Sara Nelson: Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs

Hamilton Nolan March 19, 2020

Flight attendants union president Sara Nelson is working with House Democrats on a relief package to help airline workers, with strings attached for management: No executive bonuses. No stock buybacks. No spending money on union-busting. Worker representation on boards.

Sara Nel­son is the head of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants (AFA-CWA) and is wide­ly con­sid­ered to be a can­di­date for the next leader of the AFL-CIO. She gained promi­nence when she called for con­sid­er­a­tion of a gen­er­al strike to end the gov­ern­ment shut­down of 2019. Now, with the entire econ­o­my cra­ter­ing in the midst of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, Nel­son is work­ing over­time to help craft a relief pack­age for the tee­ter­ing air­line indus­try that keeps all employ­ees on the pay­roll — a mod­el she says can be a tem­plate” for a nation­al bill to give relief to all workers.

She spoke to In These Times on Wednes­day about how to save the air­line indus­try, what unions should be doing to save work­ing peo­ple from dev­as­ta­tion dur­ing this cri­sis, and the oppor­tu­ni­ties for rad­i­cal­ism that lie ahead.

A $50 bil­lion air­line res­cue pack­age is in the news. What should it look like? 

Sara Nel­son: It has to be cen­tered on work­ers. We have a plan that pro­vides pay­roll sub­si­dies to keep every­one on the pay­roll. That’s real­ly impor­tant, because you have to keep every­one in their job, if not on the job. Pay­roll sub­sidy for not just the air­lines, but also all the air­port work­ers, is approx­i­mate­ly $10 bil­lion a month. For a three month pack­age, that’s $30 bil­lion. So $30 bil­lion of the $50 bil­lion is for main­tain­ing payroll. 

What’s your sense of the like­li­hood of that happening? 

Nel­son: This has already been incor­po­rat­ed into the House Demo­c­ra­t­ic plan, and they’re work­ing with us on a pack­age that would pro­vide these pay­roll sub­si­dies, plus a direct loan from the gov­ern­ment to the air­lines, with cer­tain require­ments attached. So this is a relief pack­age focused on work­ers, not a bailout. 

What are those requirements? 

Nel­son: No stock buy­backs. No exec­u­tive bonus­es. No div­i­dends. No break­ing con­tracts in bank­rupt­cies. No spend­ing mon­ey on bust­ing unions [The AFA-CWA says Delta has con­tin­ued to send out anti-union mes­sages dur­ing the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, prompt­ing a response from the union]. And work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion on boards. 

Tell me about what the pol­i­tics have looked like in the nego­ti­a­tions around this.

Nel­son: We’re fair­ly aligned with the air­line indus­try on con­tin­u­ing the pay­roll. There’s actu­al­ly zero dis­agree­ment there. Do they like some of our con­di­tions that we want to put on them? No. But they’re not all opposed. … By con­tin­u­ing that pay­ment through pri­vate com­pa­ny pay­rolls, that con­nects peo­ple to their health­care. It allows them to be assured that when we get on the oth­er side of this, they still have their jobs. The ben­e­fits for the air­line indus­try are they don’t have the admin­is­tra­tive night­mare of check­ing peo­ple out of secu­ri­ty sen­si­tive jobs. Nobody’s talk­ing about the real­i­ty of what it means to put peo­ple on fur­lough and lay them off. It’s a huge task. Once we erad­i­cate this threat, our econ­o­my should be able to restart imme­di­ate­ly if we do this right. 

Couldn’t the argu­ment about con­tin­u­ing pay­rolls apply to many oth­er indus­tries right now?

Nel­son: Yes — our view is that this is a tem­plate for every oth­er indus­try. If we get this right for the air­lines, you can do the same things for retail, for exam­ple. Or hospitality. 

Should there just be a nation­al bill that says we’re going to do this for every­one, rather than indus­try-spe­cif­ic programs? 

Nel­son: There could be a nation­al bill. The rea­son that it prob­a­bly makes sense to do a spe­cif­ic bill for the air­line indus­try is that there is a real need right now, and we can set a tem­plate and have the polit­i­cal momen­tum to get this done. If we don’t get this done this week, or ear­ly next week, the air­line indus­try is burn­ing cash at a rate so great that they won’t even be able to fol­low fed­er­al law, or main­tain the pay­roll in a cou­ple months, or weeks in some cases. 

What’s your best guess as to when this will be done?

Nel­son: Part of the prob­lem we have right now is that a lot of peo­ple are about to hurt very bad­ly. But this all hap­pened so fast that it hasn’t com­plete­ly sunk in. … One month ago, the air­lines were cel­e­brat­ing the biggest prof­it in his­to­ry. All of the air­lines announced hir­ing tens of thou­sands peo­ple this year. Not only has all of that flipped on its head in 30 days time, but we’re talk­ing about a com­plete halt of air travel.

We’ve seen this before. We know this maybe bet­ter than the rest of the coun­try. It was flight atten­dants and pilots who died first on 911. In the wake of deal­ing with all that hurt, in the bank­rupt­cies that fol­lowed, they took our pen­sions, slashed our pay, dimin­ished our health­care, cut our jobs — they put it all on our back, while they took exec­u­tive bonus­es and we had to deal with the loss of homes and cars, and stressed mar­riages, and telling our kids they had to do with­out. We know this, and it’s up close and per­son­al still. We’re not going to let this hap­pen again, and we’re not going to let it hap­pen to the rest of the country. 

Should there be some coor­di­nat­ed union attack on this? Should every union be push­ing their own industry’s response, or should there be one unit­ed front from unions? 

Nel­son: Trans­porta­tion unions got togeth­er and agreed on a set of prin­ci­ples. We are coor­di­nat­ed around what this relief needs to look like. We’ve been shar­ing that through the AFL-CIO, and the labor move­ment has some core prin­ci­ples here that are aligned. The ideas around it are focused on the abil­i­ty to attack the virus. So that means imme­di­ate­ly paid sick leave, that means the abil­i­ty to stay home with con­tin­ued pay­checks, that means get­ting relief to peo­ple as soon as pos­si­ble, that means focus­ing on the resources that we need to get to peo­ple on the front lines to pro­tect them­selves. Keep­ing the pay­checks going, and mak­ing this a work­er-focused relief. 

On the offense, this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to restruc­ture the things that are wrong with our econ­o­my and with the finan­cial sys­tem. This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to put an end to stock buy­backs. It’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to say that we should be pass­ing the PRO Act. … This cri­sis shows us how clear­ly Wall Street should not be set­ting the rules for our economy. 

It feels like our pol­i­tics have just shift­ed very fast. What do you think the impact is going to be on the pres­i­den­tial election? 

Nel­son: I think if labor leads on this mes­sage and this relief and this response, and we’re very clear that we have the solu­tions, then we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty on the oth­er side of this to not only reshape pol­i­cy, but also to inspire the Amer­i­can peo­ple to join unions in record num­bers. If we do that, then no mat­ter who is in office, we can shape the polit­i­cal momen­tum in this coun­try to get real changes that help people. 

A lot of work­ing peo­ple with and with­out unions are won­der­ing what their lever­age is at this moment, when lay­offs are com­ing and every­thing feels ten­u­ous. What’s the lever­age?

Nel­son: Work­ing peo­ple are gonna feel the hurt, and every­one is pay­ing atten­tion. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions right now mat­ters more than ever. Union com­mu­ni­ca­tions, get­ting our mes­sage out into the main­stream, and push­ing that by work­ing with those who sup­port a work­er-focused relief, a.k.a. House lead­er­ship, is the way to pro­mote that the labor move­ment is lead­ing on get­ting results for peo­ple. Peo­ple want to be part of a win­ning team — peo­ple want to be some­where they can actu­al­ly see results. This is a tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ty to show what the labor move­ment is about. 

And let me pull it back out for a sec­ond: This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor move­ment, which is An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do some­thing about it, then we’re all at risk. 

When 90% of peo­ple don’t have unions, but 100% of peo­ple are in dan­ger, will unions real­ly be the van­guard for get­ting nation­al relief? 

Nel­son: We’re coor­di­nat­ed on that. There is a call for nation­al relief, and there’s also a recog­ni­tion that if you can’t do your job, I can’t do mine. So if one per­son is not able to return to work, if one per­son isn’t able to be pro­tect­ed, if one per­son doesn’t have the abil­i­ty to safe­ly shel­ter, then that con­tin­ues the risk of the spread of the dis­ease. There has to be nation­al relief… In our view, we need to be set­ting a tem­plate that works for every­one else, and that’s what we can do. 

There are going to be areas where the tem­plate with the air­line indus­try doesn’t work. There are going to be peo­ple who can’t stay on a pay­roll, and we have to help them too. But if we remove all the peo­ple who can just stay in the cur­rent sys­tems that they’re in — it’s the eas­i­est way to find out where we have oth­er peo­ple that we haven’t addressed their needs, and then we can tar­get that specifically. 

Is Amer­i­ca going to like social­ism more after this? 

Nel­son: Every exec­u­tive in Amer­i­ca sounds like a social­ist right now! 

I won­der if Joe Biden will sound like a socialist… 

Nel­son: If we build up our polit­i­cal clout, and we can actu­al­ly get things done, and we can actu­al­ly pro­vide a com­mon nar­ra­tive here, then we’re gonna move Biden to that nar­ra­tive. We’ve already seen it hap­pen. There’s tremen­dous move­ment that he’s already made from his polit­i­cal record on where he stands on par­tic­u­lar issues, or how he’s talk­ing about approach­ing the issues of today. And we’re not just gonna take him to his word — we’re going to hold him to it. But we can only do that by build­ing our num­bers and show­ing that we’ve actu­al­ly got lead­er­ship and an abil­i­ty to move forward.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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