The Flight Attendants Union Leader Says America's Aviation System Is Close to Its Breaking Point

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Sara Nelson, the leader of the Association of Flight Attendants, gave a speech this week calling for a general strike by organized labor to end the government shutdown. Is America’s aviation at risk of grinding to a halt—or falling apart? According to Nelson, we are already teetering on the edge of chaos.

Nelson’s fiery call for the labor movement to “end this shutdown with a general strike” was paired on Wednesday with a downright scary joint statement from several aviation unions warning that “we cannot even calculate the level of risk” that the shutdown has added to America’s air safety system. We spoke to Nelson about where things go from here.

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Splinter: What response have you gotten in the past few days to your call for a general strike?

Sara Nelson: I’ve heard a huge amount of interest, and a lot of people saying “we’ve gotta do something to take our country back.” I’m going down two separate tracks here. I’m going to continue talking about the need for a general strike, and that labor needs to lead it. But separately, that call is coming [out of] concern for the people that I directly represent as well. I have to work with the other aviation unions and assess the status of the risk to my members and determine what action we are going to take, whether the rest of labor joins us or not.

Splinter: What is the feeling of your members about the prospect of a strike?

Nelson: We work in a safety culture, and our members are really focused on safety and security and understand how critical it is to our jobs. That’s how our jobs are defined in the first place: aviation’s first responders and the last line of defense. Many of us lived through the events of 9/11, so we understand really clearly what happens when there’s gaps in security. So when it comes to the very fundamental issue of, “Am I safe at work?” our members are immediately engaged. It’s all they do every day.

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In that instance, I do want to be really clear: that would not be a strike. That would be a suspension of service. It’s essentially in response to the conditions.

Splinter: Is that “suspension of service” from your own union, or from a larger coalition of aviation unions, something that is imminent?

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Nelson: Things are changing so rapidly, it’s hard for me to say. The near future used to be a year from now, and now it literally is tomorrow... we are rapidly approaching a breaking point.

Splinter: A lot of people have expressed amazement that a government shutdown has been able to go on for 34 days now without any major strikes. How has this gone on so long with no real labor actions?

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Nelson: I think that everyone was caught off guard that it has gone on this long. This is twice the length of any shutdown in U.S. history. I can tell you that I was at events earlier in the month with several people in the aviation community—unions, airlines, airports—and all of us were expressing concern, and that led to the letter that the entire airline industry signed on to on January 10. But even at that point, no one could imagine that this would go on this long. It’s really been unimaginable. And here we are, federal workers have missed two paychecks now, people are starting to see and feel the effects. It’s just human nature: until people understand how it’s going to affect them, they typically don’t pay attention or consider any actions they themselves may be willing to take.

What we are warning now to the public is that you may not see it, you may be reporting how long your security line was, or that you’re seeing that on the news—but you are about to have a major impact on your life. Where people in your communities are losing work, where you can’t get goods and services to your hometown, and there’s an economic collapse. That happens when there is a breaking point for these people who we have locked out of the government and required to work without pay.

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Splinter: There was a fairly dire safety warning Wednesday from the aviation industry that you were a part of. How will you all make the determination when and if that risk has gone too far?

Nelson: We had that discussion last night. All of the aviation unions got together. We shared information and talked about, “when are we operating outside that envelope?” We know right now that we are less safe. Okay? That is bizarre for me to say to you, because as a safety professional, there’s one level of safety... what we’re trying to assess is, is the crumbling of the information a pilot gets when making the determination about whether or not it’s safe, has it crumbled so much that we don’t even know what we don’t know? That’s the breaking point.

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We all know there have been layers peeled away here from safety and security. Each one of those layers operates as a failsafe. And when you pull those away, you’re just introducing more risk in the system.

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Splinter: From the early days of the shutdown, it was clear that aviation was the industry that really had the leverage to precipitate a crisis. Do you feel pressure to exercise that labor power?

Nelson: I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to do something, yes. And we all do.

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Splinter: Has this shutdown been a wakeup call for organized labor in terms of a need for improvement before the next time this happens?

Nelson: Yes. However. This is what I want to say: there are people all over this country from the beginning, first of all not understanding that the government is completely entwined in the aviation industry, so you have a public-private partnership like no other industry. But beyond that, there have been people who have been very quick to put it on the backs of the federal workers who have been locked out here. They better be just as passionate about improving labor rights in this country when this is over.

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I’ve asked the question, what is labor waiting for? The largest and longest lockout in U.S. history. I have a responsibility as the president of the flight attendants to assess conditions based on what I just described to you. But as a member of the AFL-CIO executive council—one of approximately 60 people—what are we doing if we are not fighting for people who have been locked out of work or forced to come to work without pay for over a month? It’s unprecedented, and this is the time for labor to act. This is the time for labor to define to the country what the value of the labor movement is.

Splinter: Do you think that your peers on the AFL-CIO executive council are going to do that?

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Nelson: I know there are people around the table who are sort of shocked and excited about what I have to say here. I think there needs to be a real discussion around what the labor movement looks like today. And I know that there are people who are interested in doing that... this is really an opportunity for workers to own their unions.

Splinter: One week from today, if we’re still in a shutdown, can the public expect to still be flying on airplanes?

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Nelson: I’m very concerned that within that time we could see massive flight cancellations. We don’t know what the exact breaking point is for the people who are just holding this together with sheer will power. These TSA officers and air traffic controllers are absolute heroes. They know what it means to the country if they decide to put in their retirement paperwork. If they decide to leave their posts. What will happen is, [even] if our safety and security is not impacted—and I hope and pray every moment that is not the case—we will see a slowdown in capacity of the aviation industry. And it will cripple our economy, and there will be massive job loss...

The trickle-down effect of the people that we’re not even talking about here is already happening, and will be absolutely exponential when these flights are pulled down. And I would to throw this in, too: nobody gets out unscathed. Private jets are not gonna take off either.

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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer. Hamilton@SplinterNews.com