Sara Nelson: Let’s Show Bosses They’re Lucky to Have Our Work

For 50 years, bosses have extorted concessions from workers while saying we’re “lucky to have jobs.” Now, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson writes in Jacobin, workers need to make bosses understand they’re lucky to have our work.

President of the Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America Sara Nelson speaks during a press event at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on October 4, 2022, in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Six years into my flight attendant career, United Airlines declared bankruptcy in the wake of 9/11. While I was still mourning my friends who were murdered that day, my employer began planning to dismantle our contracts and our careers.

The C-suite told us over and over, “You’re lucky to still have a job.” And many of us felt we were, as we watched waves of furloughs hit our friends and colleagues across the industry. They used that threat to demand concessions — health care, pensions, wages, even some protections negotiated in the first flight attendant contract decades earlier.

For the last fifty years, all the bosses have been telling workers we should feel lucky to have a job. It’s one of the greatest tricks the corporate class has ever pulled.

Business’s Long War on Labor

Wind the clock back fifty years and in 1970, more than three million American workers walked off the job to strike. That was almost 3 percent of all working-age Americans.

For perspective, in 2023, more workers went on strike than at any time since 1985. From Detroit to LA, Las Vegas to Anchorage. Autoworkers, baristas, grad students, school bus drivers, writers, actors, nurses, X-ray technicians, teachers, and even Medieval Times performers. Every time you turned around, a new group of workers was finding their collective power and saying “That’s enough” to the bosses.

About five hundred thousand workers walked off the job last year. That’s just one-quarter of 1 percent of today’s workforce. Now imagine what it would feel like if that were the same percentage as walked out in 1970 — if six million workers had walked off the job.

In the ’70s, the decline of union density that had begun with implementation of the Taft-Hartley Act in the 1950s picked up steam. Austerity (and the earliest forms of “free trade”) devastated sectors that had formed the backbone of labor: manufacturing, auto, steel, and others. Deregulation of trucking, rail, and air under President Jimmy Carter gave corporations a chance to rob workers and customers.

Labor’s losses in the ’70s were turbocharged by Ronald Reagan. He broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike and gave the green light to corporate America to smash unions. In 1982, Reagan further opened the gates to Wall Street greed by exempting stock buybacks from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s definition of illegal stock manipulation.

Unemployment was over 10 percent, and it was easy for management to say, “You’re lucky you have a job, but you’re going to have to give something up to keep it.” By the time Reagan was reelected in 1984, fewer than a million workers were going on strike each year, and the number kept falling. In subsequent years labor virtually abandoned the strike as a weapon.

Soon every industry downturn or economic blip became an excuse to rob the working class of the benefits of their labor. Even as productivity soared, management kept coming at unions under the banner of “never let a good crisis go to waste.” When the Great Recession crushed Detroit in 2008, bosses convinced workers that massive concessions were the only way to save their jobs and their companies. This has been mirrored in other industries, both before and since.

But whenever demand came roaring back, and profits shot up to new heights, the rewards for the workers’ sacrifices all went to Wall Street.

Milton Friedman’s call to prioritize shareholder value became the core aim of every boardroom, pushing companies to rig the system to enrich the biggest shareholders and reward executives at everyone else’s expense. Investors learned to expect ― even demand — these windfalls and have ruthlessly prioritized profits instead of paying workers a living wage.

Bringing Back the Strike

But workers have had enough. Millions of workers — teachers, flight attendants, autoworkers, nurses — took cuts during the Great Recession because the argument that we should feel lucky to still have jobs won out, and it seemed the cuts were the only way to save them. CEOs talked of “shared sacrifice,” but the workers shared the pain while only the executives and investors shared the gains.

Before the pandemic, workers were already fed up and speaking up — like the hundreds of thousands of teachers from West Virginia to LA who walked off the job between 2017 and 2019, and the grocery workers, and others who were inspired by them.

During the pandemic, a new term emerged that helped end the corporate myth of workers as disposable: “essential workers.” We had been told for decades we were disposable, but we were suddenly seen for what we truly are: essential. Indispensable. Critical to the basic functioning of our society and the economy.

Workers took that to heart, many for the first time in our lives. The bosses hoped we’d forget how essential we were and quickly did away with hazard pay and other incentives that had helped keep us on the job during COVID.

As Cesar Chavez taught us, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read.” Workers who learned just how essential we are during the pandemic have not forgotten that lesson. We own it now: we’re indispensable.

Every year for the last four years, labor activism has grown. Not just strikes, but new organizing, new solidarity, new consciousness. Public approval of unions has surpassed 70 percent, closing in on all-time highs.

The tattered social contract that was in place when I joined the workforce said, “Don’t ask for too much, and maybe you won’t lose everything.” When the economy was rolling, that was a bargain you could almost live with. But now millions of us are realizing that it’s upside down — that if we don’t demand what we’ve earned, we’ll never get ahead.

Millions of young workers have only ever known a broken economy: the millennials who graduated into the Great Recession and the zoomers who joined the workforce just in time for COVID. They see that social contract for what it’s always been: a lie to keep them working and one that has kept them from thriving. And they are turning to union activism and fighting to lock in winning union contracts that give workers a real shot at economic security.

When the Writers Guild of America went on strike, studio bosses said the quiet part out loud: they would wait until writers were losing their homes and starving, then force a bad deal. Writers understood this round of bargaining presented an existential question — not whether they would pay rent today, but whether they would have a profession at all. They held fast and won historic changes to their work, including regulation of how studios use artificial intelligence.

With millions of other workers — those who went on strike, those who threatened to strike, those who are just beginning to organize their workplaces — we are staring down the bosses together. The Teamsters at United Parcel Service (UPS) showed us, in the form of a record contract settlement, the power of a credible strike threat. The United Auto Workers (UAW) took on the Big Three automakers simultaneously for the first time in history and, with the hard-hitting creativity of the “stand-up strike” and forcing the auto companies to compete in bargaining, they too achieved a record settlement. Many other strikers found their power on the picket line with similar results that no one in decades had thought was possible.

The Fights Ahead

We’re beginning to see not just that the system is broken, but that solidarity is the only way to fix it.

More than 1.1 million workers have contracts ending this year: two hundred thousand postal workers; one hundred fifteen thousand railway workers; thirty thousand machinists at Boeing; and fifty-five thousand teachers and staff in LA and New York. And twenty-nine thousand faculty and staff at California State University already walked out on January 22.

The biggest flight attendant contracts in the industry are headed toward a simultaneous showdown. At United, Alaska, American, and Southwest, negotiations have dragged on for far too long. Airline labor literally saved the industry when traffic fell by 97 percent during COVID. We fought for and won funding from Congress for the Payroll Support Program that kept airline workers on the payroll and connected to our jobs and health care. We banned stock buybacks and capped executive compensation at the airlines. We saved the industry and the connectivity for the public and stopped capitalists from using the crisis to take any more from the working class.

Now, our first contracts since the pandemic — and for many, the first real opportunity to negotiate improvements since the bankruptcy era following 9/11 — are on the line. Together our unions are staging a worldwide day of action today to ratchet up pressure for industry leading contracts. Nearly a hundred thousand flight attendants are demanding long-overdue improvements. We’re hoping everyone who can will join our fight and our picket lines.

We have a message for the bosses: we are just getting started.

For fifty years, bosses convinced us to give up more and more because we were “lucky to have our jobs.” For the next fifty years, we’re going to make sure the bosses understand that they’re lucky to have our work.