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Sarah Nelson and Joe Burns speak at Labor Notes conference in Chicago

By Tom Burke |
June 19, 2022
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Sarah Nelson (left) and Joe Burns (right).
Sarah Nelson (left) and Joe Burns (right). (Fight Back! News/staff)

Chicago, IL—Sarah Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, spoke on a panel with labor negotiator and author Joe Burns. They discussed how to fight the big corporate firms in the transportation sector in talk titled “Using the Railway Labor Act to Our Advantage.” They highlighted how different labor laws for the transportation sector benefit their ability to lead the flight attendant union in struggle with big corporate owners. 

Joe Burns explained, “Railway workers formed one of the most militant unions in our history, shutting down the whole country with strikes in 1877, 1886, 1895 and 1922. Following each national strike, the U.S. Congress passed labor laws to regulate union activity and stop its effectiveness.” 

It was from this that the Railroad Labor Act was passed in 1926 and amended in 1934, covering airline workers in 1936. This set of laws allows the government to interfere with transportation unions, favoring owners at every turn. 

“From the 1930s, railways and airlines held strikes frequently, until 1970. In recent years it became worse and worse, with new legislation, the big companies can now drag out negotiations and force unions to delay strikes. By the 1990s the number of strikes took a nosedive,” said Burns. 

Sarah Nelson spoke to the big room of labor activists, “We have been aggressively asserting our right to strike, but how did we push forward bargaining under the existing laws?” 

She answered, “We started CHAOS or Create Havoc Around Our System.” 

Nelson continued, “Our strategy is to launch intermittent strikes with the element of surprise, so bosses and the media do not know when or where an action will happen. In this scenario management cannot use replacement workers, and some strikes only last for 20 minutes at an airline.”

With one Alaska Airline strike, bookings dropped 20%. Sometimes the union would wait six to nine months to strike, but airfares still dropped because of the uncertainty of flight attendants striking a single flight. The bosses also trained everyone in the management offices on how to be flight attendants. They even put them on flights. It did not matter when ticket sales dropped. 

Nelson explained further, “Then the flight attendants union voted to strike at United Airlines when they tried to take our pensions away. These strikes captured the imagination of the public and the media.”

“Now, we don’t worry about being released by the government to strike. We pummel the carriers and management the whole time. We have a right to strike and the right to secondary solidarity boycotts,” said Nelson, explaining how their strategy is different than most unions. 

Burns followed up, “The Taft-Hartley Act made solidarity strikes illegal, but under the railways labor act, it states that solidarity strikes, and intermittent strikes are protected. By taking a strike vote, you pull members into the contract fight, and send a message that they are behind the bargaining team. With a strike vote, you also get the attention of the national corporations or top management.”

“My first book is called Reviving the Strike. It talks about the courts and Congress taking away our right to strike. Judges came in and filed sweeping injunctions. In Alabama, they outlawed all picketing during one strike. Judges use their injunction power to cripple unions,” said Burns. 

Burns finished, “My second book is called Strike Back, about union organizing lessons of the past. Over 15 years, millions went out on illegal strikes. The slogan was, ‘There is no such thing as an illegal strike, just an unsuccessful strike.’”

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