How Flight Attendants Grounded Trump’s Shutdown

Sara Nelson, the flight attendants union leader whose strike threat helped end the government shutdown, speaks to Jacobin. “There are no labor rights without the right to strike.”

Andrew Caballero Reynolds / Getty

On Sunday, January 20, speaking at an AFL-CIO dinner honoring Martin Luther King, Jr, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), called for a general strike to end Trump’s government shutdown.

The following Friday, Nelson, a United Airlines flight attendant since 1996, told the media that flight attendants were “mobilizing immediately” for a strike of their own. A couple hours later, President Trump agreed to provisionally reopen the government for three weeks.

Nelson’s power moves have a backstory — and a future.

She was raised to serve the public, in Corvallis, Oregon, in the 1970s and 1980s, an era when the earning power of public servants had already begun to wane. Her mother was a teacher, but her father, though trained as a physical education teacher, never found a job in that field due to budget cuts in the public school system. He worked first in a lumber mill, then selling lumber.

In college, Nelson majored in English and education. She did her student teaching in inner-city St Louis. “I really would have loved to be a teacher,” she said. But she struggled to make ends meet after graduation, facing student loans. One of her best friends became a flight attendant. “We sort of thought it was funny, and that she would do it for a year or two,” Nelson recalls. Not long after, her friend called from a beach in Miami, toes in the ocean, announcing firmly that it was time to stop laughing at her new career: among other benefits and perks, the money was better than Nelson’s first-year teacher salary.

Nelson drove to Chicago the next day to interview with United Airlines, and was hired. After weeks of unpaid training, her first paycheck was delayed by several more weeks. She ate nothing but plane food and Ramen, her bank balance at zero. She went to United’s Boston office to beg for help and was met with indifference. Standing in the office weeping, she felt a tap on the shoulder. “And there was someone standing there who looked just like me. I’d never seen her before. She was in the same uniform, holding her checkbook and asking me how to spell my name. She hands me a check for $800 and she says, ‘Number one, you take care of yourself, and number two, you call our union.’”

“And I always tell people, I called my union, and I had my paycheck the next day,” Nelson continues. “But, I learned everything I needed to know in that moment when she was standing in front of me with that check. And that is, that flight attendants are union members. There is almost nobody better at taking care of each other. And in our unions we are never alone.”

Not long afterward, her local called her up. ‘We’d like you to get involved,’ they said. I was so honored,” she laughs, “I didn’t realize people said no.”

Nelson’s union, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), which today represents nearly fifty thousand workers at twenty airlines, had an impressive history even before she joined.

In the 1980s and 1990s, airline deregulation brought vicious assaults on labor. After Carl Icahn fired all the TWA strikers in 1986, he showed that flight attendants could be replaced within a few days. “We had to be able to fight back,” Nelson emphasizes.

In response, AFA created a strike tactic called Create Havoc Around Our System (CHAOS), whose guiding principle is that “the strike is going to take any form and we are not going to give you any warning,” Nelson explains. CHAOS is deeply destabilizing to corporate management. “It could be a single flight, where there is no replacement. It could be shutting down an entire airport, or it could be everyone walking off the job for an hour,” says Nelson. “You don’t know where or when. And the effective result is that we control the schedule.” Alaskan Airlines’ executives were once driven to such confused desperation by CHAOS that they inadvertently gave many employees a 60 percent raise overnight.

“There are no labor rights without the right to strike,” says Nelson. “You can’t have a collective bargaining process without the right to strike.” The reason is that without that threat, management has no incentive to reach an agreement with workers. When Ronald Reagan famously fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, he knew this, and his move had just the consequences that he and his right-wing backers desired. Making it harder for workers to go on strike has immeasurably complicated their efforts to build and exercise power, and union membership has steadily declined.

But worker power is not just about having the legal right to strike. Power also lies in being organized and willing to strike. During negotiations, Nelson says, “You have to be able to show the company that your workforce is ready to act. You cannot lead on policy. You can’t lead by slamming your hand on the table. I’ve never seen management, when you walk in and make this impassioned argument at the table, that they sort of slap their head and go, ‘Oh you’re right! We should pay the flight attendants more!’ No, it’s when they know that you have a mobilized workforce who can go out.”

Nelson’s call for a general strike last month was moved by solidarity with government workers who were going without pay. But the flight attendants’ strike preparations had an equally urgent motive: fear for their own safety. Air traffic controllers — unpaid but facing felony charges if they were to strike — were working but, Nelson says, “driving Ubers and Lyfts outside their shifts to try to provide for their families when they should have been getting rest. We said, ‘There’s going to be a breaking point here.’” Nelson insists, “We just could not continue to fly and ask the members to be put in harm’s way. It was increasingly clear that we were open to accident or attack.”

Nelson’s strike mobilization was real, and industry and government alike knew it. “The airline industry knows me,” she says. “I think they know they had to take that threat seriously. It was very clear to the airline industry, to everyone on the Hill, that we were prepared to take action.”

Also in the workers’ favor: the timing of a certain cultural ritual. “I think people were starting to recognize that the Super Bowl wouldn’t have happened,” says Nelson. “Private jets wouldn’t have been able to take off.” Indeed, almost all Georgia’s legislators voted to end the shutdown, and Republican Senator Johnny Isakson participated in bipartisan talks to do so. “He was very concerned about Atlanta and the shutdown,” Nelson observes. “Look, you have to understand where your leverage is and how to get people’s attention.”

I ask Nelson what she and her members plan to do with all this power. “We cannot take day thirty-six of a lockout,” she insists quickly, explaining that the AFA-CWA is now wholly focused on preventing lawmakers from shutting down the government again when this temporary truce expires. “We are getting ready to take very fulsome action on February 16 to define what’s at stake if they don’t get to the table and resolve this,” she emphasizes.

These antics by Trump represent, to Nelson, “an attempt to fundamentally unravel our government.” When people can’t get the goods and services they need, she explains, “there will be a tremendous outcry to just stop the bleeding, and if we allow it to get to that point, the White House and anyone else who has wanted to privatize all of our government functions will try to use [the crisis] to do exactly that. And that will lower standards.”

This should terrify everyone. Nelson gives the example of air traffic controllers, who now train for three to five years to do their jobs. Private industry would have every incentive to ease such requirements. “It opens us up to tremendous risk,” Nelson warns. “Air traffic controllers have to get it right 100 percent of the time when they’re on the job. In any other workplace, if you have an efficiency of 99.5 percent, that is stellar. It’s unheard of. It’s unbelievable. If air traffic controllers got it 99.5 percent right, you’d have fifty aircraft accidents a day. This is what’s at stake.”

Capitalists, in short, would be happy to privatize air traffic control, and let many of us die. “Unions are the last check against that kind of greed,” Nelson says. “And we are also there for the public good, because we are the public.”

“We need to understand our power and never allow this to happen again,” she continues. “We need to encourage women to understand that they have power in their workplace, by joining unions and running unions. We will end the wage gap that way because everyone is equal in a union contract.”

Nelson also sees such organizing as the best way to change our political system. “When labor has that power and density, politics will reflect working people. It changes everything.” Start in the workplace, she says, and “the politics will follow.”