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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 8, 2019, 11:31 am

Meet the Militant Flight Attendant Leader Who Threatened a Strike—And Helped Stop Trump’s Shutdown

BY David Dayen

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Sara Nelson could be the future of the U.S. labor movement. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)  

The government shutdown introduced America to an audacious new voice in the labor movement: Sara Nelson. While receiving the MLK Drum Major for Justice Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFL-CIO on January 20, Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called for a general strike to support the 800,000 federal employees who were locked out or forced to work without pay. “Dr. King said, ‘their destiny is tied up with our destiny,’” Nelson told a cheering crowd of labor leaders. “We cannot walk alone.”

Absences among air traffic controllers on the 35th and final day of the shutdown, causing ground stops at LaGuardia Airport in New York and elsewhere, contributed to the eventual resolution of the standoff. Before the shutdown ended, flight attendants were mobilizing to walk out as well—as Nelson said, “if air traffic controllers can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.” Simply floating the idea of labor unrest raised the stakes. Nelson, who took over leadership of the AFA in 2014, broke an unwritten rule by expressing the logical endpoint of the power workers hold in their hands.

“I was very aware when writing that speech that it was going to be a moment and it was going to make a lot of things possible,” she told In These Times during an interview last week in Los Angeles. “There has been this hopelessness, this feeling that the problems are out of our reach. So setting a bold course and being bold about the action that we need to take was something that I knew people would respond to.”

That urgency has yet to dissipate. The shutdown was merely put on pause—government funding runs out again February 15. It’s entirely possible that workers could again get furloughed and cut off from pay. And Nelson wants everyone to understand how her members are willing to sacrifice in response.

“I know how dangerous a day 36 of the lockout would be,” she said, referring to a resumption of the shutdown. “We’re going to continue running as fast as we can right up to February 15, so that we can take action immediately on February 16 if necessary.” If flight attendants do take action, other unions and even the airlines themselves may get behind them. That’s because the shutdown inserted fundamental risk into the air travel system.

Nelson, a 23-year rank and file flight attendant with United Airlines who still occasionally works trips, thinks that it will take years for the aviation industry to recover from the shutdown and the issues that preceded it. Nearly 20 percent of all air traffic controllers are currently eligible to retire, a figure that rises to 40 percent in the New York City area, Nelson said. Staffing was at a 30-year low before the shutdown. The political uncertainty could easily convince air traffic controllers into cutting their careers short. And the training required for such a difficult job means that replacing these workers will take time.  

“If you have a 99.5 percent efficiency rate in a job, people applaud you, you get awards, right?” Nelson explained. “If an air traffic controller has a 99.5 percent efficiency rate, 50 planes go down a day.”

Fewer people managing plane traffic means reduced capacity in the air. That has an economic impact, compounded by the shutdown’s temporary halt on installing improved safety measures like the NextGen modernization—an FAA-led effort to modernize the United States’ transportation system. Even after the shutdown, NextGen has not rolled back to life, Nelson said. “No contractor is going to come to work when they think they’re going to have to shut down in two weeks possibly.”

Amid this economic uncertainty and threat to safety, Nelson has signaled a critical need for worker action. The labor strike is having a renaissance in America. Teachers across the country—even in states like West Virginia where striking is illegal—have withheld their labor to bargain for better pay, conditions and outcomes for their students. Hotel workers at Marriott spent two months on the picket lines this winter to win concessions from management.

As Nelson understands, the willingness of workers to strike has powerful effects. The Association of Flight Attendants resolved a dispute in 1993 with Alaska Airlines—which led to as much as 60 percent pay raises for workers in some cases—by only striking seven flights. The union called it CHAOS: “create havoc around our system.” With air travel so interconnected and interdependent, the ever-present threat of CHAOS has helped lead to labor peace.

The right to strike is a privilege that federal employees are denied; they are legally prohibited from walkouts, and they can be terminated, hit with the loss of a federal pension, and even personally prosecuted for defying the law. “Those federal workers were actually very courageous,” Nelson said. “Because in my view what the White House wanted here was for the workers to strike. They wanted to replace them so they could privatize the entire system.” This is not so far-fetched—President Trump has publicly supported air traffic control privatization.

Nelson believes that the heroic efforts of federal workers to show up to work without pay demands that the labor movement support them with solidarity strikes, part of her desire to shake up the status quo. “If we try to play by the rules, we’re only going to continue to decline,” she said.

Part of Nelson’s power derives from the union she leads. Flight attendants are a uniquely consumer-facing profession that comes into contact with millions of Americans every day. And they share with passengers the indignities of air travel, a by-product of corporate greed and industry consolidation that has left four carriers controlling 80 percent of all domestic routes. With few alternatives for passengers, shrinking seats and overhead bins have heightened tensions in the cabin, and flight attendants are bearing the brunt. According to Nelson, “Our union, our bread and butter issues are absolutely tied up in this overall fight that I think is really about, are we going to be about people or are we going to be about politics and profits?”

In the near term, that fight is translating into mass mobilization against the threat of another shutdown. Nelson’s union is leafleting at airports and communicating to the public between now and February 15 to identify the stakes, and making clear that members are committed to walking out if necessary. They’re also advocating for a permanent end to government shutdowns, and back wages for low-income federal contract workers who were furloughed.

One moment during the previous shutdown has stuck with Nelson, a reminder of the unifying force of cross-sector solidarity. “I was doing interviews on the shutdown in a cab ride” in Washington, D.C., Nelson recalled. “And when I got to the office and went to get out and pay my fare, the cab driver turned around and his chin was shaking and his eyes were watery. And he said, ‘Thank you, I know you’re fighting for me too.’ It was like, oh yeah, there’s been nobody on the streets, and he’s had no fares. And that really shook me, because we don’t really understand how much the effect ripples.”

This notion that we all have a stake in one another’s struggles has driven Nelson’s thinking throughout this government-created crisis, and it’s elevated her to a prominence that could portend a larger role in the future. Nelson begged off such thoughts, insisting that she was focused on saving the lives of her members and airline passengers. But she did leave some room to consider the broader lessons of collective action, in a moment when so many forces are aligned against the working class: “I’m very aware that if we do it well, it’s an opportunity for workers to taste their power.”

David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times' Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

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