There is an argument to be made—a plausible argument, even a strong argument—that the political environment is ripe for a revival of organized labor in America. Only one thing is lacking: a truly charismatic national leader. Many people believe that Sara Nelson is that leader. If she wants that title, she must first win the fight of her life.
To begin, let us sum up the situation very bluntly, forgoing the standard journalistic beating around the bush, so that we all understand what is at stake: Sara Nelson wants to run the AFL-CIO. That would make her the face of America’s unions. She will not quite come out and say so explicitly, and no one in a position of power has much of an incentive to weigh in on it right now, but when you talk to union people, her presumptive candidacy has already become conventional wisdom. You have to read between the lines...but not very much.
This all happened very quickly. Nelson has been the head of the flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), for almost five years. She has been involved in organized labor for two decades. But she only came to real national prominence this past January, when she gave a remarkably militant speech calling for a general strike during the depths of the Trump administration’s long government shutdown. It was the sort of speech that made people pay attention. It was not boring, or restrained, or typical; it was fucking hardcore. Sara Nelson vaulted almost overnight from someone known primarily in the union world to a national leftist hero. Unlike many overnight heroes, she has not allowed her newfound prominence to fade away. For the past several months, in nonstop speeches, rallies, interviews and profiles, she has kept up her call for organized labor to become as radical as the times we live in.
American labor unions are facing an existential threat. The percentage of working people who are union members has been steadily declining for 60 years, and has continued declining even as economic inequality has exploded since the Reagan era. Everyone knows that increasing labor power by growing unions is one of the best tools for restoring equality, but America’s labor movement has not been up to the task for decades. There are many rich and powerful forces arrayed against unions. This is true. But the labor movement needs to fix a lot of things about itself as well. And one of those things—perhaps even the most important thing—is the fact that there is no popular, fiery, unifying figure running things.
The AFL-CIO is the largest coalition of unions in America. Its 55 unions (including the Writers Guild of America East, to which I and my colleagues belong) have more than 12 million members. It is, for better or worse, the organization that most represents organized labor as a whole. The head of the AFL-CIO is the de facto head of labor in America. Today, that person is Richard Trumka, who—though he boasts an impressive resume—is hardly lighting up the world with his viral popularity.
Trumka has been AFL-CIO president for ten years. During those ten years, union density has continued its decline. In 2021, his term will be up. The conventional wisdom is that the inside candidate who is best positioned to replace him is Liz Shuler, his second in command. The emergence of Sara Nelson as a national figure has now created the potential for a rather dramatic leadership contest, with Shuler cast as the safe insider, and Nelson as the swashbuckling outsider. All of this, of course, is just what many in the union world assume; formal announcements have yet to come, and things can change, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. If the contest does in fact come down to these two candidates, it would be historic: the AFL-CIO has never had a woman as president, although women make up a steadily growing portion of union members in the U.S.
For May Day, I wanted to interview both Liz Shuler and Sara Nelson about their own respective visions for the future of the labor movement. Nelson enthusiastically agreed. When I contacted the AFL-CIO about interviewing Shuler, their communications director dismissed this story as “speculative” and “about an election 2 1/2 years away with no actual candidate,” and refused to allow me to speak to Shuler. So her views on the future of the labor movement will remain, for now, a secret, unless she decides to write another op-ed for our video game site.
As activist as the union world is at its roots, its leadership has long tended towards the staid and bureaucratic. Sara Nelson’s path to the top would require her to garner the support of the AFL-CIO’s largest unions—no easy task, given the traditional insider horse-trading nature of power within the organization. To win, Nelson would in essence have to spark a grassroots uprising of union members demanding her more radical brand of politics. Her general differences with the current AFL-CIO administration are clear: More agitating, more diversity, more focus on worker power, and less dependence on elected officials in the Democratic Party. She is outspoken in her belief that much of the money that the union world has poured into political donations would be better spent on new organizing, to try to turn around the decline in union membership. (Asked what new areas unions should focus on, she has a one-word answer: “Tech.”)
In April, we sat down with Nelson in our office to talk about where she thinks organized labor needs to go, and whether she should be the one to lead it there. We’ve organized her responses and edited lightly for clarity.
“It’s not really a position that you run for.”
Look—everywhere I go, and I’m being asked to speak all over the country, people are telling me that they want me to run for it. That they would like to see me running the labor movement. I’m hearing that everywhere. I think that the groundswell of workers wanting to stand up and practice solidarity and own their power is important, but you also have to have leadership to keep that moving in the direction that it’s going. So leadership is important... I think people want to have a leader that reflects the vision that they have for their future. So the things that I’m saying are reflective of where the front line is right now. It could be very powerful to have someone leading the labor movement who expresses those values and sets a very clear line in the sand with government, with companies.
The other thing I should say is, [the AFL-CIO presidential election] is a couple years off yet. We can’t just get caught up in the presidential election. The mine workers’ pensions are going to default before then. We need action on that now. We need to have results now. People are not going to get excited about voting for elected leaders who may be championing these issues unless they see some gains now, and they see some benefits of fighting for labor rights, because those labor rights are actually resulting in gains that workers can feel. So I think it’s impossible to answer that question now, because there’s so much to be done in the next couple of years. And I should also say that I think there’s a lot of power in being the president of the flight attendants’ union. So I’m very happy where I am, and I’m very clear with my members that I have no intention to go anywhere else, and I really don’t.
But were I given that chance, I could see myself doing the job.
Some people would say that the election of the AFL-CIO president is decided by ten people in a board room. But I think that if you just look at presidential politics, and you look at the decisions that unions are making to ensure that the process of endorsing a presidential candidate is transparent and directly tied to the workers on the front line—if you follow through that thinking, and the recognition from union leadership that they must have a process that engages members in determining who our leaders are going to be, that whole shift in decision-making leads to a place where the members could actually decide who the president of the AFL-CIO is.
If that paradigm shift happens, I would say yes, I have support from the major unions, because I have support from the local leadership of those unions.
I think the leadership understands the necessity of reflecting the grassroots. If you look around the table [in the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council], the table does not look like the grassroots.
On how much success the AFL-CIO’s extensive political donations and lobbying efforts have had in recent years:
They’ve been abysmal. Now, more recently we’ve had some wins, because I think that there has been a greater focus on the job sites and in the communities... we’re seeing the political narrative change, to want to talk about unions, and it’s not because unions have been chasing candidates and paying them money and endorsing them—it’s because those candidates are understanding that unions are more popular than they’ve ever been, and that unions are focusing back on the workplace, and they’re not going to rely on those candidates to do for them what unions need to do for themselves...
If we had spent that money on organizing, it’s a ridiculous amount—it’s like a thousand full time organizers we could have had all over the country.
I don’t want to hear another speech on “unions built the middle class.” I think it’s an important data point for people to understand where unions came from, sure. But don’t give me a speech that centers on what we did 60 or 70 years ago. We have to be relevant today.
The most important thing that the AFL can be doing is making the ground fertile for organizing. We need to be the best communicators in the country. We need to talk about who unions are, and we need to talk about what unions do, and we need to help run that militant line. I think it’s really important to put out there what we’re willing to do to fight for meaningful change for the people we represent. It’s important to put out that clear, militant line, and have it be centered around the workers and what they’re willing to do.
I’ve said, “Sometimes you have to beat it out of them, sometimes they just have to remember the beating they’ll take.”
I actually expected people to come back and say, “we can’t do that, that’s crazy.” And I got the exact opposite response: “Yeah, what we’ve been waiting for!” I think that’s just a product of people hurting out there, and feeling like there’s no way out, and not believing that voting is gonna change anything...
For the federal workers who could be thrown into the same conditions, day one of another shutdown would not be like day one of this shutdown, because they will immediately revert to where they were on day 35, and all the uncertainty. And the idea that they could be thrown into that again, I think, will be too much to bear for people. So we’re going to immediately be in a situation where we’re unsafe and not secure... People inside the agencies believe very strongly there will be another shutdown.
If federal workers didn’t have such abysmal labor rights, we would never have another shutdown. In the private sector, on day one, if you’re told that you’ve got to come to work but we’re not gonna pay you, nobody’s gonna come. You’re also given 60 days notice if you’re gonna be out of work. None of that happens [for federal workers].
I think that if you look at the entire arc of the labor movement, we’ve made the most gains when it seems we’re in our darkest hour. And certainly workers out of necessity are understanding why they have to stand together.
This whole idea that if the strike [as a tactic] wasn’t going to work, then we needed to elect people who could enact laws that would help labor, has been a losing strategy. The idea that we need to focus back on our workplaces and understand where workers can make changes immediately was really important. People have very short memories. I know this as a labor leader. You can negotiate the best contract ever—eight months later, it’s not going to be enough. People want an immediate result.
These strikes that are happening across the country right now are a really important part of labor’s resurgence, because people have to understand fundamentally what unions are there to do, and what unions can’t do. And even if those strikes are starting from people in the grassroots—there’s this whole narrative that it came from the front line workers, it didn’t come from the unions—we can’t forget that it’s because the union exists at all, and there’s a consciousness that workers can fight back through a coordinated structure, that gives them that right and that ability to do it.
The other thing that’s happened as we’ve moved towards an electoral strategy for unions is that we’ve moved away from the front lines and the understanding that the unions are the workers that make them up, and not the figureheads who are elected into office.
In a sentence: People are hurting, and they didn’t see any solutions from either party, and they just wanted to try something new.
One of the reasons why I think it’s important that the AFL becomes the best communicator in the country is because there’s some strong propaganda coming from the right, and there has to be an ability to cut through that. Some of the people who just voted for Trump because they were willing to try anything, because they thought that the system was broken, those people have moved away from him. But there’s a core base there who’s continuing to listen to those Fox News talking points... It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t ever say Trump’s name during the shutdown. And I was religious about that. Because I think he’s a trigger for those fundamental beliefs.
We cannot treat labor as a club. I was at the Democratic retreat, and I said to close to 200 members of Congress: stop talking about unions as a constituency of the Democratic party. Talk to your constituents about the rights they can gain joining unions.
People think there’s only a limited amount of power that you have, and if you exert some power, you’re not gonna have enough for the next fight. That’s just not how it works. Every time workers really grab their power and take action, it encourages the next group of workers to have that power and act more. Power expands, it doesn’t contract.