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

David Dayen February 8, 2019

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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