Sara Nelson, fellow activists discuss labor’s future

In the balmy DC heat, organizers and community members packed into the pews at Friends Meeting House to hear about workers walking out. More specifically, for Labor Strikes Back!, a discussion hosted by Metro DC DSA on the recent teachers’ strike wave.

With recent labor victories fresh in our collective memories, three panelists shared their experiences and offered advice for furthering the movement in our own communities and in solidarity with workers everywhere. Their words were more than a call to act — but a call to get organized.

Panelists Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants; teacher and Red State Revolt author Eric Blanc; and Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School union organizer and teacher Andrea Molina led the discussion.

Sara Nelson’s call for a general strike this year helped catalyze the end of the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history. She reflected on the power of the TSA during that period and the gravity of walking off the job:

"All of America knew that these people were coming to work without a paycheck, and instead of coming in and being the cranky flyers that they usually are because security sucks, they were coming there and saying “Thank you,”  and they were offering to help. Across the board, it was unanimous. Americans want solidarity. And they feel solidarity with other people. And it is a lie that they don’t. It is a tactic of the boss to make us believe that we are in competition with someone else because they have a different color of skin, because they are a different gender, because they are a different age, because they worship a different god.

That’s not who we are as Americans. [...] This was really about accruing power to the White House so they could privatize everything, because if those air traffic controllers had walked off the job, if those transportation security officers had walked off the job, the president would have been empowered to say, “I’ll fix it.” So this was about all of us. If they can’t do their job, we can’t do ours. And we can’t go around throwing out the word “strike,” [...] but when we had 2 million people out of work, hundreds of thousands forced to work without pay, and the rest of us going to work in increasingly unsafe conditions, what was the labor movement waiting for?

So in that moment when we can define for people what was at stake and we can get the word out about what was at stake and what leverage [workers] had to fix it, the call for a general strike was telling all the workers across this country: You have power. And where there seems to be no solution in sight, no compromise in sight, you have power. And the reason the shutdown ended, it was because 10 air traffic controllers could no longer take it and Laguardia shut down, but the reason that shutdown really ended, was because we were this close to toppling the whole damn thing down." 

Eric Blanc spoke about the changing view toward educators in America, which has shifted from one of blame to empathy and understanding in recent years, and the proliferation of strikes led by women workers in education, hospitality, and healthcare in 2018. He said strikers in the teachers’ wave were successful because they:

  • fought not only for the workers on strike but for the working class as a whole;
  • broke the law and struck despite U.S. labor laws rigged against workers;
  • pushed reluctant union leadership from below and organized before striking;
  • and challenged the scarcity narrative that there “isn’t enough” funding for education.

In his explanation of that first point, he said:

"So this [photo] is from the Los Angeles strike, and you can see a student carrying a sign that says, ‘Educators deserve a fair pay raise,’ and you see the educator carrying a sign saying, ‘Students deserve smaller class sizes,’ because the main demand in LA — and for a lot of the strikes — the demand was not about pay but in fact it was for better education for students and smaller class sizes, in particular. The LA strikes and a lot of the other strikes foregrounded issues like anti-racism, an end to random searches of black and brown students, a fight for human rights in the schools — all sorts of things that were able to tie up educators to the community."

Andrea Molina told attendees that teaching at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School is a political act. Teaching in Spanish prepares all of her students to communicate with their community, and it’s how she connects with students who share a similar background to her own.

When Molina and her co-workers saw that the school’s commitment to social justice was faltering and that the students weren’t getting the resources they needed, 96 out of 115 staff members voted to unionize with AFT. As Blanc observed with other schools, Mundo Verde’s push to unionize required organizing and building solidarity with the whole community, Molina said. It required risk, too:

"It wasn’t easy — it was very hard. We also have a lot of educators that are coming from Central American and South America, so we needed to understand that the cultural aspect of what unions are and how they work and function back in South America and Central America is not super different than in the U.S., but people come from places where they have been persecuted — where family members have been murdered. I speak from personal experience, too. My mom was involved in union work back in El Salvador, and she was persecuted, and I remember that. [...] A lot of teachers are also visa holders or DACA recipients or people that need a work permit in order to be in the United States. So we know they’re taking a risk doing the work that we’re doing, but we know how important it is."

The speakers, taken together, emphasized the risk that teachers and other workers across the country take when they decide to strike. The need to organize and support one another in all these actions came through — as did the idea that workers' movements have greater power when we all stand together.

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