Jon Levitan

Jon Levitan is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

We begin today with a familiar face in an unfamiliar place; Sara Nelson was profiled by Fast Company for the business magazine’s cover story. Nelson – president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) – was lauded as “workers’ great hope” who is “poised to help the entire worker movement take off.” This portrayal of Nelson begins with her groundbreaking call for a general strike amidst the 2019 government shutdown, which vaulted her to prominence among American labor leaders and played a pivotal role in actually ending the shutdown just a few days after Nelson’s speech. Fast Company writes that Nelson’s militancy combined with her explicit embrace of Black Lives Matter and climate justice fits the current moment – which it terms “the new worker moment, with fresh organizing efforts in tech and media, radicalized teachers, overworked nurses, and underpaid fast-food workers, and novel efforts to bring justice to workers via everything from antitrust laws to shareholder activism.” 

The story recounts Nelson’s early years as a flight attendant and her rise in the AFA (on her picket line nickname, the Mouth, Nelson said “[i]t’s Boston, so you have to have a nickname”) and her negotiations with the airlines on a COVID relief package that protected workers, among other anecdotes. It ends with Nelson offering a potential version of her platform for President of the AFL-CIO, should she decide to run during the 2022 convention: more organizing and a more aggressive communication strategy to workers all across the country. “There are a lot of people walking around in this country wounded and feeling alone, and feeling like they don’t have any answers or any way to change their circumstances,” Nelson told Fast Company. “I feel this extraordinary sense of responsibility to make sure every worker understands that they can raise their expectations, and can change their circumstances.”  

Fast Company’s profile of Nelson was accompanied by a whole series of content focused on labor adapting its tactics and goals to the modern age. The magazine identified “six creative ways workers are taking back power.” They include bargaining for the common good (a clean slate proposal), shareholder activism, a profile of groups taking on big tech (including Chris Smalls’ The Congress of Essential Workers and Meredith Whittaker’s AI Now Institute at NYU), and the push to end the tipped minimum wage. Finally, a photo essay chronicles workers in Bessemer, Alabama, not just at Amazon but around the community struggling to reinvent itself after the collapse of manufacturing. It’s surprising to see a business publication devote so much space to workers and their movement, and even more surprising to see that publication celebrate Nelson’s militancy and a labor movement that has ambitions of molding society on a scale far beyond the shop floor. It’s another signal that, while union density rates remain at a historic low, labor’s cultural and political cache may be on the rise. 

Unionization efforts at Amazon have been understandably focused on the warehouse workers, with the recent election in Bessemer and organizing efforts underway in Staten Island and Chicago. But the other major segment of Amazon’s workforce is its drivers, and they are not being ignored by the labor movement. In an interview yesterday, Teamsters President James Hoffa hinted that organizing efforts are either already underway or set to begin soon. Even more intriguing – Hoffa noted that the Teamsters are coordinating with multiple unions to “his Amazon all at once.” Amazon’s size, technological savvy, political power, and vehement opposition to unions means it will not be an easy target for organizers. Hoffa called it a “very, very tough company” that knew “how to fight dirty.” It appears the labor movement has recognized that it will take a lot of coordination to win this fight. 

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