THE ASCENT OF SARA NELSON
Fast Company|Summer 2021
ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS PRESIDENT SARA NELSON HAS BECOME THE MOST PROMINENT LABOR LEADER IN AMERICA. NOW SHE’S POISED TO HELP THE ENTIRE LABOR MOVEMENT TAKE OFF.
MORGAN CLENDANIEL

SARA NELSON WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ACCEPTING A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD FROM THE AFL-CIO, THE NATION’S LARGEST FEDERATION OF UNIONS. AFTER A BRIEF VIDEO PLAYED OF HER SPEAKING OUT AGAINST SEXISM AND HARASSMENT IN THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY, NELSON, THE PRESIDENT OF THE ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS, TOOK THE STAGE ON THAT JANUARY 2019 DAY AND DIDN’T MENTION THE ISSUE ONCE. INSTEAD, NELSON DE-LIVERED A STEM-WINDER ABOUT THE ONGOING GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN THAT HAD BEGUN ON DECEMBER 22. A BUDGETARY IMPASSE HAD BEEN FORCING 800,000 FEDERAL WORKERS TO REPORT FOR DUTY WITHOUT PAY FOR 30 DAYS. AS AGENTS FROM THE TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION GRADUALLY STOPPED SHOWING UP FOR WORK, NELSON’S VOICE HAD GROWN LOUDER IN CALLING FOR THE END OF THE STALEMATE, SPEAKING ON BEHALF of an alliance she’d forged of pilots, baggage handlers, and other airline workers whose safety was now at risk. She extolled the power of workers and told them directly to stop working until the paychecks started flowing again.

Then she uttered the seven words that have defined her since: “End this shutdown with a general strike.”

The United States had not experienced anything remotely resembling a general strike—where work stoppages across key sectors can shut down the economy of a city or country—since the months after World War II. Everyone from coal miners and autoworkers to meatpackers and train operators—4 million people in all—ceased working in protest of diminished wages and lack of control overproduction. Today, the concept of a “general strike,” if known at all in the U.S., exists mostly in myth, a faded tale from a bygone era of labor might.

Here was Nelson making the myth real. It wasn’t simply that she had said the words; she showed workers how they could manifest the threat through action. As headlines blared her comments, air traffic controllers in New York started calling in sick in numbers large enough to disrupt flights out of LaGuardia airport. Once the prospect of a significant interruption of air travel became very real, Congress and President Trump acted quickly: The shutdown ended a few days later. “[Nelson] putting up the concept of strikes that disrupt production and cause a significant crisis for the political elite,” says Jane McAlevey, the influential labor organizer and author, “is incredibly important.”

When I ask Nelson about her speech, two years later, she says, “[We have to] talk about what we can actually do together, and have people feel connected by the idea that there are common demands we have as working people. It might not take a general strike to get those things done. But talking about it helps define what our demands are, and the urgency of those demands, and actually gets people to believe they’re worth more.”

The moment catapulted Nelson to national prominence, and her ascendancy could not come at a more auspicious, or daunting, time. The vibrancy of this moment has yet to show up in Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which can appear bleak: Union membership in the corporate world is just 6% of the workforce, and there were just eight strikes of more than 1,000 workers in 2020 (in 1950, there were 424). Silicon Valley, the avatar for economic growth and innovation, believes its form of enlightened capitalism puts it beyond unions. But lately, most of its effort has been put into tech platforms reliant on exploiting low-wage workers, from ride-hailing and food-delivery drivers to fulfillment center laborers to coders signing “income-sharing agreements” that some argue are a form of indentured servitude.

The decades-long imbalance between management and labor may be at a tipping point. Call it the new worker moment, with fresh organizing efforts in tech and media, radicalized teachers, overworked nurses, and underpaid fast-food workers, and novel efforts to bring justice to workers via everything from antitrust laws to shareholder activism. People organizing today are as likely to be women and people of color working as home health aides and AI scientists as they are to be stereotypical soot- and grease-covered men in hard hats. They’re warehouse workers willing to take on one of the world’s most valuable and fearsome companies, run by the richest man on the planet because they don’t want to be brutalized by algorithms that treat them like robots. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 65% of Americans support labor unions, a two-decade high. Nelson’s continued exhortations to all workers—unionized or not—to understand the power they have in their workplace has positioned her to coalesce these folks into a movement that can fight to reverse labor’s downward trends.

“People’s expectations and aspirations are ready to go,” says Harvey J. Kaye, a labor historian who became friendly with Nelson after the general strike speech. “Sara Nelson might well be the person to articulate them.”

Nelson’s bluntness and take-no-prisoners rhetoric have earned her the respect of both workers and the corporate leaders she’s challenging. “People want to be a part of something that gets results,” she tells me. “Management either has to take a beating or [anticipate] the beating that they’re going to get if they don’t deal with us.”

To co-opt the parlance of tech bros, Nelson is a builder.

POWER IN THE HAND OF A WORKER

THE PAST DECADE HAS SEEN A REINVIGORATED EFFORT TO BRING DIGNITY AND EQUALITY TO MORE EMPLOYEES.

2011(A)

WISCONSIN PROTESTS

After Republicans in Wisconsin passed a law attacking public-sector unions by cutting their pay and limiting their collective bargaining rights, workers occupied the statehouse and led months of creative protests. Although they did not succeed in overturning the law, the event inspired a new generation of workers to fight back.

2012(B)

FIGHT FOR $15

Two hundred fast-food workers in New York City walked off the job to demand a union and a $15 minimum wage. Through sustained direct action and legislative efforts, eight states and Seattle and Washington, D.C., are on the path to $15 an hour, and large employers such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart have been forced to raise their base wages, though as of April 2021, efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour have stalled.

2012(C)

CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS STRIKE

Facing large class sizes, a severe testing regime, and both underfunding and privatization of public schools, Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years. They had spent years building strong relationships with community groups, which supported them during the seven-day strike, and won a wave of pro-teacher concessions, and bested a coalition of “education reformers,” including the Democratic Party establishment, the Gates Foundation, and the Walton family.

2015

GAWKER UNIONIZES

The ultimate blog turned media company became the first major digital-media outlet to unionize, leading a reinvigorated union drive in both media (including Fast Company) and technology. This directly or indirectly inspired worker efforts to have a say in the future of journalism and digital platforms such as Spotify, where workers at its content divisions Gimlet, The Ringer, and Parcast have formed collective bargaining units.

2018(D)

“RED FOR ED” MOVEMENT

Rank-and-file teachers in West Virginia organized via a secret Facebook group to protest the Republican governor’s proposed increases to their healthcare costs, eventually growing to 20,000 strong and leading walkouts throughout the state. The 13-day wildcat strike succeeded not only in reversing the healthcare change but also in boosting teachers’ low pay with a 5% raise and precipitating a wave of similar actions in other Republican-led states such as Arizona and Oklahoma.

2018(E)

GOOGLE WALKOUT

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