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Sara Nelson, International President of the Flight Attendants Association, talks to Dharna Noor at Netroots Nation 2019

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DHARNA NOOR: ‘m here at Netroots Nation 2019 with one of the keynote speakers of this event. I’m here with Sara Nelson, who is the International President of the association of flight attendants, who has been using her platform in the labor movement to advocate for not only labor rights, but also for immigration reform and climate reform. And that’s why we’re here to talk today. Thank you so much for being here.

SARA NELSON: It’s great. Happy to be.

DHARNA NOOR: So I want to talk to you first about some of the advocacy that you’ve been doing around the Green New Deal. Of course, there’s been a bit of a split in the labor movement around the call for more climate action. The AFL-CIO, of course, sent an open letter denouncing the Green New Deal to Senator Ed Markey and Representative AOC. But you and a couple of other major unions have backed the Green New Deal. Could you talk about that split a bit, and what it would mean for the labor movement to wholeheartedly get on board with the push for climate action?

SARA NELSON: Well, first of all, I think it’s really, really important that much of this has been reported by those in a political position just to be in opposition to AOC and Senator Markey, to say that there is a real split in the labor movement. There really isn’t a split in the labor movement. Here’s the issue: all of the labor movement has recognized that climate catastrophe is coming our way. And all of the labor movement has recognized that any policy that moves forward to address environmental issues needs to include good jobs, good union protections, and an economy that works for everyone. So on that, on the basic principles that the Green New Deal, there is a lot of agreement. Now, we have specifically endorsed the Green New Deal in our union, and the reason for that is because it’s not the solutions to climate change that are the job-killer, it’s climate change itself that’s the job killer.

Everything that we do we root in our workplace. So we’re not just getting involved with a political issue just to get involved with a political issue or take sides, it’s always about how it matters to our members and our workspace. And for flight attendants, with the change in climate, there is increased clear air turbulence; that is a major occupational hazard. And every time there is an event of severe weather, planes stay on the ground. When planes stay on the ground, we can’t do our jobs. And that means, ultimately, that we are not going to have jobs to be able to provide for our families. So all of labor recognizes that this is a problem. How we go about solving it and different levels of skepticism around what policymakers will do to solve it are natural, because environmental policies previously did not include any protections for labor.

But the reason that we support the Green New Deal is because it is replete with protections for labor, with good jobs, with ensuring that there are good jobs, ensuring that everyone who wants to work can have a good job, ensuring that we all have access to health care as a right. These are all the issues that our union is fighting for anyway. And with a resolution like the Green New Deal setting the priorities for our government as they are shaping environmental policy, we want to make sure that those are first and foremost on the agenda for policymakers. And so, not all environmental policy is equal, but the Green New Deal does set clear policy that is good for workers.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. I’d have to say it’s pretty incredible to see a platform of this stature that’s being discussed with such a wide platform call for something like a just transition. And it occurs to me, thinking about that, that that just transition isn’t, of course, just for mine workers or for folks who work on oil rigs as it’s sort of traditionally conceived of, but could also have implications for folks who work on, for instance, airlines, because the aviation industry has sort of a disproportionately high climate impact. Talk about what that sort of climate policy would mean for folks in your industry, and how either we could sort of advocate for just transitions, or advocate for both, or advocate for the aviation industry to sort of steer away from using so many fossil fuels.

SARA NELSON: Well first and foremost I think that we have to recognize that just transition is a phrase that many union members are very skeptical of. So if we want to get serious about having people believe that we want to put together a policy with a just transition, we have to do things today that keep the promises that we’ve made today. So take, for example, the mineworkers’ pensions. It wasn’t just promised by their companies. Our government said, “If you’re going to go underground and risk your life, and be subject to black lung disease, and be subject to potentially losing your life in that mine, and you are going to power our nation, then we are going to make sure that you have secure healthcare and pensions for the rest of your life.” And guess what? Now with these mine bankruptcies, the miners are facing a destruction of their retirement security and their healthcare.

And so, this is a promise that we made. If we’re going to have people believing that we’re gonna be putting together policy and we’re gonna have everyone come to the table and talk about that, we need to make good on the promises that we’ve already made. And that brings me to a second point here. The reason that we are so outspoken about this, and endorsing the Green New Deal, is because we believe that you do not wait for someone to ask you to come to the table. You have to pull up that seat yourself. And if there is not a chair, bring a folding chair; get involved. And so, that is why we are endorsing it up front to make it very clear: the policies and the priorities that must be set by policymakers for us to approve of environmental policy to address climate change. We must address it. It is hurtling for us. It is a major existential threat to all of us. But we can use this opportunity to shape a world that works better for everyone in this country, because this country is not working for workers today.

So let’s make a shift in the way that we are doing business, and put together a just transition for everyone who’s going to have to learn a new job, where we have a continuation of income for them and we have jobs that meet the same standard of living that that they had before in their previous jobs. We can put together a program that spends enough to put these policies in place, that puts the infrastructure in place, that makes a thriving economy, that brings so much more back into our economy and makes us all better for it. So that is what’s possible and that’s what has to be done. But we have to understand that there is a huge amount of skepticism. We have to take steps to bring people along, and those of us who are ready to step up the table need to do it now.

DHARNA NOOR: And of course, this doesn’t just impact folks living and working here in United States. You’ve also been a vocal advocate for calling for an end to the Muslim ban. And obviously, the climate crisis has huge implications for the immigration crisis, will create millions more refugees. Talk about that sort of relationship and why climate action is needed to sort of uplift folks not only here, but workers and others in other places.

SARA NELSON: Well, again, we focus everything that we do in our workplace, and our workplaces is on planes. And aviation is a symbol of freedom. We fly to every corner of the earth when some can only dream of crossing borders. So we know these communities, and we also know that we only have the freedom to do this because our country has been seen as a champion for human rights. So if we are not holding up human rights in this country, if we’re not taking steps to address the egregious actions against humanity–and that includes understanding what has happened in our African-American community as we’re unearthing this, we need to take steps to make reparations and to make everyone whole. And if we are not doing that, we are going to lose our standing in the world to be able to fly to the rest of the world, to be able to continue to do what we do. So this is at the heart of what flight attendants do every single day.

Beyond that, we have very specific examples of flight attendants who hold passports from many different countries and are able to do their job. They pass all kinds of background checks. They are certified in their work. And to have someone arbitrarily change the rules on them while they’re in the middle of the flight, and then be held at an airport in the course of doing their job–this is what happened to flight attendants when these unconstitutional policies came down. So we know that because this has affected our members, we leave no one behind. If you’ve been a member of our union for five minutes or thirty years, your union stands with you, and that is the way we approach everything. And the reality is that we have many members who have been affected by these policies, and we have our jobs on the whole threatened if we do not see that we are standing up for freedom for everyone. We won’t be able to continue to fly everywhere and we won’t be able to continue to have the good jobs that we have today, or the ability to fight for even better jobs.

DHARNA NOOR: Absolutely. And on that note, you have been fighting, of course, for even better jobs not just for flight attendants, but for others who work on the airlines. Right now, thousands of folks who work to prepare airlines’ food are threatening to go on strike. And I believe that you’re actually speaking at a rally later this month. The Real News has been following the story, and today one worker actually told us that he’s worked at the same company preparing meals at BWI for thirty-one years, and he still makes twelve dollars an hour. Talk about that fight and why you’re using your platform to uplift that fight.

SARA NELSON: So look, these catering jobs are jobs that used to be directly employed by the airlines. They were union jobs. They were good jobs. They were outsourced. Thankfully, UNITE HERE, teamsters, and some other unions have organized these workers and are now taking on the issue of raising the standards for them. Because their working conditions are abysmal; their wages are abysmal. I’ve been to their workplace, the safety standards are abysmal. This is an issue that affects us, also, on the planes. Even though they work in buildings that flight attendants can’t see, the food that they are preparing comes on our planes. And when we get together and talk about what’s happening in the catering facilities, and then the same carts that come to our airplanes–and sometimes they are so busy and stressed so much about moving carts through that they move broken carts through that come back to our planes that cause injuries on the job for us.

We’re all connected here. We can’t say that just because we can’t see a worker who’s working somewhere else is somehow separate from us. What they’re doing and what’s happening for them in that facility is affecting us on the plane. And ultimately, if their conditions are bad enough–and I’ve seen them in some cases– then that can affect the safety of the health of the food on the plane for the passengers. So this is something that we have to all take on together. And if we allow that injustice to go on when we know the conditions that these people are working in and we know what has been done–for more stock buybacks to go to Wall Street, and that’s what this is about–we have to stand up and say no. We have to say one job is enough, and we have to say that it is no longer OK that you can’t afford to pay your workers a living wage so that you can have a few people get rich off of millions and billions of dollars in stock buybacks that do nothing to invest, again, in the airline that’s creating that value, or even the customers and the passengers who fly with us on that airline.

So we believe that this fight for the catering workers is also a fight for us. And there are flight attendants who are defined as being worth less who work on regional airlines, which is directly analogous to the fight in the kitchens. So flight attendants identify this both from a safety and health perspective, but also because there are flight attendants who are undercut by the same misclassification, by the same segregation that has gone on in the airline industry to define some jobs as less than others. And so, we have to stand up and say no, that’s not okay. Their fight is absolutely our fight.

DHARNA NOOR: My last question is–of course, we’re in the middle of a tense presidential primary. Could you just tell us in a few words what a president could do to make labor a day one priority, to prioritize the rights of workers?

SARA NELSON: Well, a day one priority would be repealing all of these executive orders that have stripped the rights of the federal unions. That has to happen on day one, and that president needs to set a policy that is worker-focused on day one, repealing Taft-Hartley, and having real labor law in this country that allows every single worker in this country to join a union, bargain for that agreement, and do that without any interference from their employers.

DHARNA NOOR: Thank you so much.

SARA NELSON: Thank you.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.