Meet the Women Leading Today’s Labor Movement
This Labor Day, the U.S. is battling a pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of more than 187,000 U.S. residents and millions of lost jobs. The crisis has necessitated those deemed “essential workers” to continue to risk their lives every day, but the U.S. Senate has yet to pass the HEROES Act, which would provide frontline workers with the resources and safety nets they need to continue to do their jobs.
This weekend, we honor these workers, who continue to put themselves in danger, even without these resources. We spoke to women who are leaders in their unions and in the labor movement to talk about why, this Labor Day, we need to stand up for the frontline workers who took care of us far before this pandemic started and will be here to take care of us when it ends.
Below, meet some of the women who are advocating for change.
A-jen Poo, Co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
Over the past six months, the U.S. seems to have a newfound appreciation for domestic workers, but Ai-jen Poo, and all of her colleagues at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, know these workers have always been heroes — and, as they always do, are working to amplify that reality.
On September 6, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) honored essential workers with a livestream event that launched a movement to protect essential workers in states and cities across the country, Poo told Supermajority News. In May, the House passed the Heroes Act, which would provide essential workers with the resources they need to work safely. But the Senate has still failed to pass the legislation.
“Essential workers can’t wait; they’re out here every day,” Poo said. “I think about all the care workers who are in our movement who, they’ve been working from day one. Homecare workers, for example, have been supporting people who are most vulnerable to the virus, older people, people with disabilities, have just been a lifeline to food and medication and frankly human contact for the entire span of the pandemic.”
Poo has been the director of the NDWA since 2010. In her ten years in that role, she’s learned that many people think essential workers look like a “white man who goes to work in a factory or does construction.” She continued: “The fact is that the working class is multiracial and is a ton of women and women of color and service workers who are essential, but we’ve undervalued them. Low wage service jobs have been the jobs that have been driving our economy workers, but service jobs have just not been valued or protected adequately.”
She added that she hopes there is new visibility around the fact that people are losing their homes and unable to find proper childcare for their kids while the wealthy still profit during an economic downturn and global pandemic. As we go to the polls this November, Poo says she hopes voters keep domestic workers front and center on their minds.
“I hope that [voters] really know that the future of jobs and the economy and our families is on the ballot. The fact that really whether or not we have an economic recovery plan that allows for us to not only get back to work but–not get back to work the way it was before–but actually get back to work in a way that resets our economy for this era and really does keep us safe and keep us resilient from the next crisis that may come.”
Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), has long been a leader in fighting for the rights of her fellow flight attendants; She leads a union that represents 50,000 members across 20 airlines. As The New York Times reported in February 2019, some know her as “America’s most powerful flight attendant.”
These days, Nelson is up against a much bigger fight in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. United Airlines, where she has worked since 1996, has announced plans to cut 16,370 jobs by October 1. American Airlines and Delta have also announced layoffs. As soon as she saw the pandemic hit, Nelson knew she and the other union leaders could not wait to step in. On March 22, she wrote a piece for The Atlantic that outlined a plan that eventually led to a $32 billion relief package for airline workers.
On her first day on the job as a United Airlines flight attendant at 23 years old, she watched two longtime flight attendants challenge the company over their contracts.
“One of them pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, management thinks of us as their wives or their mistresses; in either case, they hold us in contempt. Your only place of worth is with your fellow flying partners, and if you wear your union pin and we stick together, there’s nothing we can’t do.’ I remember being moved by the solidarity message in that, but also being like ‘Whoa, that’s a lot to take at 23…come to find out, it was true.’”
After 9/11 hit the airline industry hard and thousands of employees lost their jobs overnight, Nelson said she got really involved as a union leader. In 2002, she became the chief of communications for the AFA-CWA United chapter, and in 2014, she became president. While Nelson has kept her certification as a flight attendant, she dedicates her work to ensuring the rights of the flight attendants who are flying every day.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on in America, Nelson is aware this is a crucial moment for the labor movement.
The best, most “direct route” to take now, according to Nelson, is to “elect representatives who are more inclined to be responsive” to creating an environment in which laborers will thrive. “The other route would be fighting the revolution in a fascist state. One way or the other, labor is going to rise up.”
“Women are taking charge, and my main charge whenever I get anywhere, is ‘women, join unions and run unions,” she said. “This is a legal, sustained right, and we need to grab it and own it and run it and use it.”
She hopes that this pandemic helps people realize that these workers are what keeps this country going.
Montserrat Garibay, Secretary-Treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO
For Monsterrat Garibay, the purpose of Labor Day isn’t to have picnics or take advantage of sales; it’s about recognizing the labor movement that has made eight-hour workdays, sick leave, vacation days, and healthcare possible — and recognizing that workers still often don’t have those benefits. It’s especially about truly seeing and appreciating the workers, many of whom are immigrants, who risk their lives every day to take care of others.
Garibay immigrated to the U.S. 28 years ago, at 11 years old. At the time, she didn’t speak a word of English, and she told Supermajority News, she was “very scared.” Her English teacher, Mrs. Hernandez, taught Garibay that she could achieve her dreams in her new country, and with that inspiring teacher in mind, Garibay became a pre-k educator, and eight years later, the vice president of Education Austin.
Now, in her role at Texas AFL-CIO, Garibay advocates for union workers all across her state, but she has never forgotten what she learned as a teacher. She remembers working with children whose parents were deported. As a former undocumented immigrant, she could relate to this fear; her mother often warned her not to speak up too much or get noticed, fearing that it could lead to deportation. Garibay knows that, as a teacher, your career and the rights of your students are on the ballot.
“Many people say, ‘teachers are teaching. They are not political. I say, ‘Yeah, teachers are political.’ Teachers advocate for their kids when they show up to their class…without housing. As a teacher, you are political because you are going to the counselor, going to the nurse, trying to get them the resources they need so they can learn.”
She also knows that stories are effective. For example, she said, when someone meets their child’s bus driver and learns that that driver is going to work without health insurance, they’ll think of that person when they cast their vote.
“Years from now, our children and grandchildren are gonna ask us, ‘where were you when the election happened?,’ she said. “I know that union members want to say that they were there for their sisters and brothers, that they were organizing.”
Garibay has hope that the collective voice of the working class will vote to make a change in November.
“When I first came to the U.S., I thought it was very welcoming to immigrants …I just hope that we go back to that, instead of having someone as the president who mocks a disabled person or who says that Mexicans are racist and like animals. That hurts, and now that I’m a U.S. citizen, it hurts a lot. But I know that the U.S. can be a kind place for people, regardless of all the problems that there are.”
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers
When teachers in the U.S. first came up against the coronavirus pandemic in March, Randi Weingarten watched as the 1.7 million members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) did what they could to make sure their students and their families were equipped for their lives to be upended in a manner of days.
“They figured it out,” she said during a call on Friday. “They figured out how to create resources…they sat on their lawns and read kids books. They engaged their students for months and months and months to protect them, to make them feel they’d be OK.”
This Labor Day, Weingarten hopes people remember all the hard work these teachers have done and continue to do as schools struggle with remote, hybrid, and/or in-person learning. She said she counts Labor Day as one of “[her] most favorite days of the year,” because “it is the only day in the calendar that actually recognizes the people who do the work, the people of the middle class, the people who built America.”
It’s Weingarten’s job to be a champion of teachers, and right now, she’s worried. She’s worried that, under the current president, the professionals in her union will continue to have to depend on their own out-of-pocket funds to make do during a pandemic. She’s worried they won’t get the support they need to be sure their students can learn and grow in a remote, at-home learning environment. She added that this November’s election is about much more than a Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence ticket; it’s about the survival of democracy in this country.
“Our lives depend on this election, and we need to act and vote as if they do…What the nurses and educators and people who work for others, people who are members of my union, what we need right now is leadership that believes in this country, that believes that our better days are in front of us,” she said.