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The coronavirus threatens not just our health care systems but global capitalism as a whole. Few workers understand better what this crisis means than those in the airline industry, a workforce that feels early on the effects of every economic shock. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America, has been battling to make sure that this crisis doesn’t fall, as earlier ones have, on the backs of her members and the working class as a whole. She spoke to The Nation about what it will take to ensure that the government puts working people, not corporate bottom lines, first, and what we can learn from this moment about the fights to come, particularly the battle against climate catastrophe.
Sarah Jaffe: Tell us what is going on with battle to get relief for workers and not just for people at the top.
Sara Nelson: First of all, we should recognize that this is a crisis that was not created by the airline industry. It was made worse by the misinformation that came out of the White House, the dismantling of programs and agencies that address public health, and the slow response and inability to coordinate a response. We are in a place now where it is a national emergency, and we have to respond appropriately.
The airlines have never made more money. A month ago, we were talking about preparing for the next big round of negotiations. The whole industry was announcing hiring tens of thousands of workers. United Airlines was starting a training academy. Delta Airlines—this was literally 30 days ago—was celebrating the profit-sharing checks it was writing to employees off of all the profits from the previous year. In one month’s time, we’re talking about the fact that if there is not relief for the airline industry, they’re going to completely run out of cash and any ability to provide paychecks within a matter of months, if not weeks.
Flight attendants have been on the front lines of this over the last two months and have been calling for a coordinated response. I have to say that I have never seen the airlines work with us more closely than they have during this time to put in place mitigation factors and equipment on the planes. But even within a fairly good coordination—they didn’t do everything we asked, but a better response than we’ve ever seen before—even within that, there were supply chain issues. We don’t manufacture goods in this country anymore. There was price gouging going on just to get basic medical supplies and protective equipment on board. There were issues with getting that to the cleaning crews.
Typically, the airline industry can play a big role in stopping the spread of a pandemic, but this has completely overtaken any ability for anyone to even understand where it is. It’s out of our control. Now, we are looking at massive reductions in flights and, potentially, a full travel ban. Airplanes may be parked on the ground. That is on the table in order to help stop the spread here.
First of all, I think it is really important that people understand that this is a crisis. It is already a massive health care crisis, but it is the biggest economic crisis we’ve ever faced. We need to make sure that we get relief to the people on the front lines right away. The airline industry is not a bunch of executives: We are millions of real people, with other people who depend on us even beyond our own families. I talked about this last night in the video that I released: It is the cab drivers and the van drivers and the servers and the bartenders and the front desk clerks and the hotel workers and the child care workers and teachers who look after our kids and so many more. They are all counting on us.
Who died on 9/11? It was front-line people and our passengers. Who suffered in the bankruptcies that followed? It was me and my friends. They took our pensions, they slashed our pay by more than 40 percent, diminished our health care, cut our jobs. They put it on our backs. For a lot of people, that meant real personal loss of our homes and cars and stressed marriages and divorces and the pain of telling our kids that they had to do without. We’ve seen this before, and we know exactly what didn’t work. We won’t stand for it again. We won’t let that happen to the rest of the country.
When you structure a recovery around corporations and banks, you’ve got the focus all wrong. It has to be about the people. Look at every collapse in our economy: It always happens when you leverage individual people so much that they don’t have the means to take care of themselves, their families, and their neighbors. Each time that our economy collapsed, it meant people couldn’t care for themselves, and that is why, ultimately, business suffered. In this crisis especially—with a health care crisis—we need as many people to stay as strong as possible. We need as many people to be able to care for themselves, because we need to be able to focus on the most vulnerable.
SJ: Flight attendants are front line workers in so many ways but particularly in this crisis, because they are affected not just by what the US is doing but by other countries that they fly in and out of. We are talking about a nationally coordinated response, but this also requires an internationally coordinated response.
SN: This is shining a bright light on what we know in the labor movement: Labor has no borders, and an injury to one is an injury to all.
It really doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or what you believe or where you live or who you love. If there is one person who is infected here, if we are not treating that one person, we are all at risk. We can’t just focus on our country and our individual needs. We are all in this together. It is the exact kind of recognition and awakening that we need to be able to take on the climate crisis hurtling towards us.
It is a crisis that working people are simply not going to allow to be put, once again, on our backs. In fact, we are coming for blood this time. No more stock buybacks. This is about putting in place a system that actually cares for people, that actually works for people.
We are going to fight like hell to keep people’s paychecks right now and that has to be an immediate response, because we need people to be getting that pay. When people have that pay, they are in a better place to fight for themselves and their families. But we are also going to use this moment to get real change and to have a real awakening here so that we can take on the next big challenge.
SJ: One of the things that we are seeing is which labor is necessary and which labor is undervalued. We’re talking about the people, not just who are taking care of people on the planes, but the workers who are cleaning planes. Hospital cleaners went on strike in the UK. We are seeing in real time the way that the work that society values the least is the most important work.
SN: The most important, yes. We are opening our eyes to how we are connected to everyone. Thank you for bringing up the hospital workers who are actually cleaning the health care centers. What more valiant job could there be than saying, “I am willing to clean up for people who are at their most vulnerable, for the people who are sick in this world?” That is extraordinary work that often happens in the shadows that most people don’t think about. This is bringing these jobs to the forefront.
SJ: What do you think this moment shows us about our ability to deal with the climate crisis, our ability to pass a Green New Deal? The isolation has actually lowered emissions in some places. The first New Deal was a response to an economic crisis. We are about to have another one…
SN: It shows how quickly people can get on the same page together. A week ago, if you had told people, “There is going to be a curfew in San Francisco, and you’re not going to be allowed to go to bars and restaurants…” [Laughs] They would have said, “Uh, hell no! Not in this country!” Right? Yet, today people are cheering that and saying, “This is exactly what is needed to help stem this crisis.”
We can work together in solidarity in a relatively short period of time and understand that there aren’t really these limitations that those who would like to keep control would have us believe are in place. People are ready for solidarity right now. When you clearly define what is at stake so that everybody understands, and you clearly define the demands for how to fix what’s at stake, people are willing to take action. We are seeing that in real time, literally overnight.
SJ: I thought of you the other day, because Asad Haider [an editor at Viewpoint Magazine] tweeted that the healthiest thing we could do right now is a have a general strike. What is this moment teaching us about the value of halting our labor, the power that people could have by doing that in coordination?
SN: We do have to understand where our power comes from. A general strike is a tactic, but the power in it is our solidarity. There are people who are real heroes right now continuing to go to work—the people that I represent among them. That is continuing. But our work is being taken from us, and yet if we work together at any given time, we can place real demands on the table.
Right now, Congress is considering the package that we’ve put forward because corporations have nowhere to go. The airlines are meeting with me, working with me, and we may actually get a relief package that puts real constraints on them, because of the leverage we have right now. This is not something that we chose ourselves, but we should recognize the power in it. What is powerful in the airline industry is that we are 80 percent organized. The contracts that we have negotiated require the airlines to continue to pay us until they go through a specific process to get people off the payroll. Those contractual protections are great, but the airlines are not even going to make good on those contractual protections with the time requirements that are involved unless there is a relief package in place.
SJ: We’ve touched on this in various ways already through this conversation, but in 2008, the left and the labor movement were wrong-footed. People gave Obama the benefit of the doubt. How are we thinking about getting ahead of the economic crisis this time? The demands that people are making now that are getting enacted temporarily, how do we make those permanent?
SN: By organizing on a massive scale—millions of people. This is an opportunity to talk about the value of labor in a crisis. Everybody is paying attention. The labor movement needs to lead, and that is what we are working to do. We get to show why the workers who have a contract right now have a lot more questions answered and a lot more certainty and are feeling like they are in a better place.
We get to talk about the fact that if it were not for the unions, we wouldn’t actually know what was happening and be able to put pressure on the administration to do things they didn’t want to do; we wouldn’t be hearing that people weren’t getting tested; we wouldn’t be hearing that the hospitals can’t even get the protective gear that they need to keep people on the front lines healthy; we wouldn’t be hearing about the price gouging that is going on or the inability to get the supplies that we need because we have given away our ability to manufacture anything in this country. We wouldn’t be hearing workers’ stories if they didn’t have the backing of their unions, if they didn’t have the structure through their unions to be able to tell those stories, and then have a strong voice within our government to put forward real plans that can work for working people and have those plans be the foundation of how we’re going to work our way out of this crisis.