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We Are the Main Event

Sara Nelson on 2020’s biggest labor win and what’s in store for 2021

On December 21, Congress finally passed a $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill that had laboriously heaved itself through a thicket of partisan ratfucking. While it fell far short of what’s actually needed to help alleviate the widespread suffering that the government’s botched response to the pandemic has inflicted upon the population, there were a few bright spots to be gleaned from its thousands of overstuffed pages. For one, the extension of the Payroll Support Program will provide funds to pay furloughed flight attendants, reservations agents, and pilots for several more months, and provide back pay to those who have been left in the lurch since October. Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, has heralded this as a much-needed win and is particularly proud of the terms that she and her members set. The deal isn’t perfect—she points to the loss of overtime hours, which means that workers will be making a bare minimum—but it’s a badly needed safety net for the thousands of members she represents, over thirty thousand of whom were furloughed when the program initially expired in September.

Unlike the broader Payroll Protection Plan, whose funds have been siphoned off every which way by various government officials and Trump lackeys, the PSP money has plenty of strings attached; among other stipulations, it can only be used for worker pay and benefits, furloughs and separations are prohibited, reductions to worker hourly rates of pay are prohibited, and executive compensation has been capped for two years beyond its expiry. In short, it puts the workers first, and as Nelson told me in a recent phone interview, she considers it an exciting blueprint for other unions to follow in the struggles to come. “We do everything, we create all the value—we say these things, right, but we have to internalize it,” she says. “We said, we’re not going to give you a set of standards that we hope that you can put in the labor section of the bill. No, we were the bill.”

But despite the win, there was little time to celebrate. When Nelson called me from D.C. on the night before Christmas Eve, her voice was weighed down by stress. Trump had yet to sign the relief bill (and was tweeting furiously about its various provisions) while the lives of millions of working-class Americans hung in the balance. Nelson, who by now has made a few friends in high places, was working behind the scenes. At one point, she had to pause our call to take another, apologizing profusely upon her return. One thing to remember about Sara Nelson is that she can be as polite as she is passionate, and that chimeric quality has served her well during years of knock-down, drag-out battles with airline executives, bad bosses, and government officials. As she once told me, “I can rock a string of pearls, or be the hellraiser on the picket line.”

Though she kept mum about any specific plans (including that upcoming vacancy at the top of the AFL-CIO . . . ), Nelson had a lot to say about the struggles ahead, the life-or-death importance of organizing, and what labor can expect from a Biden presidency. If she has her way, Nelson—and the rest of us, too—are going to be spending 2021 raising a whole lot of hell. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Kim Kelly: It’s been a really tough year for your members, and for everyone really; how have you kept your spirits up in 2020? What has inspired you?

Sara Nelson: I actually feel like my entire career up to this point prepared me for this year. The bankruptcies after 9/11, and the mergers and the crisis that we went through before that, taught me everything I needed to know going into this. I’m seeing this crisis coming, and I’m like, I know, this train, I am super familiar with this train; if we don’t get in front of it, and if we don’t define it now, it gets away from us. Because once you get into the world of bankruptcy and liquidation, none of those laws favor workers. They shift all the power not to the corporate executives who actually might have an interest in the long-term success of the airline, but to Wall Street and the scum of the earth, the hedge funds. All of the worst actors in capitalism come out and take control in that scenario. And so, I was like, Oh, my God, we have got to act fast.

I actually feel like my entire career up to this point prepared me for this year.

Luckily, what we got in a couple of weeks’ time, was this workers-first package that told the corporation exactly how they had to spend the money. And that, I think, is without a doubt the biggest accomplishment of labor this year. I mean, we actually wrote into law how the government was going to direct the money at private industries. It was pretty extraordinary.

KK: What can other labor leaders and other unions learn from what you accomplished, and use that to help their members going forward?

SN: First of all, we have to recognize that we were able to do this because we’re 80 percent organized. So there was power there that doesn’t necessarily exist in other industries. But secondly, I actually do think that we could have gotten this [deal] for other industries. And we took an approach that was truly workers-first. What I mean when I say that is that we always think of ourselves as a constituency, but we’re the whole ball of wax. So, if you look at, for example, major relief like this, it should be totally about saving the people. And the way to do that is to build the relief from the ground up. So, what we did was turn it on its head. Everything that we’ve heard about economics in the past fifty years about how we’re going to ask the parties that they consider a labor section within this bill, as opposed to saying, we’re going to build this for labor.

The other thing that happened was that we got industry in on our plan. Now the industry has an interest in getting this passed, because the airlines were in serious jeopardy in March, serious jeopardy. So now we got capital locked into fighting for this workers-first package. Nobody was paying attention to that. They’re so used to saying, “Oh, money for airlines” and not paying attention. And I’m like, do you guys see what’s happening here?

KK: That’s a real lion-laying-down-with-the-lamb kind of situation.

SN: Yeah, except we turned it on its head. Guess who the lion was?

KK: I have an idea!

SN: So, we’re in the middle of this crisis, and people are dying. There is so much loss, there’s so much pain, there’s the exposure of the jobs crisis and wage crisis that already existed. There’s the exposure of the completely inadequate and mean-spirited health care system that we have in this country. There’s the exposure of the really disposable way that most workers are treated because of the willingness to send them into unsafe conditions and not have a second thought about it. All of those things are so hurtful, right? And then the racist, xenophobic, nationalist propaganda about how “we can’t have any relief going to undocumented workers.” In the middle of all of that, we did this thing that can be a template and can be a lesson for everybody else. And I’m really proud of it. There’s a lot of lessons to learn from the places where we got this right. And we can apply that going forward, not only in recovering from Covid, but also in how we’re thinking as a labor movement, so that we’re thinking about being the biggest game in town—not the sideshow, the main event.

KK: What do you think will be the hardest challenges that we face trying to push the next administration to really fight for workers and to be as pro-union as they’ve been billing themselves?

SN: I think the biggest challenge is being organized ourselves. It’s our challenge, whether or not we’re going to decide to act like a labor movement. It’s the whole game. I mean, Biden’s labor rhetoric is awesome. This guy actually lives and breathes the concepts of labor; it’s not a forced thing. There are a lot of politicians who sort of learned the labor applause lines. I hear it all the time, and I hate the applause lines because they’re just stale and meaningless. And if you really ask those people, what does that mean? They can’t tell you. But Biden actually lives and breathes the foundation and the principles of labor. He knows it. He actually really believes in it. He may not know all the jobs that people do today and the issues at work, but he understands that labor actually drives all the value in the economy. So that is exciting, to have someone there who actually understands labor, understands our value, understands the kind of power that we can wield.

There are a lot of politicians who sort of learned the labor applause lines.

What are we going to do about that? How are we going to make the most out of this moment? And it’s not about, what’s he gonna do for us? Anybody who is focusing on these appointments—calm down; you could appoint the most progressive person, and they’re not gonna be able to do anything if you don’t have a ground game.

KK: How do we build up that ground game? Labor is a big tent that has a way of splintering into a bunch of smaller sideshow acts when it comes down to certain issues and political priorities.

SN: If you go into any workplace, there are a lot of opinions and priorities. And yet, somehow, we still organize for the greater good and figure out how to find the common demands, right? For example, there’s a huge problem with multiemployer pensions, and a lot of different issues around it. [Editor’s note: multiemployer pensions plans, which are created through agreements between two or more employers in the same industry and a union, are currently critically underfunded and on the verge of collapse.] Labor should be figuring out what the fix is that is going to preserve everyone’s pension and fighting for that. Instead, we’re all over the map with what we want our individual fixes to be, and that’s never going to get to a solution. The only way for the labor movement to work is to speak with one voice. And the only way that you can speak with one voice is if you’ve got someone driving an agenda where you’re bringing everyone into the room and working through the hard issues and finding a common demand, defining those demands together. If we don’t have clear demands, we’re not going to get anything done.

KK: Right, because despite all those individual opinions and agendas, ultimately, every social, economic, and political issue is connected. Every story is a labor story.

SN: Yep. We’re the main event.

KK: The labor establishment also seems to be missing how important it is to organize workers whose jobs don’t fall into the neat, traditional categories that dominated in the ’70s and ’80s. We’re in a moment now where the future of work is changing so rapidly that labor is going to need to pick up the pace and adapt with it, or else we’re toast. Being down to 10 percent overall union density is already pretty bad!

SN: Well, there are some people who would love for us to get down to zero. But I think that this is really not that hard. Because if you think about the ’60s and ’70s definition of who the worker is, and who the union member is, they were a product of the 1930s immigrants who formed the unions. And so, really, we just need to repeat history. We need to get back to basics. Whoever the workers are [now] are tomorrow’s union members.

KK: So, the overall message is, organize or die.

SN: People think this is really hard. And yeah, organizing is hard. Being strike-ready is hard. All those things are hard. You know what’s harder? What’s harder is watching your union get torn apart. And watching people lose their jobs, and watching people lose their homes, and watching communities dry up. That’s harder than building a strike-ready union or organizing a shop.