When Sara Nelson agreed to come to Madison, Wis., to discuss the future of labor at an ideas festival on the University of Wisconsin campus in the fall of 2021, it was supposed to be just another appearance by one of America’s most engaged and energetic labor leaders. Then, Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, ended up having a pair of surgeries that required her to use a wheelchair for several months. Of course, she could have canceled the trip. But that’s not how Sara Nelson rolls.
Nelson’s trip required several flights and a long van ride to the UW campus. Once she arrived, the union president moved into action. She raced off to a gathering of the Teaching Assistants Association, where she delivered a barnstorming address to members of the oldest graduate student labor union in the world before leading the crowd in solidarity chants that echoed across the campus.
Then Nelson met with state legislators to discuss how to reverse anti-labor laws implemented by former Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies. She talked with local journalists about the renewed popularity of unions, especially among young workers, before taking the stage in a sprawling theater where the crowd cheered her thoughtful answers to questions I posed about corporate monopolies, worker safety during the pandemic, and the need for a new era of union organizing.
That would have been enough. But before she left town, Nelson met with veteran labor organizers, academics, and activists about how to translate what was being talked about into a robust agenda for getting things done.
Sara Nelson did all that in under five hours. Imagine what she could do as the US secretary of labor.
The Washington Post reported last week that Nelson is under consideration for the post, which was held during President Biden’s first two years by former Boston mayor Marty Walsh, a longtime building trades union leader. Walsh is resigning to become the head of the National Hockey League Players Association, the union of professional hockey players. There are plenty of fine prospects to replace him as the point person on labor issues for an administration that has positioned itself as more pro-union than any since Franklin Roosevelt’s.
Julie Su, a former California labor secretary who has served ably as deputy secretary of labor under Walsh, is clearly in the running for the top job and has earned high praise from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). DeMaurice Smith, the outgoing executive director of the National Football League’s union, has been proposed as a contender. Former US representative Andy Levin, a veteran union organizer, is being talked up by some progressive members of Congress, including US Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). And former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is promoting former US representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a controversial New York Democrat who served as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2022 and then lost his own seat.
Nelson got a boost earlier this month from Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who in 2020 named the union leader as his representative on a task force Democrats had organized to build unity around economic issues before that year’s election. In a letter to Biden, Sanders, who now chairs the Senate committee that deals with labor issues, wrote, “Sara Nelson…has been a union member for nearly 30 years, has been a leading voice for worker rights and is a very strong communicator of progressive values. She has a thorough understanding of federal labor laws and how these laws apply to workers, and her experience sets her up for success in this job.”
Sanders also mentioned former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich as a prospect, noting that the well-regarded progressive “would hit the ground running” at the Department of Labor. But Nelson is a prospect who appears to have caught the attention of the White House.
If Nelson were to get the appointment, it would be a bold move by an administration that maintains close ties with the labor movement but that has also taken criticism for pulling its punches, especially last fall when the president and Congress intervened to block a potential railroad workers’ strike over sick leave and safety issues.
Nelson, a union activist for decades who has led the AFA since 2014, is not one to back away from a fight with corporate America, or with anti-labor Republicans. In 2019, during a government shutdown that President Trump was threatening to keep going “for months or even years,” Nelson boldly declared at an AFL-CIO gathering, “What is the labor movement waiting for? End this shutdown with a general strike!” That wasn’t likely to happen, as few labor leaders are as undaunted as Nelson. But the suggestion sent shock waves through government and media circles. Nelson, one of the labor movement’s most savvy communicators and effective negotiators, didn’t blink. Her media appearances brought clarity to a tense moment and, as Nelson rallied workers at airports, there were reports that some air traffic controllers had stopped showing up for work. Within hours, the Trump administration signaled that an agreement had been reached to reopen the government. Media outlets argued that Nelson’s “strike threat helped end the government shutdown,” as did Sanders. The New York Times declared, “The Shutdown Made Sara Nelson Into America’s Most Powerful Flight Attendant.” The paper of record labeled Nelson “a rising star of the labor movement” who has “made a career of getting unruly people to do what she wants.”
That’s what the Biden administration should want in a secretary of labor. The most effective labor secretaries have always pushed the envelope, maneuvering inside and outside administrations to advance the interests of workers. An emboldened labor secretary can say and do things that blaze trails in ways that presidents rarely do on their own. That was certainly the case during the New Deal era, when the interests of workers finally got a hearing and the labor movement saw many of its greatest victories.
The US Department of Labor is headquartered today in Washington’s Frances Perkins Building, an imposing structure named for FDR’s secretary of labor. Along with Henry Wallace and a circle of committed New Dealers, Perkins was one of the handful of top-ranking officials who arrived with FDR in 1933 and served with him throughout his tenure as the longest-serving and most pro-union president in American history.
While Roosevelt gets deserved credit for remaking labor laws to strengthen the hand of working Americans, it was Perkins who did much of the heavy lifting. The woman who declared, “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen,” followed through on that promise by playing a pivotal role in helping to develop and advance landmark legislation that freed unions to organize and collectively bargain, established the US Employment Service, implemented a minimum wage, and formulated the Social Security Act of 1935.
These are different times, but the demand for a fearless labor secretary is as great now as it was in the 1930s. And Sara Nelson is more than ready to fill it.