Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, and Dean Alex Colvin discuss the shifts that have occurred in unions – from their approaches, to their membership, to their leadership, and what must continue to happen to benefit all workers.
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Work is all around us. It defines us. The future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet. And the ILR School at Cornell University is influencing policy and practice around the world. In this episode of "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment", Dean Alex Colvin speaks with Sarah Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants.Alex Colvin :
Well, thanks a lot for joining us here on the podcast today. I wanted to start off by talking a little about your union, the Association of Flight Attendants. Your members are probably some of the union members in the country that the public is most familiar with seeing doing their work. And any of us who fly gets to see and listen as the flight attendents that are working the flight go about their jobs. But at the same time, this stereotype of union members is often still rooted in the old image of the often white male auto worker or steel worker, even though today, airlines are among the most unionized industries in the country. I was wonder if you could talk a little about what union representation means for flight attendants and why this group has become one of the real strengths of union representation today?Sara Nelson :
Sure, well, it was, it was exciting to me this past year to see a real awakening into who union members are, and that unions are for everyone. And this has been a real challenge throughout the entire existence of my union, which was formed in 1945, our first contract in 1946. And one of the first things that we had to do was to negotiate a seniority list, so that we could build right off the bat, the inability for management to try to pressure people to trade sex for schedules or give discriminatory treatment against individuals because they didn't act right or look, right. And that was the basis for all of our challenges to bet back discriminatory practices that had us stepping on a weight scale, even until 1993, in order to do this work. And so we really had to fight, to just turn this job into a career and make it possible for anyone with the heart of a flight attendant to be one. We even fought for men to have the same rights on the job. And so that's all fine within ourselves, but we never ever expected for anyone else to give us that recognition, to hand us respect. We felt that we had to stand together and take care of each other, and fight for that on our own. But in this past year, there's been a real opportunity for union members to step forward, women, specifically people of color. I give a lot of credit to the Me Too movement, I give a lot of credit to the pictures of solidarity from the Women's March. And this has really been a moment where we can stand up and say, No, this isn't for working people. And working people when they stand together no matter what job they're doing have power. Because the reality is that our economy doesn't work if there's one group that can't do their job. And that was what was so exciting, actually, when we have the New York Times business section, the front page of the Sunday business section saying that flight attendants are powerful. At first, I hated that headline, because I'm so conditioned to people talking about flight attendants in the old sexist way. And so I thought that it was a little jab at us. And then I started to realize No, this is a real moment. This is a moment where our careers are being pushed forward where our union is really pushing forward. And the fact is that flight attendant and power was in that headline, and that was a real paradigm shift.Alex Colvin :
That seems like a real shift that's gone on in the labor movement is always had this tension between a co-operative approaches and confrontational approaches. And you think back in time, particularly in the 1990s there seemed to be this effort to try the cooperative approach. You got Saturn, the Saturn planet General Motors with cooperation with the UAW. And in airlines, you had united with this Aesop and the unions being involved with that. Now it seems like the pendulum has shifted that there's been a shift to arguing for more confrontational approach to say that that needs to be the emphasis. Do you think what do you think's behind this kind of shift? Do you agree with that shift and what do you think's driving that amongst workers and amongst union leaders?Sara Nelson :
I agree with the shift 100% I mean, the reality is that the GOP the Chamber of Commerce, the Right To Work organization has fought for decades to try to destroy unions, to kill Unions. And one of the ways they did that was trying to define unions as as union thugs as a disconnected with Workers. They stripped away at unions rights. The ability to or to conduct sympathy strikes, the ability to stand up for one another the ability to have mass strikes and mass demonstrations. And what that did was it really hampered the ability for workers to understand the power of standing together. And so we it led to an era of business unionism, where we were processing grievances, where we were believing that relationships were going to solve the issues for workers. And that's just totally contradictory with the original purpose of unions, which is for workers to stand together and to take on the big issues as a united front, and use that power. And when you take that power element out of the dynamics here in the employer employee relationship, then there is a disconnect with the idea of unionism and the relatability of workers to unions, and how that's about the people who are looking out for their interests, not the management. And so it has become abundantly clear to workers in this country that management is not the one to look out for their interest. You may have one benevolent manager along the way. But management comes and goes and work workers stay and create the real value. And unless you have an idea that your power comes from standing together, and have that really ingrained in your workplace and ingrained in all workers minds, then the whole idea of labor management relations breaks down. You know, a lot of people talk about strike as a dirty word. But strike means that everyone has to understand what's on the line, and what they're willing to do to fight for what they want. And what that does is it encourages agreement. Because there is a deadline, there is a risk assessment for both parties. And when you have that deadline, and you have that risk assessment, it tends to drive people to, to compromise. And still that struggle, that power struggle is important.Alex Colvin :
So what are the changes that we've seen just the last couple of years is that after years and years of strikes declining, along with a declining percentage of workers represented by unions, suddenly we've seen an upsurge in strikes again. I think about the Red for Ed strikes the teachers launching these really remarkable mass strikes in parts of the country, we don't see traditional strengths in unionization. We've seen strikes in all kinds of places, grocery workers, General Motors, auto workers, this is the biggest strike years last year since the 1980s. But it seems there's something bigger than just more strikes, there seems a different character to these strikes. What do you think's going on with this increase in strikes? And are we going to see more of this going forward and different kinds of strikes?Sara Nelson :
Yes, we are. I mean, look at the strike wave that started with the West Virginia's school walkout in 2008. You know, this raised wages for all state workers. And that was because all 55 counties stood together. And in fact, even the county executives were in support of these strikes, because the communities were not getting what they needed in order to attract people to the communities, educate the children, and give proper pay and working conditions that allows people to contribute to where they live. And so they even though the law was completely against these school employees, they did not have the right to collectively bargain, they did not have the right to strike, they did not have a state budget that was supportive of what they were asking for. And yet by taking action together and understanding that they were in this together and had experiencing that real common interest in raising the standards for everyone, that's how they won and that is what is going on across the board. If you look, we took flight attendants out to the GM picket line. And the issues that they were talking about are the same issues that our members are experiencing. This idea that you've got temp workers or a two tiered working system is something that flight attendants understand very well and that we understand in almost every other industry, the issue of scheduling and being required to come in for overtime. That is an issue that flight attendants understand. The issue of understaffing so that we're doing more on the job with fewer of us there to do it, and how that relates to safety and health. These are common issues across the board. And that's what's going on is that people are identifying that they've lost their retirement. They've had cuts in pay. They don't have control over their schedules. There is less staffing than there's ever been. And there's every effort to define the business as how it defines the value of someone's work and people have people are saying the jig is up. I mean, this is the jig is up on the gig economy, the jig is up on is the way that Wall Street has tried to redefine work according to a business practice rather than recognizing the value of every single person. And as Unite Here says in the great hotel strikes against the biggest hotel chain in the country, and now continuing on for all of us, it's something the whole labor movement is taking up, one job should be enough. And the truth is that across industries, people are working two and three jobs just to get by. So there's a real common understanding of the inequality in this country, what that means for our families. And there's a real desire to stand together this idea of solidarity and how we got to stand together to take back our the value of our work.Alex Colvin :
So the other part of building labor power traditionally, as well as using the strike has been organizing, bringing new members into the union. One of the biggest ones in your own industry issues in the last couple of decades has been around Delta, which is the largest non-union employer of flight attendants at the industry. And there's been efforts to try and organize it the 2008, 2010 votes, very close votes that organizing efforts fail. Can you talk a little about where organizing efforts stand Delta today? What's going on now?Sara Nelson :
Yes, and I just want to note that as these strikes have worked, and people have seen results, where they don't necessarily see results with governments, with the government, people are interested in being a part of unions. And so there is the fact that there is this overwhelming positivity towards unions in this country right now makes the ground fertile for organizing. And every time there's a strike where workers win people want to be a part of the winning team. And that encourages people to come out. And we heard a lot of workers expressing interest in joining unions after the GM strike, after the grocery workers strike, after the teachers strike. And certainly we are experiencing that at Delta today. So big change from 2010, the last election to today, is that more than 40% of the workforce has been newly hired since that time. So they don't have any of the baggage of the old anti-union campaign. Delta is a very anti-union employer and integrates this into everything they do, including propaganda throughout the training, that the flight attendants are required to go to these meetings about how delta is different because they don't have a union. But people are not buying it because when they go home, they've got more often union favourability in their household. And this next generation understands that this is the first time that the generations before them have not made it possible for them to move forward and make life better. In fact, they have everything on the line, they may even lose their entire world based on what the former generations have done. So there is a real understanding that workers have to stand together and that the people who have been decision makers traditionally have not been looking out for their best interest. And that is making it very fertile ground for us to organize, in addition to the fact that our union has been so visible to flight attendants on being at the forefront of fighting for our safety and health and fighting for our for our jobs and our careers and respect on the job. And so there's a lot of excitement at Delta. It is a completely new day. And the biggest difference is that in Atlanta where it has always been very difficult to break through, we are seeing that this campaign is actually being driven from Atlanta, which is on his head from the past. So there is a real new day here for organizing for workers, certainly for flight attendants. And it's really important because as Delta is non-union, they can keep the the flight attendant costs for the airline down. And in fact they pay 100 million dollars less a year than United Airlines does with our flight attendant contract there. And that is a lot of money over the last nine years that they have not had a union. So 100 million dollars is a big incentive for this company to keep the union off the poverty and we can't push our careers forward at United or anywhere else, if we don't organize at Delta. We also can't get laws that support the work that we do as flight attendants if we don't improve our numbers and have more power on the hill because every time we advocate for something on the hill Delta comes in and speaks for the flight attendants and says that it's not something that they want.Alex Colvin :
If you get the election results that you're hoping for what what do you think? What are the key policy changes do you think that are most important for for union members to see?Sara Nelson :
When one worker out there is injured, it's an injury to all. This is the age old adage in the labor movement. And so we have to have the ability to stand together and conduct sympathy strikes, and really create that worker power to get resolution and to get our economy working in the other direction so that we're not living in this era of increased inequality.Alex Colvin :
Yeah, you're really suggesting kind of a shift in how the labor movement thinks about itself to as kind of social unionism. You know, contrast with the traditional business Union, the more transactional approach labor movement traditionally, has traditionally taken. It sounds like you're calling for a real change in how the labor with itself organizes itself thinks about itself.Sara Nelson :
Well, listen, PATCO was a strong, unified, politically strong union. But the one thing that they forgot was what Mother Mother Jones taught us, and that is that you've got to bring everyone to your side and you've got to organize with the community. And you've got to make these strikes resonate with the community and understand how it's going to help everyone around us. And that is really important in order to win. You can't do this alone. We have to change the way we're looking at this and who better to do that than, frankly women and people of color who have built up structures within our communities to take care of one another. And we couldn't do it without depending on each other. And that is the way forward for the labor movement.Alex Colvin :
Well, it's interesting the labor movement itself and membership has become increasingly more diverse. We're getting closer to equal male and female unionization and African Americans more represented than other groups. But the leadership of the labor movement at times seems like it's still the leadership of the movement from 40 50 years ago. What is the labor moevement have to do in terms of its own leadership to kind of develop more diverse representative leadership?Sara Nelson :
You know, this can change by the members getting involved and taking action it will naturally change. There will naturally be challenges in elections or to the leadership who's in place today will be responsive to the new activism from the grassroots. So this is not something that I think is going to change from the top it has to change from the bottom up. And that is the kind of energy that we're seeing. And we're seeing unions change their position because of this activism from the grassroots already. So it is a natural progression that will take place. And certainly I would call on all all leaders in the labor movement to be very astute to this. I'm on one Labor Board where I'm the only one sitting there and I talked with the the leaders of that board and said that we have got to do more to change the way this looks, because as long as we continue to project this idea that the labor movement is only for a few, we are in trouble. But I am I am really not concerned about this because I believe that as we continue to spread the message, the grassroots is going to take care of this and take ownership of the labor movement and it's going to be a labor movement that doubles and triples in size over the next 10 years.Alex Colvin :
Yeah, and one things you already mentioned is that we're seeing this shift in youth attitudes towards unionization. And the data that we're looking at suggests a really dramatic kind of change in terms of how they view the economic system, and then also unions within it. And the big manifestation I've noticed, you know, is this, this striking unionization wave at some of the new media companies, the sort of Voxes and other new media companies, which is, is interesting in terms of how the these workers in this new economy are thinking about it. But also, when you look at how they're communicating and organizing, they're using these new media platforms, and you go on Twitter, yourself, you post a lot on Twitter and communicate that way. What advice would you give to people interested in labor in terms of how to communicate their message, how to use that voice in this new environment we're in?Sara Nelson :
Well, first of all, I think it's really important for people to understand that you are not going to organize a single worker on Twitter. So get that out of your head. If you're spending more time on Twitter than you are on talking to people you have lost already. So workers organized by building relationships with one another and that's just simply not something that you can do on social media. Social media is important. It is very important. It's important for influencing the overall macro messages that are going out in the country. So I use it to promote labor's voice. And that is really important. It's also important that decision makers are seeing that. They are actually moved by that because a lot of people who are in decision making positions right now, they're only touch with the real world is a place like Twitter. It's important in terms of encouraging workers to take actions so that we can move the national dialogue around what's happening. But if you think that that is where you're going to do your organizing, then you are sunk. So, so it's a tool. Absolutely. But get out there and do, you know, age old grassroots organizing that's built on relationships where you understand where every single individual workers needs are, what their concerns are, what motivates them, and that is the only way organize forward.Alex Colvin :
That ties into something that I've often thought in the current discussions you hear in the media around the future of work that it's very technologically deterministic, right? That it's going to be technology will determine what our future is going to be, what works is going to be like. You know one thing we know from looking at the history of work is that it's a lot about the choices that we make as a society, how we organize our society. So I want us to finish up by chucking the question back to you on where you see the future of labor going and the future of work going where do you see us go over the next coming years?Sara Nelson :
I think that if we do our jobs right that this is an opportunity for people to get back to the slogan that we had 100 years ago, which is that we should have "Bread and roses too." This is an opportunity for us to participate in the productivity improvements through technology and if we do this right we can spend less time working and more time being mothers and fathers and friends and be thinking about how we move our world forward. Be thinking about how we solve the major existential crisis of our time, climate change. And we can have a lot more time each one of us to contribute to that and to get more value for our work. So we should it should no longer be the 40 hour workweek should be at a minimum the 30 hour workweek. And we should all share in the benefit of us increasing our wages for the work that we're doing and spending less time on the job doing it. So I think that that is the future if we can organize and have a paradigm shift about who gets to participate in the value of our work and what is important to our world and to our families.Alex Colvin :
Well that's a great message message to look forward to and want to thank you for joining us today. These have been a really interesting conversation and I really appreciate it. Thank you very much.Sara Nelson :
Thank you.Julie Greco :
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