- Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and a prominent champion of workers’ rights. The New York Times has called her “America’s most powerful flight attendant.”
- In January, Nelson called for a general strike during the government shutdown. Days later, she gave a speech in support of federal workers at airports that inspired 10 air traffic controllers to not show up to work at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. That was enough to suspend service, which had a ripple effect across the country. It was a significant factor in reaching a deal that ended the shutdown, which happened hours after the flights were grounded.
- Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate, took Nelson as his guest to the State of the Union this year. He credited her with ending the shutdown.
- Nelson also called for the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two deadly crashes, and testified before Congress on the subject.
- In this editorial, Nelson argues that it’s not a coincidence that 2018 saw the most strikes in America since 1986, and that support of unions is higher than it has been in decades. She said that the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession gave corporations and political donors an opportunity to crush labour power, but that these experiences of the past decade also sowed the seeds for a new labour movement that is gaining momentum and will come to fruition over this next decade.
- This article is part of Business Insider’s project “The 2010s: Toward a Better Capitalism.”
- The Better Capitalism series tracks the ways companies and individuals are rethinking the economy and role of business in society.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In 2018, more workers walked off the job in the United States than in any year since 1986. That trend hasn’t slowed this year – and as we enter the coming decade it is our growing willingness to stand up and fight that will change our economy, our democracy, and our future.
Think of the workers you have seen on strike lines – educators and school staff in Los Angeles and Chicago demanding the schools kids deserve. Auto workers from Texas to New York fighting for an end to outsourcing and two-tier employment. Grocery workers in New England demanding health insurance that actually provides care. Hotel staff from Boston to Honolulu demanding that one job should be enough.
Rideshare drivers, Google coders, WayFair customer service agents, Amazon warehouse workers, fast food workers and people across sectors are holding their employers accountable. Perhaps most importantly, many of these workers see that sustaining that power requires structure and organising for unions of their own.
Over the course of the year, workers also formed new unions in hundreds of workplaces, from newsrooms to breweries to presidential campaigns. These workers are learning what union members already know: Acting together, we have the power to change our circumstances that no one has alone.
Everywhere I go, I tell people that using power builds power, and it’s true. Our communities see labour stepping up to fight, and they want to join us. Labour is polling at the highest levels in a generation, and our resurgent willingness to fight for good jobs and decent wages is the biggest reason why. In fact, studies show that when everyday people see workers striking or taking action in our communities, support for worker actions rises.
When the history books are written, the story of this decade is that everyday people – sinking under the weight of a system rigged against us – realised no one was coming to bail us out and decided to do it ourselves. Most importantly we’ve remembered that no one truly succeeds alone, and we are acting from the understanding that the only real way to claim our fair share is through solidarity with one another.
An attack on labour that came to inspire it
Looking back to where we were 10 years ago, this seems almost impossible. At the start of this decade, on the heels of the worst economic crash since 1929, working people were on the ropes. While big business outsourced our jobs, the myth of success through individual exceptionalism convinced millions of Americans to outsource our own power.
Under assault from corporate money, social movements and labour organising alike turned inward. Too often, we stopped disrupting business as usual and tried to work within it. We expected elected officials to address our problems without holding them accountable beyond the ballot box. We stopped taking bold action and reduced ourselves to business unions that administered the contract. We didn’t keep workers engaged and mobilized for the day-to-day fights or work for major structural changes like we did in labour’s heyday.
Entering this decade, we found that outsourcing our power left us unprepared and ill-equipped to fight the forces of capital, whether in the public square or at the bargaining table.
As Mother Jones said a century ago, and as I learned clearly in the United Airlines bankruptcy following 9/11, “The capitalists say there is no need of labour organising but the fact that they themselves are continually organising shows their real beliefs.”
The corporate class saw the Great Recession as an opportunity to consolidate power while everyday people fought to save our homes even as our retirement savings collapsed and our jobs disappeared. The dust hadn’t even settled from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns when the corporate elite sprang into action.
Led by ideologues like the DeVos family and the Koch Brothers and suddenly unleashed by the disaster of Citizens United, they swamped our elections with dirty money while propping up reactionary right-wing protest movements. And as we saw when their chosen candidates swept into power after the 2010 election, their highest priority was to break organised labour – and with it workers’ power in our economy and democracy.
But it was, in no small part, the ferocity of the corporatist assault that galvanised working people and fomented labour’s resurgence.
As my friend Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, often says, when we faced this all-out assault, we realised it wasn’t enough just to fight back – we had to fight forward.
The 2020s will see a new American labour movement
The labour movement that will rise and win in the coming decade is one that’s relearned the importance of fighting forward. Some of the most influential campaigns of this decade, like the Fight for $US15, may have been sparked and supported by unions, but they became much bigger than the unions themselves.
The idea of bargaining for the common good has exploded, led by the teacher unions who are demanding investment in community schools, school nurses, and even low-income housing and rent control to support students and their families.
Workers from flight attendants to steelworkers to those in ecommerce are holding our employers accountable to our values. It was members of my union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, who demanded our airlines stop participating in family separations. Google engineers and steelworkers alike have held employers to higher environmental standards. And workers across industries have won policies to address sexual harassment and inclusive policies in the workplace.
I genuinely believe the labour movement of the next decade can save our economy, our democracy, and our planet. Labour has a unique roll to play because we have a resource that other social movements often lack – a sustained structure and legal standing that can be brought to bear as a mobilizing force. At our best, our unions engage people in ways small and big every day in our own workplaces. This, in turn, allows us to build trust and establish credibility that makes all the difference when people are swamped with misinformation designed to confuse them into inaction.
My union is fighting alongside the people who champion the big changes we need: pushing to guarantee healthcare as a basic human right; sweeping policies that will address the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs in the process; reining in the corporate greed and deregulation that led to the rolling disaster of the Boeing 737 Max. But to win those fights, all workers need a sustained structure that can call people in and rally us to fight together in solidarity. Workers need unions.
The labour movement that wins the next decade will be a fighting one. As I tell workers across the country, solidarity is a force stronger than gravity. The act of having each other’s backs lifts all of us up. In the coming decade, the labour movement, using its full power to engage every worker and leveraging the force of solidarity, will ensure no one is left behind.
Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the flight attendant union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines. Find her on Twitter @FlyingWithSara.
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