Flight attendants work for airlines, and so they have, of course, been getting paid for the past five weeks, setting them apart from airport colleagues like TSA screeners, air traffic controllers, and customs agents. But it was Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants’ union, who made the most forceful call for worker solidarity in the face of the shutdown. At an award dinner on Sunday, she called on the labor movement at large to stand up for federal workers:
Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, “What are you willing to do?” Their destiny is tied up with our destiny—and they don’t even have time to ask us for help. Don’t wait for an invitation. Get engaged, join or plan a rally, get on a picket line, organize sit-ins at lawmakers’ offices.
Nelson asked AFL-CIO leaders to talk to their locals about a general strike—a tactic that hasn’t been tried in the United States for more than 70 years. Then again, it’s been longer than that (never) since the federal government was closed for five weeks.
On Friday afternoon, I spoke to Nelson about why she spoke up, what needs to change, and how this dismal 35-day stretch can serve as a catalyst for a resurgent American labor movement. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Grabar: I guess the government’s up and running again, so that’s good news.
Sara Nelson: It’s good news that a million people that have been locked out of work with no paychecks are going to get paid, back-paid, and hopefully have a chance to put their lives back together. We’re going to be working very hard to make sure this never happens again because they should have never been put in the crosshairs here.
Flight attendants have been getting paid, because you’re private-sector employees. Where does the sense of solidarity with federal workers in aviation come from, for you or for your members?
Our country doesn’t run without the federal workers who make it run, and there’s no industry where that’s more evident than the airline industry, where our private airlines work in tandem with the federal agencies. One really doesn’t work without the other.
My comments were fully rooted in the workers that I represent. As we saw this morning, when capacity was pulled down and planes were stuck, it’s a very quick unraveling of flight attendant, pilot, mechanic, customer service jobs. Everyone’s jobs were on the line and that includes the people I directly represent.
Federal workers are not allowed to strike or participate in any kind of sickout. Did you speak to anyone from those groups about what it was like to work without pay and be prohibited from taking any kind of concerted labor action to protest those conditions?
It was incredibly frustrating. What we heard from all over the country was, “They could end this. Why are they staying on the job? We did away with slavery with the 13th Amendment.” There was a lot of confusion about how this could even take place. No other country in the world would put up with this.
They felt really stuck. Don’t forget, if they struck, they were putting it all on the line. Not only were they sacrificing potentially their health care, their pensions, the right to ever work for the federal government again, but they could be prosecuted for striking. That’s how fundamentally they are not able to take action when there is such an egregious act against them. That’s outrageous and that’s something that has to change.
Do you think the legacy of the air traffic controllers strike under Reagan was something people were thinking about?
Of course that’s something people were thinking about. There were strikers in 1981 who were indicted. There’s history here that people were following. Reagan made that a really popular move in the private sector as well, and that’s when the right to strike was diminished in this country, and when labor rights and labor membership hit a steady decline. Are we better off for it? I think what we’re seeing, with the teachers strikes, the hotel workers who took on Marriott and won, is that people are not willing to put up with it anymore. People are willing to do more to fight for their families because they have been pushed so far, and there has been so much productivity put on the backs of the American worker without any increases in wages.
Going forward, what’s the legacy of this 35-day period for federal workers and the labor movement more generally?
We can decide to fight for real labor law in this country with the fundamental principle that if you go to work you get paid. And you have the right to strike if you are not given that.
Coming out of this, for people working in federal-sector jobs, if you think they’re not thinking about switching careers right now if that’s possible, you’re crazy. How are we going to recruit people, when we’re in 30-year lows for air traffic controllers, unless we fix this? Why would you sign up for this kind of uncertainty? It’s incumbent upon keeping the system together for the future that we fix this so we can attract people to these high-requirement jobs, so that we can promote our air transportation system and compete with the rest of the world.
I want to ask about this AFL-CIO dinner where you asked leaders to go back to their locals and consider joining a general strike. How was that comment received by the people in the audience?
Well, the people in the audience loved it; there were cheers and people were on their feet. The fundamental question I asked in that speech was: What is the labor movement waiting for? There are a million people locked out of work right now. More federal contractors locked out of jobs with no guarantee of backpay—we’re going to fight for them too. This was the largest lockout in U.S. history. This was the time for labor to act. If no one else was going to say that, I felt like as a member of the AFL-CIO executive council, that was my responsibility to speak out.
We’re not letting this go. This has started a conversation that’s a going to be central to this presidential race. But more immediately, I was already in an emergency meeting to make sure that we don’t let this happen again in 21 days.
Has the Association of Flight Attendants ever struck?
We had one of the most successful strikes in the aviation industry ever. We struck only seven flights and brought Alaska Airlines to its knees, which resulted in overnight, in some cases, 60 percent increases in pay for flight attendants, and dramatically improved working conditions.
The threat of that strike has resulted in companies capitulating before strike deadlines. We have never had to strike again. We have threatened it many times, but in the end airlines do not want to face as one of the executives of US Airways put it, “the phenomenon called CHAOS.” [Note: CHAOS stands for “create havoc around our system.”]
Once we have the right to strike, we say a strike could happen at any time, the public doesn’t know, media doesn’t know, management doesn’t know. Minimal risk to flight attendants, maximum impact on management. It still requires incredible solidarity among the work group and the willingness of every single flight attendant to walk off if they’re called and we confirm all of that when we walk into it. They have not wanted to face this because it’s very hard to defend against it. With CHAOS, we’re really able to take control of the situation.
One reason that seems relevant is, as we were seeing today, in air travel in particular, not everyone needs to walk off the job to have a national cascading effect, which seems like something to keep in mind the next time the government shuts down.