Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who had signaled her intention to challenge the re-election of longtime AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka ahead of his fatal heart attack last August, is considering continuing this race against Liz Shuler, who was raised from the position of secretary-treasurer of the Federation of Labor after quickly consolidating her support among some of its larger member unions.
Shuler is serving Trumka’s term, which will expire in June, when the AFL-CIO’s annual convention features an election for a full three-year term.
As she was brought up, Shuler said, “I deeply believe that the labor movement is the greatest organizing force for progress. margins at the center – at work, in our unions and in our economy, and being the center of gravity to incubate new ideas that will spark unprecedented union growth. “
Shuler began her union career in 1993 when she went to work for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in her native Oregon, where she organized office workers at Portland General Electric. the AFL-CIO when it campaigned to defeat a California bill that would have ended dues collection rights for that state’s public service unions and their members.
This earned her a promotion which sent her to Washington, DC, to work in the IBEW’s Political / Legislative Affairs Department, and in 2004 she became Executive Assistant to Union President Edwin Hill. Five years later, she was approached by Trumka, who was running for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, to run with him for the post of secretary-treasurer.
While Shuler’s rise in the AFL-CIO hierarchy has been the preferred route to the organization’s presidency, Nelson will count on her high profile as an outspoken leader of a militant union if she runs against it. someone who, at 52, is only three years older than her and the first woman to hold the most important post in the labor movement.
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Talks about Nelson looking for a job first surfaced in 2020, and in a recent interview she said the change at the top brought on by Trumka’s death had not derailed that idea.
“Americans want solidarity, and they are suffering,” she said. “They are looking for answers. You see these troubles everywhere. We have a time when we have to harness the power of the labor movement that exists today to organize millions more people.”
Nelson added: “People don’t really have any rights at work until they vote for their union and get the rights not only of a union contract,” but also of the union’s power to force a union. company to comply with the law.
Even so, she added, “The courts, by the way, are stacked in favor of corporations anyway.”
She said the success of her union, which is part of the Communications Workers of America, and others in the transportation industry in preventing mass layoffs despite a 97% drop in air travel at the start of the pandemic. coronavirus, showed the potential power of work. By adopting the 2020 Wage Protection Plan for Industry, as part of Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES ACT), Congress demanded airlines to maintain their workforce and not use up billions of dollars. federal support for CEO bonuses or share buybacks.
“But it was all really [made possible] just because of the work of our unions, because 80% of aviation is organized, and with that kind of union density, we could demand that, ”Nelson said. “When you give money to these companies and tell them they can find the best way to spend it to keep their businesses afloat, it doesn’t trickle down to workers and it creates inflation. But our program that puts money on the front line, we see that plane ticket [prices] are in fact lower than they were before.
She said the CARES Act was relevant to the debate over whether President Biden’s $ 1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan would accelerate inflation.
“This idea that if you invest in the people of this country there is going to be inflation is absurd; we’ve shown it to be any other way,” Nelson said.
The last contested race to lead the AFL-CIO was in 1995, between Tom Donahue, then outgoing secretary-treasurer, and John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees Union International.
The backdrop to this election was a sharp drop in the percentage of unionized American workers. In 1979, 22% of the country’s workers were union members. By 1995, this proportion had fallen to 15.5%. It is currently fluctuating at just over 10%.
Until Sweeney’s successful challenge, “the heads of the AFL-CIO were elected and essentially served until they were executed in a coffin,” said labor historian Joshua Freeman, professor emeritus at the City University of New York Graduate School of Labor and Urban. Studies.
Trumka, then president of the United Mine Workers, was on Sweeney’s list of winners as secretary-treasurer.
Rather than voting at the grassroots level, Freeman noted: “The [AFL-CIO] president is elected by a convention of constituent unions ”, the votes of which are weighted according to the size of each union.
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He observed that Nelson’s challenge would come at a time of upheaval for American workers: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13.1 million American workers left their jobs from September to November of last year. – this number is half a million more than the AFL. -The current members of the IOC.
In this case, said Freeman, “much of the discontent of workers and their actions has taken place outside of a union context. It is therefore a kind of working moment, but the trade union movement has not yet taken advantage of it institutionally on a large scale.
In a survey of workers who left their jobs, a Washington Post columnist received hundreds of online comments and dozens of emails from readers who described how “pandemic working conditions ultimately drove them to leave jobs where they would otherwise have stayed “, in many cases because” their employers did not take the threat of COVID-19 or their concerns about it seriously. “
Throughout the pandemic, the AFL-CIO and its constituent unions have pressured the federal government, under Donald Trump and Joe Biden, to implement workplace safety standards to protect essential workers virus.
“We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and healthcare workers face dangerous exposures to COVID-19 and need the strongest possible protections in their workplaces,” Shuler tweeted Jan. 5. . case like the crisis it is. “
On the same day, the AFL-CIO led a coalition of nurses unions in asking the United States Court of Appeals to order the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue a permanent standard requiring employers to protect healthcare workers from the virus.
Nelson said, “We need leadership and consistency to mitigate the spread and evolution of COVID. The fight against this pandemic is a safety issue at work and a multi-level approach. We need three components that work together to keep people safe.
“First, access and incentives as well as negotiated mandates for the vaccine with paid sick leave and medical accommodations,” she continued. “Second, hide mandates for indoor and populated workspaces, including the public, and third, free and universal COVID testing. When people have the right information, resources and clear advice, we make good decisions and act in solidarity. “
Learn more about the return of unions to the era of the pandemic: