PHILADEPHIA—This afternoon at Netroots Nation, the annual conference of the professional activist left, two of America’s most prominently confrontational union leaders called for an escalation of direct labor action against the Trump administration’s deportation policies.
At a panel titled “Is It Time for a General Strike?”, Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants union, and D. Taylor, the head of UNITE HERE, which has a membership heavy on hotel and hospitality workers, blasted the Trump administration’s border policy and today’s announcement that ICE is planning nationwide raids to detain and deport thousands of immigrants this weekend. Taylor in particular framed the “evil” actions taken against immigrants as a moment of truth for the labor movement, and vowed that his union will take action against hotels that house migrants who are detained by ICE.
“If I see a press release on that and not direct action, what the hell are we talking about?” he said. “We’re not just gonna send a letter. We’ve gotta do action at every one of those hotels. We’ve gotta turn up the heat.” Taylor said that UNITE HERE, a union with a large immigrant membership and a willingness to pursue long strikes, would eye actions not just in the traditional venues of New York City, California, and border states, but across the country as well. “We’ve gotta get off our asses and get off Twitter and get in the streets where this evil is going on,” he said.
Nelson—whose viral call for a general strike during the government shutdown inspired the panel’s title—emphasized that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies were indeed a union issue. When the government’s Muslim ban was announced, she said, flight attendants in her union who were working found themselves detained when their flights landed. “These are union members who are terrified right now that they may be deported or their families may be deported,” she said.
Taylor, whose union won a high profile strike against Marriott last year, had harsh words for the powers that be in the labor movement, bemoaning 30 years of declining membership and dwindling militancy in organized labor. “We don’t know what we’re doing. If we did, we wouldn’t have got our ass kicked for the past 30 years,” he said, calling for fresh blood, younger leaders, and a renewed willingness to use strikes and other militant tools on behalf of workers while the moment is ripe.
“There’s never been an opportunity like we have now. Low unemployment, record profits,” he said. “Everybody knows they’re getting screwed. The labor movement hasn’t been there to say, ‘Here’s the pathway out.’”
Everyone on the panel seemed to agree that pulling off a general strike was not immediately practical. But in the face of the Trump administration’s outrages, “Are we ready to plan a general strike at the hotels and the airports?” Nelson asked, as the crowd responded “Yes!” “There we go,” she said triumphantly. (This was a joke. I think.)
Nelson, who is widely considered to be one of two candidates to become the next leader of the AFL-CIO, seemed to take a jab at the union federation’s failure to broaden and energize the labor movement in the Trump era. “This is what the AFL-CIO should be doing,” she said, “combining these fights.”
Splinter will be reporting from Netroots for two more days, assuming more news happens, which we cannot guarantee.