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Flight Attendants and the Next Government Shutdown


It’s entirely unknown what is going to happen this week in terms of the talks over Trump’s white supremacist border wall and whether, deal or no, Trump will accept it or whether he liked the first government shutdown so well that he will want Round 2. But there is only one group of people Trump actually cares about–his rich buddies who fly first class. This gives airline workers a lot of power in this debate. To say the least, they are sick of being the brunt of Washington dysfunction. The federal workers who are most directly impacted are banned from striking. Though I continue to argue that the politics of this situation are so on their side that any federal strike around not getting paid would not be punished, that is very, very easy for me to say from my computer. It’s still a highly risky action. Moreover, most labor law bans secondary strikes from sympathetic unions. However, there is an exception to this in cases of personal safety and unsafe workplaces. As the last shutdown continued, that was the basis of the Association of Flight Attendants and the air traffic controllers begin to move toward direct action, which was the final straw in forcing Trump to cave. After all, his rich buddies flying first class were delayed for a few hours by enough controllers not showing up to work without pay.

So as we proceed toward Round 2, the AFA is again moving toward taking the lead on the action needed to shut it all down. Here is AFA president Sara Nelson’s op-ed from this morning:

If the shutdown continues, we won’t know when or where problems could happen, meaning travel could be disrupted at anytime, anywhere — and that’s not even counting the damage if there’s a serious incident.

Flight attendants are aviation’s first responders and the last line of defense. We take our responsibility seriously. That’s why, through our unions, we’ve fought to ban smoking on planes, to keep knives out of the cabin and so much more. Now, we are once again standing up for safety.

There are serious issues we need to debate as a country, but our democracy and economy only work when the basic functions of our government are in place. It is immoral to put American lives in danger with reckless political games.

There is bipartisan support to keep the government open with stable, long-term funding. Americans overwhelmingly support this solution. But if Congress ignores the will of the American people and take us to Day 36 of the shutdown, flight attendants will not risk the lives of our colleagues and our passengers.

We have a duty to protect ourselves and the American people from the danger. Working people have power when we come together. If Congress chooses the chaos of a continued lockout, we will use that power.

This is actually pretty radical stuff, especially from a union president. But look at how the radicalism is framed. Nelson is absolutely correct that the government puts Americans in danger over the shutdown. It frames this action as protecting workers and protecting the general public. It frames a general strike as a defensive action against the marauding hordes of our elected officials. It’s not about partisanship. It’s not about money. It’s about safety. This is why I think it is so powerful. It’s the perfect response to the New Gilded Age. We are a long ways from the PATCO strike, when the air traffic controllers were shutting down the skies so they could retain their benefits of free flights to Europe at a time when private sector workers were being creamed by inflation and deindustrialization. Rather, the plight of airline workers and government workers is the plight of us all in unequal and contingent and scary economy, despite the shallowness of people talking about unemployment numbers as if this was the be all and end all of national economic health.

This is a radical action taken to defend us all. That is why it is so powerful and why I think it has a great chance of success. That doesn’t mean it’s not risky. But I do think it is risky for the right reasons.

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