Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has struck a chord with activists calling for her to run for labors top job: president of the AFL-CIO
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union (AFA-CWA) and an emerging force in an energized labor movement,had the foot soldiers of the lefts budding political revolution in tears.
She was speaking at the Democratic Socialists of Americas biennial convention in Atlanta last month and began with a story from the early history of American workers rights.
A fast-rising star and a woman tipped for the very top of the US labor movement Nelson described a small band of laundresses in Atlanta, all black women, many of them former slaves, who formed the Washing Society. In 1881, the women organized a strike for higher wages $1 for every dozen pounds of laundry and greater autonomy over their industry.
Most would have said what they were attempting to do was impossible, Nelson said, her voice wavering.
There were no labor laws to protect them. There was no single employer with whom they could negotiate, and their low-skilled work could easily be taken over by others.
Yet the women persisted and, against the odds, prevailed. Militancy and sometimes just the threat of it can work even in the most dire circumstances, Nelson said. Its a principle she believes in deeply.
For many, Nelson represents the new face of labor. With manufacturing and mining on a long-term decline, unions have concentrated their battles on the service sector. Teachers strikes and efforts to unionize fast food and hotel workers in the Fight for $15 movement sectors dominated by women have shown unions still have a role.
Earlier this year, staring down the longest government shutdown in US history, Nelson gained national attention when she called for a general strike as a way of pressuring Donald Trump and Congress to act. The idea was radical and supporters say it set in motion a series of events that brought the weeks-long shutdown to an end.
People think power is a limited resource, she said in Atlanta. But using power builds power.
Nelson has struck a chord with progressives and grassroots activists who have amplified calls for her to run for labors top job: president of the nations largest federation of unions, the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO.
She knows how to excite people and how to give them the sense that a lot more is possible, said Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America, of which AFA is an affiliate.