Sara Nelson Speaks on Strikes, Unions, and Capitalism

By Eli Gerzon

This Sunday Bernie Sanders, Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants, and Sean O’Brien of the Teamsters union are speaking on Cambridge Common at 1pm. Working Mass caught up with Sara Nelson this weekend, to talk about unions, socialism, and why she’s coming to Boston. Nelson will be joining the Starbucks Picket Line at 874 Commonwealth Ave at 10:30 am, before heading to the rally.

Why are you rallying with Sanders and O’Brien? What do you hope a rally attendee will get out of the event and what actions do you hope they will take following it? 

These rallies are about rising above politics and bringing the working class together. Building power, supporting the organizing – that’s going on. There are local workers [from St. Vincent, Starbucks, and MIT] who will speak at the rallies bringing more attention to those local fights.  

That’s what we’re trying to do: build worker power. And help workers identify as the working class and recognize who is trying to exploit us. And not allow all the means of division: racism, sexism. Trying to divide along political lines, ageism. Not allowing these things to be tools of the corporate class to continue to drive this wild inequality and brimming poverty that’s taking over the country. 

AFA has a history of dealing with harassment, something Starbucks workers deal with.  What can people learn from AFA organizing and recent Starbucks and Amazon labor organizing? 

They can learn that unions are for everyone who works – everywhere. And oftentimes the best leadership comes from people who have been marginalized, discriminated against, who have had to fight through incredible struggles just to have the right to work. It’s really important that we have women standing up, people of color standing up, queer people standing up and showing leadership. We hope to model that. When workers come together, it doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you come from: we have power because we generate all the wealth in the economy. And together we can take our fair share. 

A recent report showed major labor unions have about $29.1 B in net assets (not including pension funds) and surprisingly little of it has been used to fund organizing. How should AFL-CIO unions use their funds to meet the new target of organizing 1 million new members over the next decade? In general how should union leaders be leading?

This could be a much more nuanced question. I’m going to answer it from a 30,000 foot view. Want to be clear: those assets are within each union and maybe in different areas. But in general: unions should be using the vast majority of their funds to meet this moment. I know, representing only flight attendants, that I can’t be the kind of leader that they want me to be, unless I’m helping build power for workers everywhere. Because what they really need is access to good healthcare, they need to be able to not be drowning in student debt, they need to be able to afford a place where they live near their work, and not spend 2, 3, 4, or an entire day just commuting to work, to try to make a paycheck. All of these issues require all of us to come together. If we’re going to build the kind of power that’s necessary to really address the needs of working people now – we should be investing entirely in organizing. And I mean internal organizing too: supporting strike activity, all of that too. 

I believe you joined DSA in the last few years. Why did you join? What does socialism mean to you?

I know it’s been reported that I joined but I did not technically join DSA. To me, socialism, the word, has obviously been weaponized. Let’s be really clear. I believe the way you solve problems is by defining them. And the problem is capitalism, the problem is unchecked capitalism. Because the only thing that capitalism cares about is money, profit, and getting more of it. And that leads to exploitation, increased by dehumanizing people, keeping them demoralized, And it’s violent. It’s leading to people die early, it’s leading to increased suicide. It’s incredibly violent. We have to name the problem.  

The last two times Sanders was in Boston it was for his presidential campaigns. Biden’s presidency has not been able to enact his own goals, let alone those of the DSA. Do you have plans to run for president of AFL-CIO or president of the US… or another elected office?

I have plans to organize. Period. I’m going to do that from any position that I have the ability to be in.

What songs have you been singing at labor events? 

(Laughs) My favorite song typically, at labor events, is This Land is Your Land. And beyond that, Solidarity Forever. And yesterday, I was reminded of the great spiritual Hold On

You’ve called for a general strike in the past. What do you think it would take to get to the point to need that and to achieve that?

Well, the strike is our tactic, solidarity is our power. I’ll go back to: defining the problem, setting the demands and the urgency, and then backing it up with what we’re willing to do. Talking about a general strike makes it clear who has the power. So it’s important to talk about that. We shouldn’t be afraid to say the word “strike”. We walked through wilderness there for about 40 years where we were afraid and led to believe it was a bad word. And talking about strikes, whether it’s general strike or a strike in a specific workplace, demonstrates that workers have all of the power. And we’re willing to take it. We’re willing to be strategic about it. I would just go back to: it’s gonna take a hell of a lot more organizing. But if people are going to strike they have to understand what they’re striking for. So defining the problem and setting the demands are where you’ve got to start.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, tarot card reader, and member of Boston DSA.

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