in the inequality, but then that has to be really focused. What's happening is that you have women leading, for the most part, who are saying, "We don't have to fall for the same old script. We don't have to fall for hoping that the next election is going to change something, putting our hopes in other people who are going to solve our problems for us."
The whole notion of a strike being illegal: that was pressed so hard after [the PATCO strike] and the horrible tone that was set by Reagan firing all the air traffic controllers. But I think it's also not that simple as, "How did labor respond in that moment?" While we were already under attack, and our density was already dropping, there was a steep drop off after that, because then it's like, "Why would I join a union? What is it going to get me? Is it gonna get me some supplemental insurance? Do I get to be a part of something?" I think what's happening right now is that people are feeling like they can be a part of something, and we can connect fights. So we're working really hard on that.
Flight attendants, one of their biggest gripes today is that we either can't get the health insurance that we want or we can't hang on to the health insurance that we have. It doesn't matter how mobilized we are. It doesn't matter that we're willing to take a strike vote on that issue. We are never going to move that forward if we're not a part of something bigger than ourselves, so we have to understand how we connect to other workers, and we've got to make space for that to happen.
One of the things we've been doing is talking about how we're connected to mine workers. Some people would say, "Flight attendants and mine workers, what the hell?" Well, you know, we lost our pensions and theirs are being threatened, and we're not going to fall prey to the, 'We lost ours so you should lose yours too.' We lost ours, so we're gonna fight like hell to make sure you don't lose yours too! And we're also connected because we count on ventilated air. As [UMWA president] Cecil Roberts likes to say, "It doesn't matter. When you go up in the air or underground, all you can count on is your fellow union members and when there is an accident, the accident doesn't discriminate. It takes lives indiscriminately."
Strikewave: In order for unions to achieve what they need, they need to reach beyond the workplace. One of the things that I'm most excited to hear people talk about this weekend is the proposal for a mass strike for reproductive justice. But this is really not how American unions seem to operate. How do we get union members to use the union as a tool for the benefit of everyone?
Nelson: There's no way that's going to happen if you can't connect that fight to people's jobs. And along with that, their wages and benefits and all that. So we have to build up the labor movement, because that is the structure that allows us to engage everyone to have these conversations and then to move to action.
This was really eye opening to me when the #MeToo movement broke. I said to our staff, "Well, get ready. We're going to get calls." Of course, we had been fighting sexism for our entire union's history, but the calls came in and we started talking about what actually happens on the plane. People actually were finally interested in asking that question. We did a survey: sixty-eight percent of our members said that they had experienced sexual harassment in their career. One third said that they had experienced actual physical sexual harassment of some kind in the prior year. So it was way above other work groups.
We started asking right away for stories from workers. I can tell my own stories too, but I wanted to make sure that I was actually reflecting what people were experiencing. It turned out I was. But when these stories started coming in, they were all from women, and I myself have experienced men being sexually harassed on the plane or even sexually assaulted on the plane. In some cases, in a more vulgar way than what I had experienced or other women that I had worked with! And so I started asking some of the men who are my union brothers, "Why aren't you speaking up? I know you've experienced this." And every single one of them had a story, but what they ultimately came to was, "Look, we're a workforce of 80% women. And the real problem here is that sexual harassment is about power. It's not about sex. And really it's about controlling women and keeping women in their place and keeping women down. And if we don't recognize this as a moment for women to gain equality, then we are undermining our own bargaining power." I probably said that more directly than them, but essentially that's what they said to me in different words. That was really eye opening to me.
So, what we have to do is we have to help union members understand why the attack on reproductive rights is really just about controlling women. That's all it's about. It's not even about healthcare. Yes, for the individual woman, it's about healthcare. It's about reproductive rights. But also, why are we actually putting reproductive rights just on women? It's really about power and control of women. And if we can get our brothers in the labor movement to understand that, and to understand that if they don't take that on, it's undercutting their bargaining power to actually increase their wages and increase their working conditions, then they're not going to care in the same way.
You know, I really appreciate all my union brothers who are out there saying, "If this was my mother or my sister or my daughter, I'd punch the person out." I appreciate all that. That's fine. Thank you for taking care of us, but aren't you upset that you don't have someone who is seen as just as important standing beside you on the picket line? And doing the same job? That undermines you. That diminishes your value. Those are the kinds of conversations that we have to have. And if we're talking about worker power, we can get to those conversations every single time.
Strikewave: Your profile has shot up since the government shutdown, but you've been doing what you've been doing for awhile. You haven't changed, something in the wider context has changed. What is that?
Nelson: I haven't changed, but I have certainly been changed by this process.
Strikewave: They call that "the dialectic" here.
Nelson: I could talk to you about the struggles that I've had in my own life. The sexual harassment, the assaults, the rape, and I can talk to you about a lot of other experiences in my life. And every single one of those experiences has made me who I am. And this is one more, so when I was speaking in there and talking about that moment where I told my union president that I just had to take a minute to cry, that is the moment when I knew that this was something I was going to do for the rest of my life. That was the moment when I knew why I was here, and it was really to fight for the rights of working people, and to actually gain what I thought I had when I was growing up, which was equality for all and the right for everyone to be happy.
With that firm foundation, I've been doing this work and I have been trying to represent the people that I represent and build power for flight attendants. There's been a lot of things that have happened in the process, but I think that this moment, where the nation actually got to see some of that work and got to see some of what I have learned over the past 20 years of doing union work—it all just kind of came together in one moment. From that, I've been able to tell my story in mainstream media, which has sort of changed everything, because it's happened at the same time that people are paying attention to unions because of what the teachers have done, and the hotel workers, hospitality workers, grocery workers.
So it's not just me. It's like all of this is happening at the same time, and now all of a sudden there's a very different story to tell about who the labor movement is and it really has all kind of come together. Luckily, I have all these experiences to draw from, to be able to talk about what our movement is and what our movement can do and what it means to me. I do feel like I have a real responsibility to be doing that. I thought it was just going to be about fighting for the people who share the jumpseat with me on the plane. But as it turns out, my fate and their fate is directly tied to the fate of all these other people in the country. And so if I'm going to follow through on what I promised to them and what I promised to myself, then I have to take every single opportunity I get to talk about this.
Strikewave: Are you going to run for AFL-CIO president? Yes or no.
Nelson: It's really not yes or no. And let me tell you why it's not yes or no. Because of what I just described. I would never run for a position. I can see real value in using that position to further what I was just talking about, and that is exciting and intriguing to me. But I'm definitely not interested in running for a position just to hold a position. I want to make sure that whatever I'm doing holds true to what I decided I needed to do for the rest of my life.
Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist, a rank-and-file member of WGA East, and a member of the Strikewave cooperative. His views are his own.