labor Sara Nelson, the Labor Movement Leader We Needed Most
In January of 2019, weeks into Donald Trump’s government shutdown, Sara Nelson accepted the labor federations’ MLK Drum Major for Justice Award with a soaring, and startling, speech. The annual award doesn’t typically lead to national news headlines, but that year Nelson, the charismatic head of the 50,000-strong Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, used the opportunity to boldly call for a general strike. “Almost a million workers are locked out or being forced to work without pay,” she told the audience. “Others are going to work when our workspace is increasingly unsafe. What is the labor movement waiting for?” It was a remarkable statement from an official in a movement that has largely moved away from confrontation.
But less than a week later, 10 air traffic controllers called in sick and, faced with the prospect and sobering visual of the nation’s airplanes being grounded, Trump blinked first. In the process, Nelson became not just the “most powerful flight attendant in America,” as the New York Times described her, but more accurately the “most powerful labor leader in the country.”
Nelson is emblematic of the new rising labor movement—one increasingly defined, unlike that of the past, by women and so-called women’s work. Flight attendants, nurses, teachers, domestic workers, fast food workers have in recent years have gotten results through collective action. “I really believe that the future of the labor movement will be led by women, because women can’t afford to not get results,” Nelson told Jezebel during a recent interview. “And we don’t often get to do it from a perch of power... It causes us to be creative and it causes us to lead without ego.”
As Nelson looked towards 2020, she imagined a year that would act as a turning point for the kind of collective action she’s long espoused: she envisioned more victories, especially for her union; more bold actions; and, as one of the country’s top union leaders, she was ready to be in the thick of it all. Then the pandemic hit.
In the very early days of the covid-19 pandemic, she and her union sprang to action, calling for a relief package for flight attendants that would maintain their jobs, pay, and health insurance. “I know what it looks like if workers are not setting the terms right up front—it very easily moves to a place of scarcity, of austerity,” Nelson said. Additionally, the union pushed for limits on bonuses for airline executives and bans on stock buybacks and dividends—a model that recognized that those at the top and shareholders shouldn’t be able to enrich themselves while a pandemic is literally killing the people who keep their businesses going. In March, the AFA celebrated the inclusion of much, though not all, of what they wanted in the CARES Act.
If the pandemic has clarified for many Americans whose labor is essential and whose is not, it has also revealed how little those in power value that work. Nelson is well aware that at the precise moment we need a vibrant, powerful labor movement; what we have is one that has been weakened by decades of conservative attacks and a retreat on the part of many unions into bureaucracy. While Nelson pins the lack of recent action on covid-19 relief squarely on the shoulders of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, she recognizes the problem is much bigger, and deeper, than just one man. To Nelson, there’s no “small d” democracy without union democracy.
“The only way we’re going to have a real democracy is if we actually engage the people. And the people will only be engaged if they are organized in unions, in spaces that are the one place in this country that are not self-selecting organizations where you have to listen to people who have different political ideologies, different beliefs, different backgrounds,” Nelson said.
But Nelson hasn’t just been fighting only for her union members. If one of Nelson’s most deeply held beliefs is that, as she often puts it, workers using their power builds power, another is the truth of that old union chestnut, an injury to one is an injury to all. Never has that adage felt more necessary—a literal question of life or death—and Nelson, who keenly understands the need for a bully pulpit, has been one of its most consistent and effective messengers in 2020.
“Flight attendants have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak from day one,” Nelson said in a video she released on Twitter in March that has since garnered hundreds of thousands of views, before urging immediate relief for all essential workers. “Even as we work for our future, we know this is far bigger than our industry,” she said, her voice breaking. “Picture the workers we rely on every day, our cab drivers and van drivers, the servers and bartenders, the front desk clerks and the hotel workers. The childcare workers and teachers who look after our kids and so many more. They are counting on us too.”
Nelson’s vision for a new American labor movement is one that is led by, as she put it, the people that don’t come from the central casting department of the labor movement—teachers, nurses, gig workers, grocery store workers, and yes, flight attendants, all of whom were taking increasingly militant action before the pandemic hit and who now have a common identity that didn’t exist before.
“Flight attendants and grocery workers before this pandemic might not have thought we have really anything in common, but today we’re both essential workers, right?” Nelson said.
She continued: “So where is the labor movement going to grow? It’s going to grow with the people who have been marginalized and been mistreated. And we have a shared experience coming out of coronavirus that helps us understand that we’re not separated by the jobs that we do.” In other words, there’s never been a more ripe time for solidarity.