Sara Nelson in her own words on building a fighting labor movement, the proud history of democratic socialism in America, how workers ended the shutdown, and how they’ll stop Trump, too.
On May 10, 2019, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson gave a speech to the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s annual Eugene Debs–Lucy Gonzalez Parsons–A. Philip Randolph Dinner. We reproduce the speech here in full, lightly edited for online publication.
Good evening, sisters and brothers. I’m here because aviation’s first responders did me the great honor of electing me to lead our union. I’m here representing them and stand in awe of their courage and care for all of us.
Our union, the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, with fifty thousand members at twenty airlines, first formed to beat back discrimination that ranged from quitting at age thirty, or stepping on a weight scale until 1993. We fought for men to have the same rights as women on the job, and we were at the forefront of LGBTQ rights.
That spirit is what led flight attendants to declare we wouldn’t work flights that facilitated the Trump Administration’s evil policy of immigrant family separations. And it’s that spirit that led us to take a firm stand during the government shutdown, when millions of people were out of work, others were forced to work without pay, all of us were increasingly unsafe, and our entire economy was on the line. With access to 360 million voters in our workplace, we intend to continue to use the spirit of our union for good.
And let me tell you I’m proud to be with you, the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. You have won some great victories here in this city this year. You have helped elect some incredible leaders.
Still, some ignorant political hack or media purveyor of hate is likely talking trash right now about democratic socialists. And here’s what I have to say. Helen Keller was a democratic socialist. And so was Albert Einstein. And so was George Orwell. And Bayard Rustin. And the Reuther family.
When Nazi troops came to the Warsaw Ghetto to kill the last Jews left, the men and women on the rooftops who met them with gasoline bombs were democratic socialists, and democratic socialists stood up against dictatorship throughout the twentieth century, they filled Stalin’s camps and Siberian graves.
The minimum wage, national health care, worker safety rules, Social Security — before the Great Society and before the New Deal, this was the democratic-socialist agenda.
And of course our democratic-socialist working heroes, Eugene Victor Debs, A. Philip Randolph, and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons. The police called Lucy Parsons “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” because of her skills as an orator, organizer, and rabble-rouser.
Her cry that only direct action — or the threat of it — will move the boss is a lesson we can all do well to remember.
Especially today, in this moment of crisis. Just one in ten workers in this country is a party to that charter of freedom and badge of dignity called a union contract. Our republic is mocked every day by the president who swore to defend it and by those who made him in the Republican Party.
Around the world, the dark forces of hate driven dictatorship are on the march, much as they were in the 1930s. Those who seek power through hatred feed on and inspire violence and madness, and leave behind random victims slaughtered in prayer — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.
And yet we are gathered at a time of tremendous hope and possibility. And so I come here not to make you angry or tell you terrible things, but to bring you good news from America’s working people, and to speak to you in the language that Debs, Parsons, and Randolph spoke: the language of solidarity, of hope.
American Workers on the Offense
I want to summon in your mind’s eye the faces of all the people who walked a picket line this past year. Picture them: West Virginia’s teachers, and their mineworker parents and grandparents. Grocery workers in Boston, hotel workers here in Chicago, Google engineers in San Francisco, and Uber drivers in Los Angeles.
More working people in this country went on strike this past year than have done so in decades. These strikes were workers going on offense — workers demanding to be heard, workers striking for a better day. For one job to be enough.
These were the kind of strikes that Debs, Parsons, and Randolph would have understood, because they were visionary, because they built power, because they built right there on the picket line the kind of country we want to be; where we care for each other, where we fight hand in hand for our democracy, where our “manyness” — our many nationalities and races and religions and our diversity of gender and gender identity — is a source of pride and strength and love.
And because we won.
We beat the Wall Street greedheads and their political pawns who wanted to destroy Los Angeles’s schools in the service of their profits.
We beat the techno barons of Google who thought they could reward sexual harassers with giant pay packages. (As hotel workers said in Chicago: “hands off, pants on.”)
We beat the giant multinational corporations who own our nation’s hotels and grocery stores — who make billions in profits but would have our kids go hungry.
Workers Beat Trump
And we beat the White House.
Donald Trump thought he could close our government, stop paying our nation’s public servants, hold our wellbeing as a nation hostage to his racist hatreds. And he thought he could bully everyone.
But that’s not how it went down.
Because the people who run America’s aviation system take our responsibility to the public seriously. So we started talking about a general strike because it seemed to be the only way to stop Trump’s henchmen from in the end getting people killed in America’s skies — killed because once the federal government started treating air traffic controllers and transportation security workers like slaves, making them work without pay and under the threat of indictment if they took action against it — more and more people simply couldn’t afford to come to work.
It was a race against time. But in the end we won that race when the Federal Aviation Administration closed La Guardia Airport to air traffic because there weren’t enough air traffic controllers.
The punch line here is that this year America’s workers have learned — we have taught ourselves — that we are as brave and strong and creative as our forebears, that we can hold our heads high with Memphis sanitation strikers, Flint sit-down strikers, the martyred dead of Pullman and Haymarket and Cripple Creek, Colorado, with the mill girls of Lowell, and the rebel slaves of Charleston — that if Eugene Debs came back today and went to an LA classroom or a Chicago hotel or a flight attendant union meeting, he would know where he was.
It was the Chicago Teachers Union, under the dynamic leadership of Karen Lewis and the teachers who organized at the grassroots as part of the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), who showed many of us how it’s done. With their incredible strike in 2012, they won not only a great contract — they rekindled the militant, rank-and-file organizing approach that built the early labor movement over a century earlier.
But one strike does not a labor movement make. Nor does five or ten strikes. Our great task today — your task and my task, is to build a labor movement for this new century — a labor movement for all of America’s workers — a labor movement as big and bold as America itself, a labor movement that is as the poet once said of this city, “singing so proud to be alive, bragging and laughing that under our wrists are the pulse and under our ribs the heart of the people.”
People Are Ready to Fight
During our contract campaign at United, we ran picket lines for twenty-four hours at airports around the world. Thousands of flight attendants showed up on only a few days’ notice. One flight attendant reported that she heard a woman stop to watch the picketing with her two teenage sons. She told them, “See, this is what people do when they believe in something. They fight for it.”
People are ready to fight. People are waiting for answers and we have those answers for them. We need to open our arms to all working people and help them join us in building power — for all of us.
And so I want to talk to you about what you must do — particularly young people. Because the labor movement we must build will be built by young people, or it won’t be built at all.
The truth is the organizers of the great moments of growth in American labor have always been young. The Reuther brothers were in their late twenties when they began to organize the United Auto Workers. The founders of the other unions of the CIO were often even younger than that.
And there is a reason why young people lead when the labor movement grows. To grow we have to build unions that reflect the experience and needs of the new workforce, and to challenge the entrenched power of employers. That was true in the 1890s when Debs founded the American Railway Union, it was true in the 1930s and in the 1970s when teachers and sanitation workers went on strike for the right to organize and bargain, and it is true today.
The labor movement needs you to help build it.
Part of that task is to build a labor movement that speaks for and to today’s workforce — working in jobs that are integrated with miraculous, and intrusive, and sometimes overpowering technology. And remember, technology will never replace a beating heart. Never fear a robot. Fear of robots is how the rich intend to keep us down. But Uber drivers reminded us recently that we have power together.
Part of our task is to build a labor movement that sees itself truly as a labor movement — not just a collection of separate unions but a movement that is big enough, broad enough, to lift up everyone who works in America. Because just as no individual worker can stand alone, no individual union, no matter how big, can stand alone either, or can survive long on its own.
We cannot be a movement of handfuls of workers here and there, or a movement that lives off of our political skills. We also cannot succumb to the temptation of company unionism, of turning into employers’ outsourced HR solution.
We must build a powerful, democratic labor movement — built on solidarity and power in the workplace, a labor movement that is ready to work together with business to build our country, but whose core purpose is to make sure that — whether business chooses to work with us or not, working people will get our fair share of the wealth we create.
It Has to Start in the Workplace
And part of that task is to build a labor movement that truly stands for something — a movement with a mission, a movement that embodies the best our country has been and can be, a movement that challenges all of us who are part of it to be our better selves.
And we can be that movement when we choose to be. In 2017, when the White House abandoned Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, we, the labor movement, did much more than send money. We filled ships with supplies, and we filled a giant plane with skilled union workers, who spent two weeks saving lives and rebuilding communities in Puerto Rico. We turned the power back on in senior centers, reopened schools, our union nurses and doctors went to remote villages where the wounded and sick remained untreated and were seen for the first time.
The flight attendants were proud to be part of the AFL-CIO’s Puerto Rico Relief Mission, and to have helped recruit United Airlines to provide us the plane that got our relief workers to San Juan.
We need as a movement to act in that spirit every day. To bring working people together — all working people. To demand that all who work in America have their efforts recognized, their dignity honored, their rights protected, their future fought for as our future.
The good news is that every time we fight we get stronger — and there’s no shortage of fights for labor. But it has to start in the workplace. It has to start in real people’s everyday lives. If we want to build power for our movement and for working people, start in the workplace, and the politics will follow.
When we start with what people feel and see in their lives, we can build solidarity. It’s amazing what solidarity on a worksite can do. People who may be on opposite ends of a political debate can find common ground when you ground that fight in their workplace.
Just a few months ago, my union went to bat for one of our members. Selene was a DACA recipient and graduate of Texas A&M who had arrived in the United States at the age of three and just begun her dream job as a flight attendant. She was assigned a trip to Monterey, Mexico. When she told her supervisor she couldn’t fly internationally because of her DACA status, she was told it was OK to take the trip. On probation and afraid to lose her job, she went.
But when she came back, CBP stopped her and turned her over to ICE. She was put in a private detention facility in prison-like conditions for six weeks.
When we learned about her case, our union mobilized and we got her released within eighteen hours. The comment I saw that sticks with me the most during that time was from a conservative member, a Trump voter who said that she wanted “strong immigration laws,” but this was too far.
Because the fight started in the workplace, because our members understand that in the union an injury to one is an injury to all, that flight attendant was able to see past her political beliefs to what was right and what was wrong. Now she’s someone we can mobilize to fight for a fix to the DREAM Act — and from there, who knows.
Using Power Builds Power
And always remember: if you start in the workplace, the candidates will follow too. They answer to us.
Our unions have long been at the forefront of fights for social justice, because we recognized that basic premise that if we’re not all equally protected, none of us is protected. For years, we outsourced our power while the bosses were outsourcing our jobs. We spent too much time trying to cut deals with the boss or build favor with politicians, and too little time mobilizing members to fight for what we deserve.
People think power is a limited resource, but using power builds power. Once workers get a taste of our power, we will not settle for a bad deal. And we won’t stand by while someone else gets screwed, either.
So the government shutdown was a humanitarian crisis, with eight hundred thousand federal sector sisters and brothers who were either locked out of work or forced to come to work without pay due to the government shutdown. And another million people doing contract work, locked out with no warning.
In the private sector, there would have been sixty days notice for the layoff. No worker would go to work without pay. Even in bankruptcy the first day orders include approval to pay the people who are working.
Only because of our unions, we heard the stories of real people who are faced real consequences of being dragged into the longest shutdown in history. No money to pay for rent, for childcare, or a tank of gas to get to work. The federal worker stretching insulin through the night and wondering if she will wake up in the morning. The transportation security officer in her third trimester with no certainty for her unborn child. The corrections officer who tried to take his own life because he saw no other way out. The air traffic controller who whispered to his union leader, “I just don’t know how long I can hang on.” The TSA Officer in Orlando who took his life by jumping eight floors to his death in the middle of the security checkpoint.
When two million workers were locked out or being forced to work without pay during the government shutdown, and the rest of us were going to work when our workspace was becoming increasingly unsafe, I asked, “What is the labor movement waiting for?”
It was time for us to act with urgency and end the shutdown with a general strike.
The GOP had no idea what that meant, but they knew it didn’t sound good. They knew it sounded like workers might get a taste of our power, and they couldn’t have that. We ended the shutdown because we nearly toppled their entire stranglehold on our country.
Many people wanted federal workers with no right to strike to fix this situation for us. We said, don’t put it on the backs of people who are already locked out — what are you willing to do? Flight attendants made clear our rights allowed us to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and we made clear we were going to exercise those rights. We had to define what was at stake and what leverage we had to fix it.
Solidarity Is a Force Stronger Than Gravity
And here we are — with this White House, recognizing that the last thing we can do is take the rights we’ve gained for granted. Mother Jones told us, “We will fight and win. Fight and lose. But above all, we must fight!” Our rights are never absolute. They exist because generations of workers died to give us these rights.
They were shot down at Homestead, Pennsylvania and in the hills of West Virginia. They were hanged for the Haymarket affair in Chicago, and beaten on an overpass near Detroit — all for taking a stand for the rights of working people.
There were beatings at Stonewall and murders in San Francisco City Hall. These activists thought it was important enough to stand up against all odds and put everything on the line to make it better for their families — and for our families. Today it’s our turn.
Sisters and brothers, it’s our turn to shape our labor movement. Unions in this country have led mobs against immigrants, and we have lifted up immigrants. We have written union constitutions that excluded African Americans, and yet Dr. King gave his life on a union picket line.
We as a movement are not automatically on the right side. We have to choose to be. And we have to live that choice.
And today the choices haven’t gotten easier — they have gotten harder.
Our lives and our wellbeing are completely tied together with workers in Mexico and Canada, China and Germany. Yet politicians in every country seek to divide us, pit us against each other.
The energy sector employs millions of workers. Our communities depend on coal, oil, natural gas. Yet carbon emissions threaten our very civilization.
We can fight climate change and create good jobs with rights and benefits. That’s why I support a Green New Deal. But we can only fight climate change if we stand together, if we listen and respect our brothers and sisters in the energy sector, and we demand the rich and the powerful pay their fair share in the fight against climate change. And that we begin by honoring the promises we made to the people who have kept our cities lit and our homes warm — promises that they would have a pension and health care they could count on when they retired.
And finally, unless you have forgotten, we live in a country where Donald Trump is president. Where we take refugees from persecution and violence and put them in cages, where we separate mothers from children, where our president makes excuses for Nazis and attacks local union leaders, gives trillions to corporations and threatens to take health care away from the poor.
And let me tell you, people like Donald Trump have always tried to woo working people, here in America and around the world. And after a generation of falling wages, of lost pensions and bad trade deals, a lot of people are open to anything. At least at first. But now we call him and his buddies what they are — frauds, con men, people who with one hand shake their fists at imagined enemies and with the other hand pick your pocket.
Sisters and brothers, I learned the hard way, at the bargaining table with some of the world’s most powerful corporations stacked even with the power of the bankruptcy court — that the solidarity and courage of working people is the greatest force for good in human history.
As someone said in this city long ago, “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold.”
Solidarity is a force stronger than gravity and with our collective power comes respect.
This is true today. In this city, in this country, in this world. But only if we make it so.
This article was first posted by Jacobin.
This blog was originally published by In These Times on May 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America.