Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘flight attendants’

Meet the Militant Flight Attendant Leader Who Threatened a Strike—And Helped Stop Trump’s Shutdown

Monday, February 11th, 2019

The government shutdown introduced America to an audacious new voice in the labor movement: Sara Nelson. While receiving the MLK Drum Major for Justice Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFL-CIO on January 20, Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called for a general strike to support the 800,000 federal employees who were locked out or forced to work without pay. “Dr. King said, ‘their destiny is tied up with our destiny,’” Nelson told a cheering crowd of labor leaders. “We cannot walk alone.”

Absences among air traffic controllers on the 35th and final day of the shutdown, causing ground stops at LaGuardia Airport in New York and elsewhere, contributed to the eventual resolution of the standoff. Before the shutdown ended, flight attendants were mobilizing to walk out as well—as Nelson said, “if air traffic controllers can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.” Simply floating the idea of labor unrest raised the stakes. Nelson, who took over leadership of the AFA in 2014, broke an unwritten rule by expressing the logical endpoint of the power workers hold in their hands.

“I was very aware when writing that speech that it was going to be a moment and it was going to make a lot of things possible,” she told In These Times during an interview last week in Los Angeles. “There has been this hopelessness, this feeling that the problems are out of our reach. So setting a bold course and being bold about the action that we need to take was something that I knew people would respond to.”

That urgency has yet to dissipate. The shutdown was merely put on pause—government funding runs out again February 15. It’s entirely possible that workers could again get furloughed and cut off from pay. And Nelson wants everyone to understand how her members are willing to sacrifice in response.

“I know how dangerous a day 36 of the lockout would be,” she said, referring to a resumption of the shutdown. “We’re going to continue running as fast as we can right up to February 15, so that we can take action immediately on February 16 if necessary.” If flight attendants do take action, other unions and even the airlines themselves may get behind them. That’s because the shutdown inserted fundamental risk into the air travel system.

Nelson, a 23-year rank and file flight attendant with United Airlines who still occasionally works trips, thinks that it will take years for the aviation industry to recover from the shutdown and the issues that preceded it. Nearly 20 percent of all air traffic controllers are currently eligible to retire, a figure that rises to 40 percent in the New York City area, Nelson said. Staffing was at a 30-year low before the shutdown. The political uncertainty could easily convince air traffic controllers into cutting their careers short. And the training required for such a difficult job means that replacing these workers will take time.

“If you have a 99.5 percent efficiency rate in a job, people applaud you, you get awards, right?” Nelson explained. “If an air traffic controller has a 99.5 percent efficiency rate, 50 planes go down a day.”

Fewer people managing plane traffic means reduced capacity in the air. That has an economic impact, compounded by the shutdown’s temporary halt on installing improved safety measures like the NextGen modernization—an FAA-led effort to modernize the United States’ transportation system. Even after the shutdown, NextGen has not rolled back to life, Nelson said. “No contractor is going to come to work when they think they’re going to have to shut down in two weeks possibly.”

Amid this economic uncertainty and threat to safety, Nelson has signaled a critical need for worker action. The labor strike is having a renaissance in America. Teachers across the country—even in states like West Virginia where striking is illegal—have withheld their labor to bargain for better pay, conditions and outcomes for their students. Hotel workers at Marriott spent two months on the picket lines this winter to win concessions from management.

As Nelson understands, the willingness of workers to strike has powerful effects. The Association of Flight Attendants resolved a dispute in 1993 with Alaska Airlines—which led to as much as 60 percent pay raises for workers in some cases—by only striking seven flights. The union called it CHAOS: “create havoc around our system.” With air travel so interconnected and interdependent, the ever-present threat of CHAOS has helped lead to labor peace.

The right to strike is a privilege that federal employees are denied; they are legally prohibitedfrom walkouts, and they can be terminated, hit with the loss of a federal pension, and even personally prosecuted for defying the law. “Those federal workers were actually very courageous,” Nelson said. “Because in my view what the White House wanted here was for the workers to strike. They wanted to replace them so they could privatize the entire system.” This is not so far-fetched—President Trump has publicly supported air traffic control privatization.

Nelson believes that the heroic efforts of federal workers to show up to work without pay demands that the labor movement support them with solidarity strikes, part of her desire to shake up the status quo. “If we try to play by the rules, we’re only going to continue to decline,” she said.

Part of Nelson’s power derives from the union she leads. Flight attendants are a uniquely consumer-facing profession that comes into contact with millions of Americans every day. And they share with passengers the indignities of air travel, a by-product of corporate greed and industry consolidation that has left four carriers controlling 80 percent of all domestic routes. With few alternatives for passengers, shrinking seats and overhead bins have heightened tensions in the cabin, and flight attendants are bearing the brunt. According to Nelson, “Our union, our bread and butter issues are absolutely tied up in this overall fight that I think is really about, are we going to be about people or are we going to be about politics and profits?”

In the near term, that fight is translating into mass mobilization against the threat of another shutdown. Nelson’s union is leafleting at airports and communicating to the public between now and February 15 to identify the stakes, and making clear that members are committed to walking out if necessary. They’re also advocating for a permanent end to government shutdowns, and back wages for low-income federal contract workers who were furloughed.

One moment during the previous shutdown has stuck with Nelson, a reminder of the unifying force of cross-sector solidarity. “I was doing interviews on the shutdown in a cab ride” in Washington, D.C., Nelson recalled. “And when I got to the office and went to get out and pay my fare, the cab driver turned around and his chin was shaking and his eyes were watery. And he said, ‘Thank you, I know you’re fighting for me too.’ It was like, oh yeah, there’s been nobody on the streets, and he’s had no fares. And that really shook me, because we don’t really understand how much the effect ripples.”

This notion that we all have a stake in one another’s struggles has driven Nelson’s thinking throughout this government-created crisis, and it’s elevated her to a prominence that could portend a larger role in the future. Nelson begged off such thoughts, insisting that she was focused on saving the lives of her members and airline passengers. But she did leave some room to consider the broader lessons of collective action, in a moment when so many forces are aligned against the working class: “I’m very aware that if we do it well, it’s an opportunity for workers to taste their power.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 8, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times‘ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud won the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

New Survey Shows Sexual Harassment a Pervasive Problem for Flight Attendants

Friday, May 11th, 2018

AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson discussed the scope of the problem:

While much of the coverage of the #MeToo movement has focused on high-profile cases in the entertainment industry and politics, this survey underscores why AFA has long been pushing to eradicate sexism and harassment within our own industry. The time when flight attendants were objectified in airline marketing and people joked about ‘coffee, tea, or me’ needs to be permanently grounded. #TimesUp for the industry to put an end to its sexist past.

Nelson noted that the problems associated with the harassment go beyond the harm caused to the flight attendants:

Flight attendants are first responders. Their authority when responding to emergencies is undermined when they are belittled and harassed. Likewise, harassment makes it more difficult for flight attendants to intervene when passengers are harassed by other passengers. Flight attendants must be confident that airline executives will back them up when they respond to and report harassment of crew and passengers.

Here are some of the key facts uncovered by the survey:

  • 68% of flight attendants have experienced sexual harassment during their flying careers.
  • 35% experienced verbal sexual harassment from passengers in the past year. 
  • Of those who have experienced verbal sexual harassment in the past year, 68% faced it three or more times, and one-third five or more times.
  • Flight attendants describe the verbal sexual harassment as comments that are “nasty, unwanted, lewd, crude, inappropriate, uncomfortable, sexual, suggestive and dirty.” They also report being subjected to passengers’ explicit sexual fantasies, propositions, request for sexual “favors” and pornographic videos and pictures.
  • 18% experienced physical sexual harassment from passengers in the past year. 
  • Of those who experienced physical sexual harassment in the past year, more than 40% of those suffered physical abuse three or more times.
  • Flight attendants said the physical sexual harassment included having their breasts, buttocks and crotch area “touched, felt, pulled, grabbed, groped, slapped, rubbed and fondled” both on top of and under their uniforms. Other abuse included passengers cornering or lunging at them followed by unwanted hugs, kisses and humping.
  • Only 7% of the flight attendants who experienced sexual harassment reported it to their employer. 
  • 68% of flight attendants say they haven’t noticed any employer efforts over the past year to address sexual harassment at work. According to AFA-CWA, airlines Alaska, United and Spirit have led the industry in addressing this issue.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 11, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

The Skies Just Got Friendlier for Working People: Worker Wins

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with flight attendants and air traffic controllers standing together to make the skies safer for working people and travelers and includes numerous examples of workers organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. 

Flight Attendents Reach Tentative Agreement with Mesa Airlines: Flight attendants at Mesa Airlines, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), stood together in efforts to have the work they do as aviation’s first responders recognized. They successfully announced that they have negotiated a tentative agreement with management on a four-year agreement that would provide more than 1,100 flight attendants with economic and quality of life gains.

Teachers Who Train Air Traffic Controllers Join IAM: In an effort to make the skies safer and improve the lives of working people, more than 280 instructors at SAIC in Oklahoma City have joined the Machinists (IAM). Facing a strong anti-union campaign from SAIC, the instructors successfully organized and now have more leverage to make sure the public is safer.

Swissport Workers Stand Together and Put Employer on Notice: Cleaners and ramp agents at Bush Intercontinental Airport voted to join the IAM, citing broken promises on pay, scheduling, overtime, and working conditions. IAM Organizer Fabian Liendo said: “Workers stood together throughout the campaign and put Swissport on notice. These new IAM members sent a clear message and are prepared to fight to secure much-needed job improvements. They should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

Graduate Employees at University of Chicago to Hold Election in October: When the university attempted to deny its’ graduate employees right to come together to negotiate for a fair return on their work, the working people fought back. Their efforts were rewarded when the National Labor Relations Board rejected the university’s argument and ruled that a union election can go forward. The election is scheduled take place in October.

In Near-Universal Vote, Nurses in Turlock, Calif, Vote to Join CNA: Nearly 300 registered nurses at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, California, voted overwhelmingly (284-4) to join the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. Chelsey Jerner, an emergency room RN, said: “As patient advocates, we voted yes to have a collective RN voice to enhance positive patient outcomes at our hospital. Patient safety is our number one priority.”

Oregon Service Industry Workers Earn Protection from Unfair Scheduling: A coalition led by the Oregon Working Families Party fought for legislation that would protect retail, hospitality and food service workers from unfair scheduling practices. Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed the bill into law earlier this month. Working Family spokesperson Hannah Taube said: “This is a huge moment for labor rights in America. Oregon’s Fair Work Week legislation is one of the most important labor victories in decades for low-wage workers. We hope Oregon is the first of many states to expand scheduling protections for workers—knowing when you work more than a day in advance is essential to parents, students and many other workers trying to make ends meet with two or three different jobs.”

More than 40,000 Educators in Puerto Rico Join AFT to Fight Education Austerity: On Aug. 3, the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) signed a three-year agreement with the AFT in order to fight back against austerity and privatization in education that is having a devastating impact on students and teachers in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “The people of Puerto Rico didn’t cause this crisis, but they’re forced to shoulder most of the burden because of the actions of hedge funders and irresponsible government deals.”

Lipton Tea Workers in Suffolk Organize for First Time in Plant’s 60-Year History: For the first time in the history of the Lipton Tea production plant in Suffolk, Virginia, employees have voted to unionize. The vote was 109-6 to join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on August 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Flight Attendants Honored for Battle Against Workplace Sex Discrimination

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Image: Mike HallThe Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) was honored for its “pioneering role” in fighting sex discrimination in the workplace at a ceremony this week marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Chicago event was part of a yearlong series of events by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) celebrating the landmark civil rights law.

Shari Worrell, who began her flight attendant’s career as “stewardess” for United Airlines in 1968, told Burt Constable of the Arlington (Ill.) Daily Herald she had to step on the scale to prove she weighed between 105 and 118 pounds, undergo an inspection to make sure the seams in her stockings were straight and submit to a girdle check.

But armed by Title VII of the act, the AFA-CWA began challenging discriminatory policies based on gender, race, age, weight, pregnancy and marital status. Over the next decade, AFA-CWA defeated airline rules requiring mandatory resignation at ages 30-35, prohibiting employment of married and pregnant flight attendants and demanding equal pay.

Professor Mary Rose Strubbe, assistant director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, which hosted the event said, “The flight attendants played an astonishing role in the development of Title VII.” She told Constable that the changes pushed by flight attendants:

“forced employers to look at the idea that you can’t have rules that address what woman can and can’t do in the workplace if you don’t have rules for men.”

Former AFA-CWA President Patricia Friend, who began flying in 1966 with United, spoke about her career and the union’s battle for gender equality. Said AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson:

“AFA has a long and proud history of beating back discrimination. Through persistent efforts, AFA has worked to ensure that women receive equal pay, domestic partners receive equal benefits, weight restrictions were removed, men could serve as Flight Attendants and all Flight Attendants have the right to marry and have children. Our union fought for decades and overcame discriminatory policies one by one and we are honored that this dedicated work is being recognized.”

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on October 25, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Other-News/Flight-Attendants-Honored-for-Battle-Against-Workplace-Sex-Discrimination

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

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