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Sara Nelson: Attacks on Abortion Rights Are Attacks on All Workers

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson on abortion rights, building union density, and the sham of “corporate benevolence”.

Sara Nelson speaks as WGA and SAG-AFTRA members picket as they strike over contract negotiation at Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery offices in New York on August 17, 2023.,Credit: Kena Betancur/Viewpress // In These Times

Over the past year, workers have seen our lives irrevocably changed. The Supreme Court’s landmark Dobbs decision gutted a fundamental right to bodily autonomy and plunged millions into crisis and uncertainty. Almost immediately, a litany of horror stories emerged. Doctors denying life saving care for fear of retribution; women trapped with their abusers or killed for accessing abortion care; children — already subjected to unspeakable violence — forced to seek the procedure in the shadows, lest they bear children of their own.

Since the ruling, 14 states have implemented full abortion bans, and several others are working tirelessly to restrict access. Not content with their unprecedented assault on reproductive autonomy, some Republicans have moved swiftly onto their next target: birth control. It’s abundantly clear that these assaults will continue unabated until we’re strong enough as a movement to stop them. So, how the hell do we get there? 

For Sara Nelson, the answer is clear: our movements need to be willing to show up for each other like never before. The attack on abortion rights is at its core an attack on working people. Poor people are more than five times as likely to face an unwanted pregnancy, and Black women in the U.S. are almost three times more likely to die during pregnancy than women of another race. Forced parenthood traps families into lifetimes of poverty and trauma — and unsurprisingly, the states that have moved most swiftly to restrict abortion rights are also those who do the least to support new parents through parental leave, pregnancy protections at work, and a liveable wage. 

Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL – CIO, spoke to In These Times on the fight for abortion rights and labor’s duty to take a strong stand. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Natascha Elena Uhlmann: In the aftermath of Dobbs, how should unions be thinking about attacks on abortion rights and reproductive justice? What, tangibly, can unions do to protect these rights? 

Sara Nelson: Unions fundamentally need to look at this as a part of what the corporate elite have done for centuries, and that is divide workers, primarily by race and sex, and go on from there. And so, union organizers understand that when you’re organizing, you look to leaders to try to engage them in the organizing campaign and bring along with them a whole set of other workers. When people are on disadvantaged ground, that’s very difficult to do. So taking half of the population and taking away their right to self determination, and affirming even further that they’re not equal to the rest of the population is undercutting our values as working class and denying the solidarity that is otherwise an option when we see an injury to one is an injury to all. We’ve got to lift everyone up. If one person can be marginalized or oppressed, or discriminated against, that leaves us all open to that discrimination. 

So we need to understand that this is a fundamental attack on our solidarity, on working class power. And the very idea that we still haven’t broken through not only the pay gap but the sexism that exists in the economy across the board — certain jobs have been defined as ​“women’s work” purposefully attempting to make the jobs less valuable. So before you even get to the issues of economic concerns for the workers, what’s the biggest economic decision you make in life? Whether or not to have children. So taking that right away immediately introduces an economic harm to half of the population, half of the working class. But before you even get to that, it undercuts solidarity and gives the corporate elite a way, one more way to divide the working class, to deny us of our power and our ability to claim our share of what we create.

Natascha Elena Uhlmann: Shortly after the Dobbs decision, corporations like Starbucks, Microsoft, and PayPal pledged to support their employees in obtaining an abortion should they choose to have one. [But as Sarah Lazare notes,] this has a dark side — it’s often used as an anti-union cudgel, or even in the best case scenario leaves workers even more reliant on bad bosses. How have airline CEO’s talked about abortion? How do we avoid having our movements co opted by ​“corporate benevolence”?

Sara Nelson: There’s a problem across the board. There’s the problem of defining issues as political issues rather than human rights issues. Corporations typically go with the popular ideas in society, and it’s all based on whether or not you can use these ideas to sell your tickets, your products. For example, we had to fight for LGBTQ rights. We started on the job fighting for that at United Airlines for domestic partner benefits. This last month, in Pride Month, United Airlines’ travel magazine said United Airlines was the first carrier to provide domestic partner benefits because they wanted to boast their LGBTQ friendliness to sell tickets. There was no mention of the fact that the union had to put up a massive battle against the airline in order to win those rights. It’s only because of the union that they existed. So when the Dobbs decision was announced, I wrote to all of the airline management and said that for the sake of the workers, their safety, their economic security, the reality that air travel is a symbol of freedom…that they need to speak up against this attack on women’s rights. And the best that they would do is restate the policies that they have in assisting women with travel to get medical care… It was a far cry from saying that women in their workforce are equal to everyone else in the workforce, and that the people that they want to sell tickets to, are all in their eyes equal and should have equal standing. So they were, you know, very hesitant. So there’s the issue of political retaliation in and of itself. 

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And then I would recognize that when we negotiated our very first contract in 1946, after organizing a union in 1945, one of the first things we had to do was negotiate a seniority list so that the bidding of schedules was transparent, and award of work was transparent, and managers couldn’t try to coerce flight attendants to trade sex for schedules.

Denying the right to abortion means bosses and people in power and coworkers can control women. It means control of a woman for her entire life. It brings new meaning to rape. Beyond the act itself, forcing her to be pregnant for 10 months, and then to be a mother, before or whether or not, that’s something that she decides. So these issues introduce more discrimination, more oppression, the ability to shame people; in order to get any kind of care, you’ve got to ask for help on that, explain that. And so this sets up all kinds of ways to interfere with a worker’s privacy, and their right to have their own self determination, because even if a company has a ​“friendly” policy, you have a manager who has to implement the policy, you’re putting that in the hands of someone who has been told this is a political issue rather than a personal and human rights issue.

Natascha Elena Uhlmann: Advocating for social issues can often bring new people into movements for social, economic and racial justice. We’ve seen it with the Chicago Teachers Union, where they really expanded the scope of what they were fighting for, beyond the immediate issues of teacher pay and working conditions, and fought for the conditions their students face — like investments in affordable housing and racial justice. It seems like this fight really galvanized the movement. Have you seen this dynamic play out in your own organizing? 

Sara Nelson: Yes, generally. Not so much with Dobbs directly. But the social issues and taking those issues on and being very intentional about taking on social issues, and celebrating diversity has absolutely given new life to our organizing and brought people in who otherwise didn’t necessarily identify with the union with the based solely on economic issues. And to be very clear, for these workers, the social issues are fundamental to their experience of the economic issues.

Natascha Elena Uhlmann: Organized labor hasn’t always taken womens’ work seriously; this is especially the case for immigrant women and women of color. Even today, too many locals seem like they are a boy’s club. We just covered one worker, a semi truck driver who had to really fight her union to get to do the work she on paper had already been given. How do we grapple with this legacy and build trust with workers who have been historically kept at the margins of the labor movement? 

Sara Nelson: We ask these workers to lead. We’re intentional about bringing them into spaces where their voices are heard, shine a light, tell their stories. And that’s what the unions, in our unions we can do that. In other spaces it’s very difficult for these workers to speak up, because there’s so much more at risk, so much more to lose, and someone’s got to break through to be able to tell these stories. So, we have to start there, we have to give them that space. I think also rank and file organizing is fundamental to this idea, that we will practice and show workers that the labor movement, which, frankly, is people who are in unions and people who want to be in unions — so there’s there’s many more people who are part of the labor movement, who are not currently, members today — and so I think shining a light on those voices, and telling those stories, as well as being very intentional about asking them to be leaders in these spaces is what we have to do. 

Natascha Elena Uhlmann: It’s a really exciting time in the labor movement, but we’re nowhere near the density we need. What are the key impediments you see, and how do we make the most of this moment?

Sara Nelson: Fundamentally, we need a lot more focus on organizing, and it’s very difficult to ask workers who have organized and are taking on their own fights and are contributing to their unions, to say that we need to spend all your money on getting millions of other people too. So we have to energize the workers who are already in unions and fight for them in order to inspire others to come. I get choked up about this stuff. It’s important. Waking to that, to your power, is an overwhelming and inspiring thing. 

I think of Karen Lewis…the entire labor movement owes this moment to Karen Lewis because she led a movement that said, ​“We’re gonna do this differently, we’re going to fight for it differently. We’re going to build a union that is for the teachers in the classroom and for the children that we’re teaching, and build a space that can be powerful for the entire community and find that power all around that space.” And she said the word STRIKE, for the first time in a long time. Strike had been made a dirty word by Ronald Reagan and the corporate elite. And it gave workers, it shone a light for workers that had been a very dark space before the Chicago Teachers Strike in 2012. And that made it possible for other workers to fight for their own power, even in spaces where they don’t even have the right to collective bargaining, where a strike is on paper illegal. And so we have to energize the workers who have unions today, to inspire others to join and to give millions of current members stories to tell about why being active in unions is paramount for our lives.

The Teamsters contract campaign is fundamental to inspire many others to join this movement. Bringing to the forefront the reality that workers should be shaping the economy and setting the agenda will inspire others to join because when they awake to the idea that they don’t have to be beholden to the owner class and corporate elite that they have power in their own right and can take control of that and define their future, is the most important part of organizing. But I don’t want to diminish the fact that we need money and resources and people focused on organizing all the time. Because we can’t forget that taking on these fights, gaining wins and getting advances for people who are already in unions is a critical component to inspiring the organizing that has to happen, and we can’t let that be at war with the organizing and the resources that have to be pumped into that to make it happen.

It’s all of those things together, and I think when we recognize the fact that we can’t expect that the unions that exist today are enough to meet the demand of the workers who want to organize and the workers who need to organize, and we create spaces for any worker who wants to join a union to have the resources and support to do that, is how we’re going to build the labor movement. So it all comes together, it’s all important, and we can’t talk about these things as being in conflict with each other. They’re actually very complementary. All of this discussion about what unions are doing to spend money on organizing, all of that is really important. And it’s important to spread the truth of solidarity. The reality is that we’ll have to organize every single workspace. But we also have to be realistic about where we’re going to get the resources and how we’re going to continue to get the resources and provide the real support that’s needed for workers who don’t yet have unions today, while we continue to have the workers who do, fighting for it and showing what is possible when workers come together.

[NATASCHA ELENA UHLMANN is the Audience Engagement Editor at In These Times. A writer and organizer, her work has appeared in The Guardian, Truthout, Rewire News, and Teen Vogue. She is also the author of Abolish ICE.]

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