Sara Nelson: “Solidarity Is a Force Stronger Than Gravity”

This month, Association of Flight Attendants union president Sara Nelson addressed over 1,000 delegates at the Democratic Socialists of America convention. Here's what she had to say about the labor movement's power to defeat bigotry, the proud legacy of democratic socialists, and why solidarity is the "greatest force for good in human history."

Sara Nelson speaking at the 2019 American Federation of Government Employees Legislative & Grassroots Mobilization Conference on February 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. AFGE / Flickr

Good afternoon, Democratic Socialists of America!

Since we are here in Atlanta it seems fitting to begin with some labor history that perfectly illustrates worker power.

In 1881, less than twenty years after the Civil War, so-called washer-women in Atlanta organized a strike for higher pay. Most would have said what they were attempting to do was impossible. There were no labor laws to protect them, there was no single employer with whom they could negotiate, and their low-skilled work could easily be taken over by others.

But they wanted a raise — to a dollar for every twelve pounds of laundry.

So, they formed what they called The Washing Society and announced their intent to strike if they were not given a raise. They went door to door, and spoke at church services, recruiting three thousand members in three weeks. They tapped into a wellspring of support among women like themselves, who worked seven days a week doing laundry for as little as four dollars per month.

With their organization growing, and their demands generating newspaper coverage, they generated real power. They didn’t back down in the face of arrests and massive fines. With creative tactics, the women — most of them former slaves who had only recently begun to work for pay — boxed in the elite families of Atlanta, forcing them to make a decision. Would they grant the pay raises demanded by the women, or hold out and risk the strike spreading to other domestic workers? And, in the meantime, who would launder their clothes?

Outmaneuvered by the washer-women, they granted the raises.

The law wasn’t on the side of those women. The political environment was not favorable to those women. The economy was not in their favor.

But they were smart, creative, and fearless.

Those women connected with each other and inspired others to take up their cause because they themselves were united first. The strikers were not faceless. They knew the harmony of their voices from singing every verse of “Steal Away” together on Sunday. They cried together for the children they lost and celebrated the birth of the new babies they cradled. They knew the dreams in each other’s hearts and the determination to leave the world better for their children. There was a common story and when they gathered in a church in Summerhill to tell it — each woman knew it as her own. They built a movement with their story and encouraged others to tell their version of it too. They listened, they shared, they took action.

They created an organization where none had ever existed, and mobilized thousands of their coworkers who knew nothing about collective action. They were smart enough to see that the rich people they worked for would probably pay more rather than face the consequences. They saw, in their own community, the power they could generate in mobilizing together. And, they were fearless in pursuit of what they knew in their hearts was right.

Solidarity: The Greatest Force for Good

Last night I promised DSA member and grassroots Chicago Teachers Union, Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) organizer, Michelle Gunderson, I would bring her spirit of solidarity to this convention as she cares for her mother in Chicago. Now remember, it was CTU’s incredible strike in 2012, that not only won a great contract — CORE activists rekindled the militant, rank-and-file organizing approach that built the early labor movement over a century ago.

Late last night Michelle posted a proud mother moment. She explained her son Toby had brought home an unexpected guest who would stay several days. She overheard the two of them talking. The guest said, “Are you sure it’s okay with your parents that I stay here?” Toby replied, “My mom’s a socialist. She accepts everybody!”

This is true, and it’s one of the reasons I feel so at home among all of you now. But it’s also true that leading with love and organizing with open arms cannot be conflict averse. I often go to an essay on love by a woman who was a spiritual leader in Boston a century ago. She wrote, “Love is not something put upon a shelf, to be taken down on rare occasions with sugar tongs and laid on a rose leaf. I make strong demands on love, call for active witnesses to prove it, and noble sacrifices and grand achievements as its results. Unless these appear, I cast aside the word as a sham and counterfeit, having no ring of the true metal. Love cannot be mere abstraction, or goodness without activity and power.”

We are in the midst of crisis. But this is also our moment to change the course of history. To fulfill the promise that we are all equal and worthy of happiness.

At this convention you will talk about the urgent issues of our time and how you will love our children and grandchildren by taking action to heal our world, literally save our planet, secure health care as a right, build power for working people and an economy that provides a good job for everyone who wants one, eliminate student debt, ensure every person can afford a place to live, and stop the dark forces of hate-driven dictatorships on the march, much as they were in the 1930s.

Still, some ignorant political hack or media purveyor of hate is likely talking trash right now about democratic socialists. And here’s what I have to say. Helen Keller was a democratic socialist. And so was Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Bayard Rustin, and the Reuther family.

When Nazi troops came to the Warsaw Ghetto to kill the last Jews left, the men and women on the rooftops who met them with gasoline bombs were democratic socialists, and democratic socialists stood up against dictatorship throughout the twentieth century, they filled Stalin’s camps and Siberian graves.

The minimum wage, national health care, worker safety rules, Social Security — before the Great Society and before the New Deal, this was the democratic socialist agenda.

And of course there are our democratic socialist working heroes, Eugene Victor Debs, A. Philip Randolph, and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons. The police called Lucy Parsons “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” because of her skills as an orator, organizer, and rabble-rouser. Her cry that only direct action — or the threat of it — will move the boss is a lesson we can all do well to remember.

Solidarity is a force stronger than gravity.

When I repeat that phrase for a crowd there is often a pause as people take in the words, followed by nervous laughter and outright cheering at the awesomeness of it. We’ve seen examples of this all over the country this year from #RedforED teacher strikes promoting public good, to hotel and grocery workers fighting for one job to be enough or Amazon, Google, Uber, and Lyft workers fighting for respect, decency, human rights and the ability to organize their union.

I know the power of solidarity because I’ve lived it.

As a brand new flight attendant at United Airlines the company failed to pay me. With a balance of zero in my bank account and no idea how I would even eat that day I went down to the airline office to ask why I hadn’t been paid and what was going on. They had no answers and for the first time, I felt like I was just a number in an HR file. The tears started to roll when I felt a tap on my shoulder that changed everything. I turned around and saw somebody standing there who looked a lot like me. She’s wearing the same uniform; otherwise I’d never seen her before. She’s holding her checkbook and asking me how to spell my name. She hands me a check for $800. And she says, “Number one, you go take care of yourself. And number two, you call our union.” And I did call our union, and I had my paycheck the next day.

And that’s when I learned the power of being a part of a union — they fought for me in a way that I couldn’t have fought for myself alone. I learned that in our union, we’re never alone.

My first week on the job my flying partner of thirty-five years told me, “Listen, management thinks of us as their wife or their mistress and in either case they hold us in contempt. Your only place of worth is with your flying partners. Wear your union pin and if we stick together there’s nothing we can’t do.”

If we stick together there’s nothing we can’t do.

On June 26, 2015, a dear friend walked into my office just a few minutes after the Supreme Court decided for marriage equality.

If I’m being honest, I was feeling cynical when he walked in. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to celebrate. But at the time I was in the middle of a fight to prevent furloughs of our members, we were trying to stop the Obama administration from pushing a trade agreement that would gut millions of jobs, and our streets were filled with protesters demanding answers for the killings of black youths. I couldn’t see how this decision would have an impact on any of that.

But my friend was standing in my office with tears running down his face. And he is not a crier.

“I don’t have a partner,” he said to me. “I don’t know that I will ever be married. But that’s not what today is about. I didn’t realize until today the oppression I have felt my entire life. Today, my country recognizes me and the choices I make in my personal life as the same under the law. The feeling of being acknowledged as equal has moved me more than I ever expected it to.”

In those words, I remembered two things that are easy to lose sight of, but that we can’t afford to forget. One, every step forward makes the next step possible. And two, we cannot ever dismiss the oppression of someone else as their problem.

Recently, I received an email from an AFA member who wrote, “As a transgender person, I am terrified. I am turning to my union for help.” The call for help came to the right place.

Some of the earliest wins for LGBTQ rights happened not in a courtroom or in a legislature, but at the bargaining table. Years before San Francisco started issuing same-sex marriage licenses, long before Massachusetts became the first state to pass marriage equality, our union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) negotiated for — and won — domestic partner benefits for every United flight attendant.

In fact, before any municipality passed antidiscrimination ordinances, unions representing all types of workers won antidiscrimination in contracts. Because on the job site, people realized that if management could fire a colleague for who they loved, he could sure as hell fire you for what you believed, or where you spent your Saturday night, or in the case of flight attendants just for getting married or having a baby or gaining ten pounds.

These discriminatory issues were the heart of why our union was formed. But our work is not done. We are always “forming a more perfect union” until all of us are equal and free in our minds and under the law.

As we beat back discriminatory practices through a contract at one airline, another soon followed suit. Just as important, it gave members a sense of the power they had to change their own lives.

Some of those members, and our union leaders, testified in the San Francisco hearings that led to domestic partner benefits and helped set the course to marriage equality.

When my friend came into my office, all the years of union activism fighting for those rights came flooding back to me. Suddenly the ruling wasn’t a distant thing handed down by a court, it was the natural outcome of years of hard work we won through solidarity, changing one contract, one workplace, one community at a time.

It reminded me that for every fight forward we win in a contract, until our nation recognizes each of our inherent dignity in equal rights under the law, we struggle under an invisible weight that sometimes we don’t even see ourselves.

I’ll tell you something — there’s a weight that every woman in this room deserves to have lifted.

Earlier this year, Virginia’s House of Delegates fell just short of a floor vote on the Equal Rights Amendment. If the vote had moved forward and won, Virginia would have become the thirty-eighth state to ratify, enough to tip the balance for a constitutional amendment to be approved and for women to be recognized as equal under the law of our land.

Our union had to fight tooth and nail for the women who once made up the entire workforce to be treated fairly on the job. We also fought to allow men to have the same right to this job. We fight every day for every member to have equal rights and benefits on the job. But when 80 percent of aviation’s first responders step off our planes here, we do so in a country that’s unwilling to say that we are full and equal citizens.

Evil dictators intent on controlling everything and stripping all people of our rights start with belittling women and treating women as less than human.

Sisters and brothers, sexism and racism have for centuries been the premier tactic of the boss to hold us down, keep us divided and deny us the power we have together to take what we are owed as workers for moving this country, teaching this country, feeding this country, building this country, communicating in this country, and around the world.

More than one hundred years ago Frederick Douglas told us all we need to know today.

The difference between the white slave and the black slave was this: the latter belonged to one slaveholder, and the former belonged to the slaveholders collectively … Both were plundered, and by the same plunderers … the white laboring man was robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he was flung into competition with a class of laborers who worked without wages. The slaveholders blinded them to this competition by keeping alive their prejudice against the slaves as men — not against them as slaves.

No one is born with sexism, racism, ageism in their heart. These are the tactics of the boss, of those who want all the money and all the power to deny us solidarity, the greatest force for good. Expose it. Call it out. Deal with it. And in our unions and on our picket lines we can do exactly that.

Our union halls provide something social movements too often cannot: a home base in the storm, and a place where our common interests — a fair paycheck, equal treatment on the job, dignity and respect and opportunity to thrive — are grounded in an experience we all share, regardless of our color, creed, national origin, identity, expression or any other marker our opponents use to divide us.

Stopping the Shutdown

Just five years after I started my flying career the events of September 11, 2001 changed everything. I had frequently worked Flight 175, the plane you can picture hitting the south tower of the World Trade Center because that’s the image captured from so many angles after American flight 11 struck the North Tower 17 minutes earlier. That could have been me. But instead it was my friends, Amy, Michael, Robert, Kathryn, Al, Alicia, Amy, Jesus, and Marianne. Even as we grieved, over one hundred thousand aviation workers lost our jobs nearly overnight.

And then the bankruptcies came. I was our communications chairperson, still in my twenties, working around the clock to communicate new procedures, but mostly I repeated bad news. I remember a day in the office about six months in to the thirty-eight month bankruptcy when our union president called me to tell me to stop my work on communicating another pay cut, another closure of bases that was uprooting people from their homes. We already had nearly seven thousand on furlough. He told me, “United just called to tell me they are furloughing another 2,500 flight attendants.” It all became too much in that moment and I told him I needed a minute to cry. I did. Right then I knew how I was going to spend my life. We would have to fight like hell to hang on to everything we could so we could live to fight another day for what I knew the people I worked with deserved.

And it wasn’t easy. Our jobs, our health care, our pensions — it was all on the line. People felt out of control and focused inward or wanted to talk only about issues of little consequence.

All too often workers feel overwhelmed and powerless and desperate. But, in my union, I had hope. As a group we fought on when everything was stacked against us — bankruptcy, Wall Street, the White House. And we made a difference. They had all the power, but because we had our union we actually had a way to fight back. They stole our pensions — when eighty million would have saved them the court granted termination with one hammer of the gavel and in the next awarded $400 million in bonuses to the top executives. But we fought back, and because we fought we doubled the amount they planned to pay for a pension replacement plan.

When the teachers of West Virginia were grappling with whether or not to strike, the bus drivers told them “We’ve got your back. Not a single bus will drive students to school.” Too often, we don’t understand our own power. Look around — it’s all of us together.

When we start with what people feel and see in their lives, we can build solidarity. It’s amazing what solidarity on a worksite can do. People who may be on opposite ends of a political debate can find common ground when you ground that fight in the workplace.

Just a few months ago, my union went to bat for one of our members. Selene was a DACA recipient and graduate of Texas A&M who had arrived in the United States at the age of three and just begun her dream job as a flight attendant. She was assigned a trip to Monterey, Mexico. When she told her supervisor she couldn’t fly internationally because of her DACA status, she was told it was OK to take the trip. On probation and afraid to lose her job, she went.

But when she came back, CBP stopped her and turned her over to ICE. She was put in a private detention facility in prison-like conditions for six weeks.

When we learned about her case, our union mobilized and we got her released within eighteen hours. The comment I saw that sticks with me the most during that time was from a conservative member, a Trump voter who said that she wanted “strong immigration laws,” but this was too far.

Because the fight started in the workplace, because our members understand that in the union an injury to one is an injury to all, that flight attendant was able to see past her political beliefs to what was right and what was wrong. Now she’s someone we can mobilize to fight for a fix to the DREAM Act, and from there who knows.

People think power is a limited resource, but using power builds power. Once workers get a taste of our power, we will not settle for a bad deal. And we won’t stand by while someone else gets screwed, either. That’s what happened during the government shutdown.

The government shutdown was a humanitarian crisis with eight hundred thousand federal sector sisters and brothers who were either locked out or forced to work without pay. And another MILLION people — a MILLION people — doing contract work, locked out with no warning.

Only because of our unions, we heard the stories of real people. During the shutdown agencies were handing down memos from the White House to tell federal workers that they were forbidden from speaking to anyone about how they were fairing during the shutdown. AFGE and other federal sector unions put a stop to that to make sure people could express the personal hardship they were forced to face.

Federal workers were suddenly no longer nameless, faceless bureaucrats; the stories made them human to the public. No money to pay for rent, for childcare, or a tank of gas to get to work. The veteran and federal worker stretching insulin through the night and wondering if she will wake up in the morning. The transportation security officer in her third trimester with no certainty for her unborn child. The air traffic controller who whispered to his union leader, “I just don’t know how long I can hang on.” The TSA Officer in Orlando who took his life by jumping eight floors to his death in the middle of the security checkpoint.

Nearly two million workers were locked out or forced to work for free, with the rest of us going to work when our workspace was becoming increasingly unsafe.

The truth is that if our federal sector sisters and brothers can’t do their work, we can’t do ours. We’re connected.

We had to define what’s at stake, and understand what our leverage is to fix it. We called for a general strike, but we have to understand that a strike is the tactic, solidarity is our power.

Calling for a general strike, first and foremost, made clear who had the power. When it seemed there was no answer and no end in sight, labor led the way. The shutdown ended not so much because of a few grounded flights in LaGuardia, but because those ten air traffic controllers who couldn’t safely do their jobs any longer signaled a much more powerful threat to the GOP. Labor was rising and the very last thing they could allow to happen in this process was to let us taste our power.

Some thought the shutdown was about a wall. If you were looking on social media or network news, it appeared the wall was already built as the country seemed bitterly at odds over racist fearmongering. But it was all a lie.

I spoke with transportation security officers who told me that if it weren’t for the stress of not getting a paycheck, they’d never been happier at work.

Normally the security checkpoints are less than pleasant. But, instead of grouching during screening, people said thank you. They were kind. They offered help.

Most people want to choose kindness. We pull together when things get bad. I saw it after 9/11, and I saw it during the shutdown. Americans like to feel solidarity.

It was our unions that brought the stories of real people to the public. And the public had to face those people in their everyday life. And that built solidarity.

“Above All, We Must Fight!”

Health care. Unions long ago took steps to set a standard for our society. We broke new ground in our contracts in an effort to make health care a right for every person on this earth. What we legislate, we don’t have to negotiate. Today, every time we go to the table, management comes with proposals to diminish our care or transfer costs to our pockets. It is a massive win when we keep contractual health care at status quo.

But the for-profit health care system in this country is unsustainable. Most Americans, including many union members, have to choose between having health care or paying rent — or a low premium plan with a “cross your fingers” high deductible. Even the best plans with no premiums cover our care in hospitals that are drastically understaffed. Caregivers waste time getting approval for procedures and medicine rather than taking immediate action to save lives.

Trump and the GOP would love to have our country believe this issue creates a divide between union members and those without a union contract. But the truth is that an injury to one is an injury to all. And today, our family, our friends, our neighbors are dying because greed puts a cost on the lives of those we love. While Bernie Sanders proposes health care for all, Donald Trump and the GOP are right this minute trying to strip protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

We need to organize and tell the truth about what’s at stake, which side we’re on, and the leverage we have to fix it. We cannot retreat to our own communities. We must define our issues as ONE national objective, focused and well-coordinated while also conducting effective organizing that is adaptable to local context.

The marchers in Puerto Rico were spurred forward by the leak of emails and instant messages showing the governor and his inner circle mocking victims of a hurricane, spreading homophobic and misogynist lies, and joking openly about corruption.

Teachers, sanitation workers, nurses, drivers and civil service workers, organized through their unions and driven by the values of the island — marched and changed history.

That was a general strike.

Last night Politico asked me what I thought about Bernie Sanders using his campaign list to turn people out for union actions. I told them Bernie Sanders believes unions are integral to our democracy so he’s taking action that reflects his core beliefs. But also, he knows that when you come out for someone else’s fight you’re much more likely to view it as your own fight. You’ve got a stake in the outcome. And when the fight is won, you feel that win too. He’s breaking down the “I’ve got mine” mantra that’s the worst of capitalism and a mindset that’s been bred to control people through fear that someone else gaining may cause you to lose.

On the picket line the opposite is true. The goal is collective and people who have never spoken share an experience that will change each of their lives. Bernie Sanders using his list to turn people out for strikes or protests is literally demonstrating, “Not me. Us.” It’s breaking through the politics of fear, building power, and bringing people together. It’s a living example of the president he wants to be and the way he plans to get results.

Wouldn’t it be great if the “social norm” were people rising up in a general strike if lawmakers didn’t secure health care as a right, equal pay, affordable housing, fully funded public schools, voting rights, democracy free of corporate money, and jobs that provide bread and roses too?

Wouldn’t we be stronger if we saw fear of someone else as a tactic by the powerful to divide the working class? Wouldn’t we be better if people different from ourselves raised our curiosity and we asked them to tell their stories? This happens on the picket line.

The last thing we can do is take the rights we’ve gained for granted. Mother Jones told us, “We will fight and win. Fight and lose. But above all, we must fight!” Our rights are never absolute. They exist because generations of workers died to give us these rights. They were shot down at Homestead Pennsylvania and in the hills of West Virginia. They were hanged for the Haymarket affair in Chicago, and beaten on an overpass near Detroit — all for taking a stand for the rights of working people. There were beatings at Stonewall and murders in San Francisco City Hall. These activists thought it was important enough to stand up against all odds and put everything on the line to make it better for their families — and for our families. Today it’s our turn.

Sisters, brothers, siblings, comrades, I ask you to put central to your agenda building our labor movement. Unions in this country have led mobs against immigrants, and we have lifted up immigrants. We have written union constitutions that excluded African Americans, and yet Dr. King gave his life on a union picket line.

We as a movement are not automatically on the right side. We have to choose to be. And we have to live that choice.

And today the choices haven’t gotten easier, they have gotten harder.

Our lives and our wellbeing are completely tied together with workers in Mexico and Canada, China and Germany. Yet politicians in every country seek to divide us, pit us against each other.

I learned the hard way, at the bargaining table with some of the world’s most powerful corporations stacked even with the power of the bankruptcy court — that the solidarity and courage of working people is the greatest force for good in human history.

So let’s use it! Spread the word that the labor movement belongs to all working people. Women, people of color, young people, join unions, run unions. We need your vision, your passion, your creativity, your leadership.

Say it with me. Unions belong to all working people. If we understand this, we can change the world. With our unions we have equal standing with owners. Women have equal pay. We have a voice, a means to drive change.

Spread the word that unions are for everyone. If you’re done with poverty, build your union. If you’re sick and tired of pension defaults for Main Street and stock buy backs for the Wall Street, build your union. If what you want for yourself, you’re willing to want for somebody else — even if they are different from you, build your union.

We don’t have to wait for the next election when we have a union. The power of solidarity gets results right away. In our union we can define what’s at stake, recognize racism and sexism and every ism as the bosses’ tactics rather than our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts. Change comes fast when the risk becomes too great for those in power. And power shifts to the people when we act in unity.

Finally, look to the people all around you — and tell everyone around you . . .

I’ve got your back!