During the chaos that transpired from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019, in the most recent government shutdown, two speeches by a woman named Sara Nelson, our Truthdigger of the Month, spread like wildfire across the internet.

On Jan. 20, as she accepted the 2019 MLK Drum Major for Justice Award from the AFL-CIO, Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA), called for a general strike and questioned why the labor movement was missing in action during this crucial time for 800,000 federal workers.

“Almost a million workers are locked out or being forced to work without pay. Others are going to work when our workspace is increasingly unsafe,” Nelson said. “What is the Labor Movement waiting for?”

“Federal sector unions have their hands full caring for the 800,000 federal workers who are at the tip of the spear,” she went on. “Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, what are you willing to do? Their destiny is tied up with our destiny—and they don’t even have time to ask us for help. Don’t wait for an invitation. … Go back with the fierce urgency of now to talk with your local and international unions about all workers joining together—to end this shutdown with a general strike.

“We can do this. Together. Si se puede. Every gender, race, culture, and creed. The American labor movement. We have the power. And to all Americans—We’ve got your back!”

Days later, speaking to another crowd in front of the Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., Nelson passionately highlighted the security dangers flight attendants—and anyone on a plane—during this period were facing while federal workers, including air traffic controllers, worked without pay.

“Many of these people are our veterans,” she said in her Jan. 24 speech. “Many of these people are fighting for our country right now, and we are not paying them.” When several air traffic controllers chose to abstain from unpaid work the next day, forcing flights to stay grounded in several busy airports, suddenly the Trump administration had an added incentive to reopen government as fast as humanly possible, proving the power workers have always held.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reportedly credited Nelson with helping shut down the shutdown, telling her, “Between you and me, that’s what ended the shutdown. … When planes looked like they weren’t taking off.” But he wasn’t the only one who saw the role the rising labor movement star had played in those crucial days.

Nelson started organizing and intimidating corporate bosses not unlike President Trump long before she made national headlines during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. A United Airlines flight attendant since 1996, Nelson became the head of the AFA-CWA in 2014 after holding several positions at the union, including vice president. Her activism began almost as soon as she started working at United, and has continued throughout her tenure there as she’s helped negotiate better terms for pensions, among other labor improvements, not just for her fellow United flight attendants, but for the 50,000 members of the AFA-CWA who work at 20 airlines.

Now, Nelson has been tapped for the head job of the American labor movement, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), despite the fact the current president, Richard Trumka, still has a couple of years left in his term. The flight attendant turned union president and fervent activist is a far cry from the American labor leaders we’ve seen in the past few decades, and that’s precisely why so many people, including her, want her to lead labor in the upcoming years. Already, she’s been called “the most powerful labor leader in the country.

Not only does Nelson have the passion and presence sorely lacking in other labor leaders—who, for instance, can remember a single speech by Trumka?—she’s willing to fight at the frontlines—not just for workers in her unions, but for all American workers—on a number of crucial issues.

The AFA-CWA president has testified before Congress about the sexual harassment still rampant in her industry, and has also thrown her support behind activism across the nation, including teachers’ strikes in California, Wyoming and West Virginia, General Motors workers protesting stagnant wages, and, most recently, the global climate strike inspired by Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg.

Nelson is also an outspoken proponent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, stating her support stems from the proposal’s focus on the need to address both the very real climate crisis before us, along with better labor conditions and the creation of jobs.

When 2020 Democratic front-runners Biden and Sanders debated the Vermont senator’s Medicare for All bill, with Biden saying Sanders’ policy would fly in the face of union accomplishments, Nelson was clear where she stood:

Nelson faces an uphill battle toward the leadership position she seems to have been born to take on. Since its formation after a merger in 1955, the AFL-CIO, which boasts 12.5 million members and is made up of 55 unions, has never had a woman in the top office. The labor leader is also facing stiff competition from the AFL-CIO’s secretary treasurer, Liz Shuler, who’s also likely to run.

But adversity is something Nelson is familiar with. As a woman, she has been consistently underestimated and discriminated against, even harassed, by men in any number of work situations. As she fights for women’s rights and workers’ rights, the Oregon native will not be cowed, no matter the challenge. Her rising profile is evidence of this, if nothing else.

The AFA-CWA president’s main inspiration for possibly running came after Trump was elected after running a campaign that fed off blue-collar workers’ discontent.

“Trump took up so much of the airwaves because he was off-script,” Nelson said. Unions, stuck in a defensive crouch, barely participated in the conversation. “If we had someone who could bring a different vision of what a union leader is,” she said, “it could have been a moment that was really powerful.”

Nelson, by all accounts, embodies that “different vision,” and with signs that the American labor movement is on the rise, there is no one better to take the lead than this strong, passionate woman who is a great speaker, has earned her progressive chops as a worker, activist and union leader, and understands the vital truth about the U.S. economy: Workers have all the power, as long as they have each other’s backs.

Since we just celebrated Labor Day in September, we have decided to make Sara Nelson our Truthdigger of the Month—for all she has done and will do for American workers.

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.