Rising Labor leader Nelson targets tiered contracts, corporate greed at Mother Jones dinner


Illinois Correspondent

SARA NELSON, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, used an old music stand as her podium as she spoke at the Mother Jones Dinner. – Labor Tribune photo

Springfield, IL – One of the nation’s rising Labor leaders, Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), honored Mother Jones at the annual dinner here by declaring Labor “has had it” with tiered contracts.

Nelson, the AFA international president, was the keynote speaker at the annual Mother Jones Dinner following an introduction by another national figure, United Mine Workers International President Cecil Roberts.

A boisterous crowd of about 300 nearly filled the hall at Erin’s Pavilion in Southwind Park for the 35th annual dinner sponsored by the Springfield-based Mother Jones Foundation. The Wildflower Conspiracy – Erin O’Toole and Dale Hanabarger of Greenville, IL – once again provided the hell-raising music.

Nelson came to prominence with her strong opposition to President Trump’s federal government shutdown last year, warning of the dangers of not paying airport workers and suggesting a general strike in response. She has been credited with helping bring the shutdown to an end.

“The strongest voice to end that government shutdown wasn’t a Congressman, it wasn’t a senator, it was the president of AFA who ended that government shutdown,” Roberts said in introducing Nelson. “She said, ‘We’ll shut this country down if we have to because we’re not going to work for nothing.’ Somebody suggested that she might become president of the AFL-CIO. I think she ought to be president of the United States of America!”

Nelson touched on the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors, noting how one of the key sticking points in the negotiations – GM’s two-tiered system relegating newer employees to lesser status despite the company’s huge profits – was an untenable situation that is far too prevalent in America.

“If management can weaken the power of a single worker, it means that we are all weakened, too,” she said.

It’s the same as company efforts to pit groups of workers against each other, she added.

“Racism, sexism, homophobia – these are the tactics of the bosses to keep us divided, to make us believe we are in competition with each other, but it’s not true,” she said. “Workers are done with it, and I’m done with it. And today, we’re telling the owner class that we’re all done with it.”

Nelson ran through a list employee groups facing economic discrimination in the workplace including:

  • Adjunct faculty and researchers, who provide vital educational services on starvation wages with no benefits or job security.
  • Amazon warehouse and delivery workers who must do their jobs in dangerous, dehumanizing conditions.
  • Airline workers such as those at Horizon Air who make 45 percent less in salary because their employers are classified as regional carriers.
  • Walmart employees who are limited to 29 hours a week so the company does not have to provide health care benefits.
  • Ride-share drivers mislabeled as independent contractors instead of being considered employees.

“Solidarity – and the courage of working people – is the greatest force for good in humanity,” Nelson said. “So let’s use it and spread the word that the Labor Movement belongs to all working people and that all workers deserve dignity.

“We need to spread the word that unions are for everyone. Women, young people and people of color join unions and run unions. We need their vision, passion, creativity and leadership. Our immigrant workers were the original members of the United Mine Workers, who said to hell with the boss for trying to keep us separated so we can’t talk to one another.

“When one of us dies in the mine, it doesn’t matter where we came from or what skin color we have. We’re in this together.”

The great Labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother Jones” knew this, Nelson said, when she called on the coal miners’ wives to bring their mops, pails and brooms to literally assault scabs being used to break a hard-fought strike.

“Mother Jones said, ‘I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser. No matter what the fight, don’t be lady-like.’ She wasn’t afraid to break convention, and we can’t be either,” Nelson said.

“The ruling class puts rules in place – stability and decorum – to hold us back,” she added. “They give us just enough to make us think we have something real to lose. If we’re not willing to break the rules, they will continue to take until there’s nothing left.”


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Mine Workers’ Cecil Roberts: Welcome to the fight!

Speaking at the Mother Jones Foundation’s annual dinner in Springfield, Ill., Cecil Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers, called on the Labor Movement to become more militant in fighting for its members, saying his own union has set a good example.

“We were the most militant union in this country in 1890, and I want to report to you that we’re still the most militant union and we’re going to stay that way,” he said.

“I cannot tell you how many UMW retirees and their wives and their kids and grandkids have gotten on buses for the last 10 years to go to Congress and fight for our pensions and fight for our health care – and we have been successful,” he said. “When people say you can’t make the government do something, I say this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and we need to start acting like it. We need to start making these politicians stand up and pay attention to us.”

Roberts cited the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for being fearless in civil disobedience.

“Dr. King said if you don’t have something that you would die for, you don’t have a life worth living,” Roberts said. “So when you leave here tonight, start thinking about what you would give your life for, and I’m not talking about your kids and your family members. He said some thing, and for him it was freedom and civil rights. He was only on the public stage for 13 years, and look what he did in that short time.

“So the challenge for you tonight is if you have not been to jail for justice, we welcome you to the fight! There’s nothing more invigorating than to go to jail with somebody there for the same cause you are.”


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