Flight Attendants’ Leader Sara Nelson: “You Have to Look for the Next Fight”

Sara Nelson

This week, AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, where Amazon workers are now voting on unionization. We spoke to Nelson about the union drive, Amazon’s tone-deafness, and how her members are doing one year into the pandemic.

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, flew to Bessemer, Alabama to support one of the most important union campaigns in years. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call - Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

On Tuesday night, Sara Nelson, the president of the fifty-thousand-member Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), flew to Bessemer, Alabama. She was there to support one of the most important union campaigns in years, which is taking place in Bessemer’s 855,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse.

Inclement weather meant that Nelson spent much of her visit in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) union hall in Birmingham. There, workers mingled with organizers, journalists, and supporters, huddling together to wait out the storm. Jennifer Bates, who works at the warehouse, testified in front of a Senate Budget Committee hearing from the hall, speaking to elected officials about the importance of winning a union.

The mail-in voting period for the union election is coming to an end — ballots are due back by March 29. But the struggle won’t stop once the votes are counted. In the United States, thanks to the intransigence of employers and a labor law system stacked against workers, around half of all unions don’t reach a first contract. Should the workers in Bessemer win their union, the contract will be the next fight.

On Friday morning, Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Nelson, newly back in Washington, DC, about the Bessemer campaign, what organizing Amazon would mean for the labor movement, and how her members are doing one year into the pandemic.

Alex N. Press

Walk me through your time in Bessemer.

Sara Nelson

The day was shaped by the tornado warnings and a severe storm. The safest place to be was in the union hall because there’s a tornado shelter there, so I spent what the organizers described as a much-needed day of rest and reflection for the campaign.

It was amazing because even the union organizers said that they got to hear the workers say things in reflection on the campaign that they haven’t had time to hear since they’ve been working around the clock to stay at pace with the workers. The union provided a structure and a legal means and the communication structure and the backing for the workers. Any traditional assessment would say that there’s no possible way these workers could actually be right about how ripe this warehouse is for a union campaign. The warehouse had opened just in March; there wasn’t even time for management to make people mad. What I got to see was how nimble the union was down there and what an extraordinary operation was pulled together with what started with a phone call by one Amazon worker to a union with seven staff members in Birmingham, and has grown into a phenomenon around the world. People are watching from everywhere. They’re inspired by the fact that these workers who have been treated as disposable are taking on arguably one of the most powerful men in the world.

Alex N. Press

The voting period is coming to an end for the union, and you mentioned it was a reflective atmosphere at the union hall. What did the workers say to you?

Sara Nelson

One of the conversations I had was with a part-time worker who is also a social worker. He doesn’t make enough from his other job to make ends meet, so he works part-time on the weekends at the warehouse. He is in the drive because he saw the disparities in how people were treated and the disrespect. His parents and his grandparents were union members, so he grew up hearing about the importance of the union and has a deep understanding of the labor movement. So it was a natural fit for him. He wasn’t one of the ones who started the campaign, but he’s showing up all the time now. One of his issues was that as a part-time employee, he makes, I think, $3 an hour more than the full-time employee who’s even doing overtime hours. He was turned off by the unfairness of it and wants to make a difference.

What really stuck with me was that he described the importance of people taking ownership of their own power. One of the union leaders, an older black man who was in the hall listening to all of this, nearly came to tears talking about how excited he was to see this come to fruition. He was hearing this young man and his counterparts in the warehouse finally saying, “We’re not okay with being treated this way, and we’re going to do something about it.” The worker said to me, “It really means something to me to make my dad proud.” There’s solidarity expressed there between the generations and a continuity of the struggle for racial justice, which is the underlying tone of the entire campaign.

Alex N. Press

Right. The workforce is 85 percent black, and Bessemer is a low-income area where at least some black workers once had livable wages because industrial workers there had fighting unions. But now that’s replaced with Amazon. Add in that Jeff Bezos is the richest guy in the world, and the dynamic speaks for itself.

Sara Nelson

It’s amazing how tone-deaf Amazon is about this. They greeted the congressional delegation with these big signs that say, “Congress, please match Amazon’s $15 an hour.” And there’s an incredible cynicism there. But the workers are saying, “$15 and that’s it? We can’t even get approval to rent an apartment on that wage!” It’s a total disconnect with the workers and an absolute distaste for having any interest in who these people are.

Alex N. Press

I’ve definitely heard this before. Workers who make $15 an hour say, “So you’re paying us what you think is the absolute minimum that a person should get?” That doesn’t have the effect on a worker that the boss might think it does.

So, you’re the president of the flight attendants’ union. Why are you traveling across the country to support warehouse workers?

Sara Nelson

Fundamentally, it’s because I believe everyone needs and deserves a union, and the only way that we are going to tackle the massive issues and existential threats of our time here on Earth is if we increase union density in this country. We can’t do enough to support workers anywhere forming their union. We all need to support them, because if one person is mistreated, we’re all in jeopardy of being mistreated.

But I can identify with their complaints about being disrespected and treated as disposable. These are all of the issues that fed the organizing that took place throughout the airline industry with flight attendants making management come to the table with us. In most cases, it was women who they disregarded and disrespected and even objectified with their marketing. This is fundamental to my roots as a union member inside the flight attendants’ union and then leading the union on the shoulders of the women who fought all those battles. But I still experience it today, the dismissive attitude. I know what that means to be cast aside and dismissed and disrespected, and I know what it means to say, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” I feel personally compelled to help any worker find that space where they can claim their own power and make people answer to the way that they’re being treated.

Alex N. Press

I talk to Amazon warehouse workers somewhat frequently, and at times some of them feel frustrated because they don’t know where the organized labor movement is. They wonder why conditions are so bad at their warehouses and why existing unions aren’t taking this on. As a leader of a union, what do you have to say to them?

Sara Nelson

This drive started because one of the original organizers had been in a union before. He’d actually been on the bargaining team and had an understanding of what it means to have a union and have a union contract. And he Googled how to get in touch with the union. So he already had a leg up, but he still had to do research on his own on the internet. I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard that, not just in Bessemer but in other locations. There are some fifty million people who want a union, and yet they don’t know how to get started or why it’s so hard.

They have to know that there’s hope and that there are people who want to build this movement. There is a groundswell movement that’s building and that is going to be there for the workers who want to do this. It’s not something that’s just laid on the table for them, but if they want to organize in their shop, all they have to do is start having conversations with their coworkers and call the union once they’ve got things rolling. I believe that this is going to take off like wildfire. The more that we organize, the more people and structure and resources and backing we’re going to have to make it grow, and it will grow exponentially.

Alex N. Press

What will happen if these Amazon warehouses start getting organized?

Sara Nelson

It redefines the labor movement: it redefines who the labor movement is and what the labor movement does, because there are going to be massive fights. I believe the workers are going to win in Bessemer, but even if they don’t get there, what they’ve built is lasting and they’ll keep fighting for their union and they will ultimately get it. But let’s say that they are successful. The next fight is going to be to get management to meet them at the table.

So we’re going to continue to struggle, and whenever you’re doing that and exposing the actions of a company, and what people see on the news or social media is what they’re experiencing themselves, there’s that common thread that unites people and gives people power. The idea that there can be something done about it is extraordinary.

I want to note that even as the organizing happens, power is built. While I was in Bessemer, the warehouse, which operates 24-7, was shut down. Everyone was told to stay home, and they got paid. That only happens because of the union drive. There is power in that solidarity and that structure of the union behind them. As people see the difference that the union makes, even just in the organizing portion of it, that changes the view of who the labor movement is. That makes it the place that people want to congregate, because it’s actually moving forward, it’s actually progressing, it’s actually getting results, as we move.

Alex N. Press

It’s been a difficult year for your members. Everyone has been hit hard but certainly flight attendants have been as well. How are your members doing?

Sara Nelson

I’m proud of what we’ve been able to get done in terms of setting clear demands from the beginning and making sure that any relief is focused on our members’ jobs, although we had furloughs from October through the end of December because the relief bill efforts fell apart or were destroyed purposely by the Trump administration. So it has been one hell of an emotional ride through all of that.

But we’ve also been on the front lines of this virus. I don’t even think we’ve faced anything mean-spirited or companies purposely putting people into harm’s way, but if you don’t have representation in that space, a union, it is easy for someone to overlook someone else’s struggle. Our union has made a huge difference on safety protocols, but it hasn’t been perfect. We were operating in conditions where the government was questioning whether or not the pandemic was even real, and that led to incredible conflict at work and difficulty in doing our jobs. We have more public contact than most other jobs, and we often are at the tip of the political spear in the country. So it has been an emotional ride and, at times, very difficult. Yet there’s also an incredible sense of solidarity and accomplishment that, in this crisis, we didn’t let the corporations define how it was going to be addressed. We defined it, and there’s pride and power in that, and it’s something to build from.

I’ll tell you though, when you get successes, it does raise expectations. That’s a good thing, but union work is never done. That’s one of the things that we have to learn from our history: strikes and massive struggle and even violence against many of the organizers led to the first protections and labor law and a more peaceful era of labor relations. But that also weakened our unions and our ability to fight because we got out of the mode of fighting. We thought that peace was what we were trying to achieve. And who wouldn’t think that? Who wouldn’t want that? But the truth is that there’s always going to be a struggle, and we know that because our rights were eroded and our unions were destroyed, inequality has grown exponentially because of it. So with the struggles that we go through now and the mass organizing that we do and the strike activity that I know is coming, I hope that does improve conditions and give us the political power to be able to improve labor law as well, but we have to understand that we’re never done.

I was talking to some of the organizers at RWDSU, and at first they said, “I can’t wait for this campaign to be done because we’re getting calls from all over the country, and we’re going to do these other organizing drives.” But if you listen to them, they also are very aware that after this vote count, it doesn’t end. That’s a bit much for the average person to take in, but for people who are committed to the movement and understand what needs to be done, we have to understand that the struggle is never really over. Yes, we have to lock in improvements, we have to continually get results, and we have to celebrate those wins. But you have to look for the next fight, and it’s not that hard if you just listen to the workers.

Alex N. Press

Is there anything else that you want to say, whether it’s about Bessemer, Amazon, or where the working class is after a year of this pandemic?

Sara Nelson

I would just say thank you to the workers. It was a blessing to go to Bessemer — to see the size of that warehouse, to see the physical representation of what these workers are up against and taking on. They recognize that the owner class has money and control, but working people have all the power and generate all the power that makes everything go in this country and around the world. If we take ownership of that, we turn upside down how we think the world works and make even the most powerful people be held to account for their actions. I was awestruck with the awesomeness of these workers seeing the world with that reality, knowing the fact that they are the ones who actually have the power to define what their lives and their children’s lives are going to be like.

Alex N. Press

The AFL-CIO has pushed back its convention from October 2021 to June 2022. Do you have any comments about that convention or thoughts about possible AFL-CIO presidents who might be elected during it?

Sara Nelson

It’s really important that we have an in-person convention, so pushing it back means that might be possible, and it’s a good step.

Fourteen million union members is nothing to sneeze at, and there’s a lot of power there. If we can be coordinated and hear each other and set clear demands and be really on the move as a labor movement, it’s a total game changer for everything. So the leadership of the labor movement absolutely matters, and it’s important to me, and I’m going to stay very close to this. I have to get my members through this pandemic, so that is where my focus is right now, but I do believe that all of us have a responsibility to make this labor movement relevant to all working people.

After we hung up, Nelson texted me that she had forgotten to say something. Then she sent the following message:

“I can’t help but hear Mother Jones reflected in what Jennifer Bates had to say [in her testimony before the Senate Budget Committee].

Mother Jones: ‘Workers produce wealth and build the world’s palaces, but they neither use the wealth nor dwell in the palaces…’

Jennifer Bates: ‘We’re the billionaires. We just don’t spend it.’

Mother Jones: ‘Let us take the children away from this God-cursed labor and put them out in the fresh air and sunshine where they may develop into a nobler race of men and women and build up the ideal civilization with peace and good will.’

Jennifer Bates: ‘We are not robots designed to only live to work. We work to live.'”

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Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America.

Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.

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