Home / General / The Type of Labor Leader We Need

The Type of Labor Leader We Need


This long profile of Sara Nelson has a lot of good bits in it, but I want to point out a couple excerpts. First, remember Nelson’s role in ending the government shutdown, both through mobilizing her own union and also through working with the other airline unions to step into an untenable situation that was making the airlines unsafe.

Ms. Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, used social media and cable TV appearances to warn, loudly and effectively, of the dangers of not paying airport workers. As aviation unions met behind closed doors, Ms. Nelson advocated for an aggressive response. Working together, the labor groups produced a series of increasingly alarming statements.

At an A.F.L.-C.I.O. gathering on Jan. 20, Ms. Nelson called for a general strike, an idea so radical that it has scarcely been invoked in public by the head of a national union in generations. The suggestion drew commentary in publications as diverse as The Atlantic and Teen Vogue, and the liberal-leaning Salon put her in the same frame as the phenom congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “The single most important pro-labor speech of the shutdown was not given by AOC,” read a headline.

On Jan. 24, Ms. Nelson spoke at Reagan National Airport in support of federal workers at airports. “Many of these people are our veterans,” she said, her voice wavering. “Many of these people are fighting for our country right now, and we are not paying them.” The clip, with Ms. Nelson in her United Airlines uniform and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia over her shoulder, blanketed the lefty internet.

The next day, a handful of air traffic controllers on the East Coast did not show up to work, briefly grounding flights in New York. Hours later, President Trump announced a deal to reopen the government.

“Between you and me, that’s what ended the shutdown, you know,” Senator Sanders told Ms. Nelson in his office. “When planes looked like they weren’t taking off.” After they taped a video together, an aide named Jake appeared with an envelope containing her ticket to the State of the Union address, as the senator’s guest.

Donald Trump doesn’t care about government workers. He doesn’t care about you and he doesn’t care about me. But he sure as hell cares about his rich buddies flying first class.

But it’s not just that one moment. It’s that Nelson represents the type of union that needs to be more assertive and dominant in a labor movement dominated by old white men, men who are often sexist and totally out of touch with large sectors of the workforce, even if they mean well, which sometimes they don’t.

Still, Ms. Nelson must put up with the usual indignities of being one of the few women at the top of her field. At a recent meeting of labor leaders — Ms. Nelson declined to identify the gathering — a union head announced to the group that he would be “sitting next to the pretty lady” before plopping down at Ms. Nelson’s side. In 2013, she met with Senate officials to argue against allowing knives on planes; a senior staff member leaned over, patted her arm and said he knew it was “an emotional issue” for her.

“I thought in my head, ‘I could stab you right now, but they took my knife when I stepped through the security checkpoint for your workplace,’” Ms. Nelson said.

Ms. Nelson has learned that it can be useful for men to think you’re a stupid girl. “There have been some rooms I have been able to get into because people didn’t take me seriously,” she told me. “I have used that.”

Not only do we in fact need labor leaders who muse about stabbing jerks, but we need a labor leader for the present and future, not the past. There is the rote sexism and jocular old-school boys club throughout the labor movement, which needs to die yesterday, as Nelson’s story above shows. There’s the dinosaur-like understanding of technology and the media that plagues the leadership of unions, most of which have young people who want to do a lot more to publicize the cause but face people their grandparents’ age who don’t trust technology. There’s the glacial movement toward actually doing anything that would change the terrible present that we face. Nelson rejects all of this. An increasingly vocal presence on Twitter and throughout the media who talks about the strike power and the need to mobilize workers on a large scale to make social change? Labor leaders at the forefront of social change? What is this, 1938?

And then there is this:

On the jetway, waiting for her checked bag, Ms. Nelson suddenly began talking about what it would mean if she were to become the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Whether and when the position will become available is an intensely complicated question. Richard Trumka, the current president, has more than two years left in his term. It’s widely believed that he will not seek another, but any handicapping of the campaign to succeed him is premature. What is clear, interviews with half a dozen current and former labor leaders suggest, is that Ms. Nelson’s media-savvy performance during the shutdown has made her a contender for the job.

Ms. Nelson said that the first time she pictured herself in Mr. Trumka’s role was after Mr. Trump won the election, with a campaign that railed against the plight of blue-collar workers.

“Trump took up so much of the airwaves because he was off-script,” Ms. Nelson said. Unions, stuck in a defensive crouch, barely participated in the conversation.

“If we had someone who could bring a different vision of what a union leader is,” she said, “it could have been a moment that was really powerful.”

I am far from endorsing anyone for the head of the AFL-CIO, as if anyone would care what I said about it anyway. Trumka started out by doing a pretty good job, but he’s been flat-footed since 2016. It’s past time for him to step away. At the very least, whoever is the next federation head needs to be someone other than an old white guy out of a dying union. And it needs to be someone who can speak to young people, use the media effectively, and push the recalcitrant unions into doing something. Whether that is Nelson or someone else, I don’t know, but the fact that she has placed herself squarely in this conversation coming out of a relatively small union is a testament toward how much a lot of people are looking for someone like her to take over.

The fact that Nelson is also the child of an Oregon timber worker may in fact only make me like her more, but that’s more of a personal history and scholarly interest thing.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
It is main inner container footer text