Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants, has been vocal about workers' action to block a Trump coup
Last week we interviewed David Van Deusen, President of Vermont State Labor Council (AFL-CIO), about their plans for strikes if Donald Trump attempts to steal the election. On 30 October, the Labor Council reported on a discussion organised by the new Labor Action to Defend Democracy coalition:
“Vermont AFL-CIO was pleased to be on a zoom call with 99 key labour leaders from around the US tonight in order to discuss our role in the defense of democracy should there be a Trump coup. In addition to representatives from Los Angeles Teachers Association giving their report, we also heard how the Chicago Teachers Association is also gearing up. Sara Nelson of the CWA [Association of Flight Attendants section] made clear that we can only beat a coup through our solidarity and by disrupting capital. Vermont AFL-CIO highlighted its November 21 General Strike Authorization Vote... and the call for a mass demonstration on November 7 (Statehouse lawn, Montpelier).
“NOW is the time to have discussions within your bargaining unit, with your co-workers, and in your Locals about how YOU can defend democracy...”
This discussion is spreading in the US labour movement. The British labour movement must get ready to build solidarity.
• Labour Action to Defend Democracy Facebook page here
“Where our power lies”
The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee is a joint project between Democratic Socialists of America and the left-led United Electrical Workers union. At a 20 October meeting organised by EWOC, union activists discussed the possibilities for workers’ action against a Trump coup. Below are excerpts from the speeches, edited slightly for clarity. A video of the full meeting is on the EWOC website here.
Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants President:
“Here’s one example. We were confronted with Trump’s Muslim ban, right in our workplace. We had flight attendants taken into custody by ICE when they landed, because of their own immigration status. We had to talk with our members about what the actions of this administration meant for them. We had flight attendants who were willing to stand up and say I’m not going to work flights where kids are transported away from their families. We took round individual flight attendants who could describe that moral conflict for themselves, so people could hear their co-workers define their problem. You’ve got to do that in a moment of chaos, you’ve got to organise people around the same message.
“Then we asked management in a very direct way, what are you going to do when we say we can’t work these flights? Within 48 hours you had all the major airlines telling the administration you can’t use our planes to facilitate this policy. So we have real power, especially when we think about how we can control capital. The target’s the people who can control Trump. We can take action to move those in charge of capital to make decisions that help get the right response.
“[Then during the 2019 government shutdown] it was very disruptive to government workers who we count on for our work. Plus this shutdown was about building the wall – a moral issue about who we are as a nation, and the fact that our President is a white supremacist. Again, you always have to define what’s at stake. I was speaking at an AFL-CIO dinner for Martin Luther King’s birthday, and I wanted to talk about how our government had locked out two million people and forced hundreds of thousands to work for free. I concluded our only option was to strike. When I said it openly, people said you’re going to scare people. My response was: Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike… We’re scared of this word, we have to start saying it. All the time. This is our power.
“We weren’t just calling for a general strike – we wanted everyone to talk about a general strike, but we were actually getting ready to strike ourselves. The day previously there had been a vote to continue the shutdown, but then suddenly there was a deal.
“Trump didn’t care if government functions like air traffic control wanted to strike. That would be his excuse to privatise it all. So they needed that solidarity from the private sector. He also didn’t care if there was an accident. The capitalists know that if they bring you to a moment of chaos, it’s more likely people will go along with whatever solution is proposed, to end the pain. What stopped the shutdown wasn’t that we all went on strike, because we only struck a few flights. But they knew workers would get a taste of their power, that it was going to turn into a massive strike.
“Get that commitment with another union, to say I’ve got your back, and you feel that solidarity bouncing off one another and all of a sudden you start to feel you can do something no one thought you could do. It all starts with not being afraid to talk about where our power lies. We’ve got to make the capitalists bend to our demands.”
Zack Pattin, dockworker, ILWU activist and DSA Labor Committee:
“We need to do something more than just protest; we need the power of workers. The point of the strike is to make the employer’s pocketbook bleed. A strike isn’t just like any other protest. It’s about disrupting the flow of things. We need strikes that stop production.
“I don’t believe history repeats itself; but when we’re talking about uncharted territory studying labour’s past can be not just inspiring but illuminating. Workers have done things like take action on the job for political ends. When you have something of a roadmap, it’s a bit less scary, because you realise that other people have done it before and we can do it again.
“My union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, was born out of the great West Coast waterfront strike of 1934. We were founded by people who were pretty openly radical about their politics. They had a firm commitment to an all-inclusive, antiracist version of industrial organising. One of the actions taken during that strike was voluntarily desegregating the union and thus the waterfront. Shortly thereafter came a campaign to organise workers down the supply line, in the warehouses and logistics. That was strategic but also moral: we had an obligation to leverage our power to help uplift other workers.
“With the rise of fascism, West Coast longshoreman boycotted ships sailing under the swastika. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, we boycotted cargo we knew was going to be turned into war materials. We very openly opposed Japanese internment during the Second World War, and in the 1960s we closely aligned with the civil rights movement. We threatened to boycott Alabama cargo when Dr King was in Birmingham jail. During the rise of right-wing military regimes in Latin America and Asia, we also boycotted those countries. In the ’90s we had a one day shutdown to demand Mumia Abu-Jamal be released. In 2008, we very famously had a shutdown on May Day to protest the war in Iraq. Our longest action, starting in the 1960s, was in solidarity with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In 1984, workers refused to handle South African cargo for eleven days. There were massive raucus picket lines.
“This year we shut it down for Juneteenth [in solidarity with Black Lives Matter]. The idea of political strikes is something of a rarity in US history, but it can be done.”
Dawn Tefft, graduate workers’ organiser:
“Even if your worksite isn’t part of the country’s basic infrastructure, the job of workers is to disrupt work in any way they can. We need to disrupt the delivery of goods and services. People need to walk out of their jobs with their co-workers and fill the streets. If the message we send is business as usual and fill the streets at night, there is a strong chance the wrong people will still win.
“People don’t generally think of grad unions as heavy hitters, but it was grad workers who organised the action in Wisconsin [in the 2011 uprising for workers’ rights] that resulted in everyone else coming out. It’s possible that workers, unionised or not, and whether their workplaces are seen as heavy hitters or not, can be helpful in sparking action others can join. We need people to take action regardless of who starts it. We need action everywhere.”
More from the US left:
• How to fight a coup: the role of the workers' movement
• Short of a general strike, how can labour stop Trump stealing the election?
• Unions are beginning to talk about staving off a possible coup
• 10 things you need to know to stop a coup
• How workers can help defeat a Trump coup
• Unions are starting discussions of how to resist a Trump coup