Donald Trump had shut down the government for a month. Many federal workers were either furloughed or working without a paycheck. This included air traffic controllers, upon whom all airline workers and passengers depend for a safe flight.
On January 20, 2019, Sara Nelson, the leader of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (Communications Workers of America), called for a general strike to end the shutdown. A few days after she made those comments, air traffic controllers started to call in sick at busy airports including New York’s LaGuardia. By January 25, Trump had agreed to reopen the government.
Nelson’s call for a general strike shook the ruling class. The American capitalist class has not heard language like that from a trade union leader in a long time. Most of the trade union leaders spend their time telling the workers to obey the capitalist labor laws and argue that labor is weak and has no choice but to accept whatever the bosses are offering.
In reality, organized labor has enormous potential power and could become a beacon for unorganized workers. However, to achieve this, it requires a leadership ready to fight the bosses with class-struggle methods. Could Sara Nelson be the leader the American working class needs to get labor onto the offensive?
The AFL-CIO is the largest labor federation in the US. It was formed by the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor, which was mostly made up of craft unions, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which was formed by some AFL unions in 1935 to organize industry-wide unions. The roughly 13-million-strong AFL-CIO has 56 member unions, including most major unions, with the notable exceptions of the National Education Association (NEA), Teamsters, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Organized labor grew as a result of the class battles of the 1930s, led by Marxists, communists, and other radicals. There were fewer than 3.7 million workers in the unions in 1935, but by 1940, this had exploded to more than 10 million. In 1946, about a third of the labor force was unionized, mainly in the private sector.
After World War II, the Red Scare and the postwar boom of American capitalism led to a purge of the left and a strengthening of the class-collaborationist leadership, with George Meany and his handpicked successor, Lane Kirkland, leading the AFL-CIO for forty years. The end of the boom in the mid-1970s led to heightened class struggle—but the AFL-CIO leaders brought pillows to a gunfight with the bosses. The result was a decline in organized labor as a percentage of the workforce. By 1983, just 20.1 % of the workforce was represented by a union and the labor leaders were granting concessions to the bosses such as “multi-tier” contracts, whereby new employees receive less than workers hired earlier. This further weakened labor.
This decline in power led to divides in the labor leadership. Facing a leadership challenge, Kirkland retired and his lieutenant, Thomas Donahue, took over. A ticket headed by SEIU’s John Sweeney and backed by Linda Chavez-Thompson (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees/AFSCME), and Richard Trumka (United Mine Workers) defeated Donahue. They wanted the labor federation to focus more on organizing the unorganized. When Sweeney retired in 2009, Trumka became president.
However, Sweeney and Trumka’s policies did not address the root problem: class collaboration. Instead of getting better, things got worse. As of 2018, only 10.5% of the total labor force—and just 6.4% of the private sector—work in union-represented workplaces. There is a lot of anger against Trumka and his clique, and Sara Nelson has emerged as a possible challenger.
Sara Nelson got a job as a flight attendant with United Airlines in 1996 and became a member of the Flight Attendants Union. They helped her when she was a new employee and had a problem getting paid by the employer, and she eventually became a union activist. Gradually, she became a leader of the union as it fought United and other airlines which filed for bankruptcy and tried to use the laws and courts to cut benefits such as pensions for the unionized workforce. In 2011, she was elected International Vice President of the union, becoming its president in 2014.
Compared to most contemporary labor leaders, who act as though they are in a coma, Nelson is more of a firebrand. Recently, Nelson spoke to the Chicago DSA and made the following statements, as reported in Jacobin:
Our unions have long been at the forefront of fights for social justice because we recognized that basic premise that if we’re not all equally protected, none of us is protected. For years, we outsourced our power while the bosses were outsourcing our jobs. We spent too much time trying to cut deals with the boss or build favor with politicians, and too little time mobilizing members to fight for what we deserve.
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. Solidarity is a force stronger than gravity, and with our collective power comes respect. This is true today. In this city, in this country, in this world. But only if we make it so.
First of all, we must acknowledge that sister Nelson was willing to speak to a room full of people who describe themselves as socialists—many American labor leaders would never do this! There is much in what she says that is true, but we must also see the limits she places on her perspective.
Nelson underlines the immense potential power of the working class but then says that given this power, “we will not settle for a bad deal.” It would, therefore, appear that she limits the scope of the workers’ struggle to the limits and “deals” possible within the capitalist system. However, it is precisely the limitations of the system which must be overcome if we are to guarantee quality jobs for all. Workers do want “good deals”—but such deals are typically not on the table in an epoch of capitalist decline.
For example, what if a company goes bankrupt or out of business? What if its profits collapse and it decides to lay off workers? Accepting capitalism as given for all time is a trap. The capitalists and their accountants can easily shift money from one company to another or profit by pushing companies out of business. They have no problem starting new ones that are nonunion and offer lower wages and benefits for the workers.
In these scenarios, even well-meaning labor leaders can end up conceding give-backs to the bosses “to encourage investment and job creation.” The alternative is to call for the occupation and nationalization under workers’ control of all companies closing up shop, declaring bankruptcy, or asking for bailouts. If sister Nelson were to embrace this approach, along with the crucial tool of the general strike, this would galvanize labor and turn defensive struggles into their opposite.
If labor is to go on the offensive, we need a strategy that does not conform to the reactionary labor laws put in place by the bosses’ politicians. By stripping us of our ability to exercise our most powerful tool—class-wide solidarity—these laws are specifically designed to ensure we go down in defeat. Workers will come out fighting if they see that struggle leads to concrete improvements in their living standards and working conditions. But they will not risk their jobs for unions that promote “partnership” with the bosses.
Unions win when they interrupt the capitalist profit-making machine. They win when they unite all workers, including temps, subcontractors, skilled and unskilled, documented and undocumented. The workers should decide who is in the bargaining unit—not the government via the National Labor Relations Board! The power of the labor movement is in our ability to withhold our labor—it does not arise through the courts, NLRB, or “arbitration hearings.” There are always ways around the laws if labor is militant and resolute. Just look at the West Virginia teachers who broke the law and included bus drivers, school lunch workers, and all the state’s public employees in their battle. They fought the law, and they won!
If Sara Nelson really wants to change the AFL-CIO and not end up like John Sweeney and Richard Trumka, she will have to go beyond the limits of capitalism and study the successful labor militancy of the 1930s. She has to have confidence that the working class can not only win a fight but that it can run society. If solidarity is a power stronger than gravity, the working class can run the world without bosses.
Furthermore, sister Nelson will need to take up the crucial question of the labor movement’s approach to politics. The working class has its own class interests, opposed to the interests of the bosses, and it is the vast majority of society. It should not support the parties of the capitalists: the Democrats and Republicans. The US working class needs its own party fighting for a workers’ government with policies that will lead to the working class running society—socialist policies.
Why should the rich make vast sums of money from the labor of the working class? The rent, interest, and profits of the wealthy all come from the unpaid labor of workers. This wealth could instead be used to provide free education and daycare from infancy through grad school, universal healthcare, and quality housing that would cost no more than 10% of a person’s income. The labor movement, with its money, activists, offices, and media, could be the backbone of creating such a party. However, this requires a leadership willing to fight all the big business politicians and the huge media corporations who will attack, slander, and red-bait such a party right from the start.
If Nelson campaigned with this perspective against the current AFL-CIO leadership team—even if she lost the election—she would win in the long-run by helping to create a militant labor movement that would eventually and fundamentally transform American life.
There is tremendous dissatisfaction in labor’s ranks, but there is as yet no organized current to express this anger. At some stage, this anger will find a way to express itself. Sara Nelson has the potential to channel this movement for change. However, if she remains in the framework of capitalist society, she will end up as the newest version of the out-of-touch AFL-CIO president. There is no more “good life” for labor under American capitalism. The 1950s boom is not going to return. The real future is a socialist one, which will bring about a better world for all.