The Union Makes U.S. Strong with Sara Nelson | Crooked Media
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May 06, 2021
What A Day
The Union Makes U.S. Strong with Sara Nelson

In This Episode

  • Tomorrow, the National Labor Relations Board is set to hold a hearing into the failed unionization vote of workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, with the union that sought to represent the workers alleging foul-play. We spoke with Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, about the hearing, and the state of the labor movement in the U.S. more generally. Nelson has been a lead figure in supporting Amazon workers and unions across the country.
  • And in headlines: the Biden administration will support waiving patent protections of the COVID-19 vaccines, a judge strikes down the CDC’s moratorium on evictions, and a farmer does landscaper’s diplomacy on the Franco-Belgian border.




Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, May 6th. I’m Akilah Hughes


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, where we’re looking forward to working from the office, and by office we mean swimming pool.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. And by working, we mean not working. [laughs] On today’s show, a look forward to the future of labor:


[clip of Sara Nelson] The evidence against Amazon in this investigation and review about whether or not to order another election is extremely clear and fulsom.


Akilah Hughes: That’s Sara Nelson, head of the union, the Association of Flight Attendants, who has been a lead figure in supporting Amazon workers and unions across the country. Tomorrow, the National Labor Relations Board, or the NLRB, is set to hold a hearing into the failed unionization vote of the workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The union that sought to represent them will make the case that Amazon did several things to interfere with the final result. And if the board agrees, there could be a do over.


Gideon Resnick: That’s right. And before we knew this hearing would definitely happen, I spoke to Nelson a couple of weeks ago about the prospect of another vote here, the future of unions more broadly in America—but also what she saw Amazon was doing on the ground before that first vote took place in Alabama.


[clip of Sara Nelson] They put a mailbox on company property. I saw it myself with the tent around it saying vote here with cameras trained on that and supervisors talking to people at work and calling them at home and telling them they need to bring their ballots to work and vote. None of that is OK. And the idea behind union organizing, the concept behind that under the law, is that companies are not supposed to interfere. There are supposed to be a free and fair right for an employee to choose whether or not they want to organize in their workplace and collectively bargain.


Akilah Hughes: That’s very true. So when it comes to tomorrow’s hearing with the NLRB, what should we be watching for?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so Nelson walked me through a couple of the steps, but also basically explained some of the tactics that Amazon used before the vote that were really just appalling to her as well. Some of what Nelson said will be familiar territory, given what we’ve heard from a pro-union employee who has been on the show before.


[clip of Sara Nelson] The NLRB will conduct an investigation and they will determine all of the things that Amazon did during the course of the election. And it’s possible that other things could be identified. The union did a good job of detailing all of the issues that the workers faced and that retaliation and the threats of moving those jobs somewhere else, putting pressure not only on those workers, but on the community around that, all of that stuff, they do it because it works. So the union will continue to organize. The union picked up a lot of momentum towards the end of this campaign. Think about this: the workers started to organize in the summer, they announced a campaign in earnest in October—well before the presidential election—and there was a real desire to have representation there. What Amazon did was they ramped up right away. The first thing they did was inflate the numbers in that warehouse. So they hired almost 3x as many workers as the union thought that they were originally organizing. That inflation of numbers then also was a whole new group of people that they had hired. And the the company set about all the union-busting tactics inside that warehouse that are just so incredibly textbook, pitting people against each other by age, and trying to make people feel like they’re doing something wrong if they’re supporting the union.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, that seems like a pretty tough place to work. And as this is happening, there’s been a push for Congress to pass the PRO Act, which would strengthen workers ability to unionize. We talked about that a little while ago, and President Biden also mentioned it again in his address to Congress last week. So where does that stand?


Gideon Resnick: Well, like a lot of legislation, it passed the House, but it faces a Senate that is ruled by the filibuster, and also three Democrats who don’t currently support it. Those are: Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Kelly, and Mark Warner.


Akilah Hughes: No, not the astronaut Mark Kelly.


Gideon Resnick: Yup.


Akilah Hughes: NASA doesn’t unionize? He just went to space on his own. [laughs] He doesn’t believe in a collective work.


Gideon Resnick: I, yeah, that could not have been a solo mission entirely. But, you know, that’s, that’s what it is. Though the project has gained momentum: Senator Joe Manchin voiced support last month for it, and earlier this week, the players’ unions for the major sports leagues joined together to state that they backed its passage as well. And Sarah Nelson told me that she thinks that both the coverage about the Amazon Union vote, and how the pandemic kind of exacerbated inequality and left many people struggling financially, those—factors might be good for the push for unions overall.


[clip of Sara Nelson] It’s the activity in the workplaces that is growing political power. So it’s the activity in the Amazon warehouse that is growing political power. There was a national discussion about that. The president of the United States spoke up about these rights and has been very clear that the PRO Act is something that needs to happen, not only to address all of the inequities in our society and our economy, but also to protect the very nature of democracy—because when people are in unions, they’re more likely to be engaged in democracy in the public square as well. So the fact that we’re talking about this, the fact that the experience that we just went through with coronavirus and really laying bare all of the problems in our economy and in our social networks, have to be addressed. And the only way they’re going to be addressed is if people have more power. And the way to get more power is to organize in their workplace because when they do that, not only do they have the ability to speak in greater numbers, but they’re also bargaining with capital. And in many cases, when they bargain, and when they force these companies to come to the table with them and improve conditions, then what you do is you actually get those companies on your side for the political battles, too.


Akilah Hughes: Mm hmm. So it sounds like from her perspective, we’re starting to see the resurgence of unions in America, and particularly who might be in a union or just be willing to organize at all, period.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that’s the hope, at least for sure. And leading up to this point, there’s been a decades-long decline in union membership due in no small part to federal and state legislation, and the Supreme Court. As of 2020 14.3 million people belong to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those union members earn more than their non-union colleagues. And we’ve seen in the last few years that major labor movements have emerged among auto workers, teachers and more, with some of the larger strikes that we’ve actually seen in years. And even when they can’t formally organize, workers in sectors like grocery stores, Silicon Valley, or in the media have found ways in recent months and years to band together for better rights and better pay. So Sara Nelson thinks we’ll be seeing more organizing efforts in the future, and says that it’s really important that legislation like the PRO Act gets passed to make it easier for those workers to actually flex their power together, actually get a contract, and prevent the kind of interference that we see from employers like Amazon.


[clip of Sara Nelson] I think the shared experience coming out of coronavirus especially, is giving that a lot of fuel. But we can’t just take it for granted. We are in a different moment here, where we’ve got politicians actually trying to learn more about labor, rather than doing tired, old, decades old applause lines about labor that they don’t understand. I do see new life here. I see groups who are making this central. I see the environmental justice groups understanding that they have got to put labor organizing central to their mission. That is a huge change. There are these growing coalitions who understand that we’re not going to have a democracy, we’re not going to move forward on any of the major issues of our time if we don’t build our unions. Racial justice depends on building unions. And we need to make sure that we’re redefining what people think union members are. They’re anyone who works. And those, those ideas are starting to take shape, and people are starting to take ownership of the fact that unions are not a club. This is something that is available to every working person in this country. And, wow, that’s a powerful thing.


Gideon Resnick: It is, and that is Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants.


Akilah Hughes: We’ll follow up on the results of tomorrow’s hearing by the National Labor Relations Board, which could potentially invalidate the failed vote to unionize the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. And that’s the latest for now.


Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we’re talking about carefree days gone by: New York City’s Department of Education announced this Tuesday that instead of taking snow days off in the coming academic year, schools will respond to extreme weather by going virtual. Yuck. This will ensure students get the 180 days of school year that are mandated by the state. Plus, now that schools have shown that remote learning can work, they have no reason not to do it. Of course, this may come across as vaguely scrooge-y to kids who like sledding, snowball fights, or other forms of wintertime wonder. So Giddy, what’s your reaction to this as someone who did at one point go to school?


Gideon Resnick: I did at one point go to school. That’s very true. [laughs]


Akilah Hughes: I’ve heard that you were there at a school one time.


Gideon Resnick: I thank you for following up with my teachers. I am like everyone else, I loved snow days. I mean, even if you didn’t actually go outside and experience the snow, the whole fun of it is the fact that you’re not doing work.


Akilah Hughes: Totally. Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: You’re not looking at a, you wouldn’t be looking at a screen and being like: ah, my algebra test, I have to figure this out like, while, you know, wonderful snow is coming down.


Akilah Hughes: Exactly.


Gideon Resnick: So this seems, this, this is, this is mean. I think that there’s like a workaround, right. Isn’t it normally that you tack on a day around the summer or something like that?


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, you just sort of make those times up.


Gideon Resnick: Unless you’re in a place where it’s like, yeah, unless you’re in a place where you’re like, oh, there’s going to be, you know, 6,000 days off in a row from snow, then it’s doable. I don’t know.


Akilah Hughes: Right. I think that that’s right. I mean, why can’t we do it the way we’ve always done it?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. But same question for you. You at one point did go to school as well, I understand.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, that’s true. Facts. [laughs]


Gideon Resnick: What is your experience with snow days? How are you feeling about this?


Akilah Hughes: I’m so bummed. I love snow days. Like my favorite thing on earth is waking up because the snow started at two a.m. and I didn’t realize I was coming, and turning on the Channel Nine ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, WCPO. Shout out!


Gideon Resnick: Shout out!


Akilah Hughes: And just watching all of the counties scroll by—


Gideon Resnick: Yes!


Akilah Hughes: And being like: please Boone County, please Boone County! And when it would drop. It was always last minute, like the bus was coming up the street, and they are like: Boone County’s closed. I would just punch the sky and go back to bed. And the fact that they’re like: you can just go downstairs and do your homework. I’m like: that’s not right.


Gideon Resnick: No.


Akilah Hughes: I’m not doing that. My mom, I think wouldn’t force me to do that because she’s cool. And I don’t think it’s cool to make kids do work on days that are gifted to them by the universe. [laughs]


Gideon Resnick: Right. Right.


Akilah Hughes: That’s what it’s supposed to be for.


Gideon Resnick: I, man the flashback to that scroll where you’re like, waiting to see. For me it was like: is it going to say Walnut Hills or is it going to say, like, Cincinnati public?


Akilah Hughes: Yes. [laughs]


Gideon Resnick: And so I didn’t know. I was like: oh, like, do I need to wait to the end of the alphabet, like, before I can find out? Or is it going to be like really, really early on? That was thrilling.


Akilah Hughes: Totally. I mean, I learned about all of the different counties in Kentucky. I was like: Bracken? Bracken always gets off. Where is Boone?!


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. [laughs]


Akilah Hughes: I just, it’s just like to me, it’s such a deep bit of nostalgia. And I don’t want people to watch that Nickelodeon movie from the ’90s—Snow Day, if you are familiar— and think: hey, what is that? I don’t know what snow days are like. That doesn’t seem right. No more screen time for kids on days off. Let him just go outside and get in that snow.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah.


Akilah Hughes: And just like that, we checked our temps. They are both cool, like a nice, cool parent who does it make you do homework when you are at home on a snow day. And also very hot, like the hot chocolate we want to drink on snow days. Give us snow days! Stay safe and we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: The Biden administration announced its support for waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines yesterday, Katherine Tai, a US representative at the World Trade Organization, put out a statement saying the administration made the move in service of ending the pandemic. If the patents are waived, other countries would be able to manufacture their own generic vaccines without facing repercussions—how wild would that be!?—meaning more global vaccine supply to go around. That would be especially beneficial for the countries that initially pushed for the waiver: South Africa and India, which is currently experiencing one of the worst COVID surges in the world. As of now, the decision doesn’t guarantee that the protections will be lifted, but it does signal much needed support from the US to move towards that goal.


Akilah Hughes: A Trump-appointed federal judge struck down the CDCs national moratorium on evictions yesterday. That’s a major setback for people who have already been struggling to pay rent throughout the pandemic. The freeze on evictions so far had a positive impact on tenants all around, with eviction filings dropping by 65% last year. Millions of Americans still need that help, though, with one out of every five renters falling behind on rent as of January. Biden extended the moratorium until the end of June, but this new ruling might make the program come to a screeching halt. Housing experts fear that this might lead to a wave of evictions before the government can disperse 45 million dollars in emergency housing assistance. The Justice Department is appealing the decision. The ruling won’t go into effect until that appeal is resolved.


Gideon Resnick: Good. An important decision came down yesterday from Facebook’s oversight board, a.k.a. the “high council of news feed-ville.” A panel of journalists, activists and lawyers ruled to uphold Facebook’s ban of former president and current soda influencer Donald J. Trump, who was removed from the site following the Capitol insurrection in January. The panel said that the ban was justified based on the risk of violence posed by Trump’s posts. However, they added that an indefinite ban is not a penalty that is defined by Facebook’s policies, so Facebook needs to decide on a punishment that’s more standard and well defined. In effect, the independent board was kicking the decision of what Trump’s future will be as a poster back to Facebook and its top execs. They gave the company six months to make their final determination, meaning Trump could be back online in time to hit the thumbs up reaction on pics of problematic Halloween costumes.


Akilah Hughes: Ugh, and you know, that’s all he wants to do. All right. A farmer in Belgium recently engaged in some textbook landscaper’s diplomacy. He moved a 200-year old stone marker indicating the border between his country and France, effectively enlarging his own land as well as the entire nation of Belgium. The move wasn’t drastic, only about seven and a half feet according to BBC News. The stone marker had been situated in the path of the man’s tractor, which historians will agree is a common cause of wars. The border between France and Belgium was established in 1820, according to a treaty. And if the farmer doesn’t replace the marker to restore that border, a Franco-Belgian Commission will need to be formed to settle the dispute. Representatives from both countries consider further escalation to be unlikely. Just to be safe, I plan to visit France in Belgium and take away all the keys to their tanks and helicopters.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, thank you for your diplomatic mission. It will, will be great. And, we applaud you.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, just thinking about the world. And those are the headlines.


Akilah Hughes: One more thing before we go, we have been nominated for a Webby for Best News and Politics podcast, and today is the last day to vote.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, both of our moms have made it very clear that winning a Webby is the only thing we could do that would make them proud of us. So this is very important and, well-timed for Mother’s Day.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, we’ll put a link to vote in our show notes. If your computers are in use mining Bitcoin, maybe you can reprogram them to mine Webby votes, which are actually way more valuable—at least to me.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s true. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, restore the Franco-Belgian border, and tell your friends to listen.


Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just Webby results like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check out and Subscribe at


Gideon Resnick: I’ll be back on Monday because Crooked HQ is taking a break tomorrow.


Akilah Hughes: And I’ll be back in two weeks myself since I’m vaxxed and ready to relax. It’s vacation time, baby! I’m Akilah Hughes


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And be nice to your moms this weekend!


Akilah Hughes: They’re cool. They put you here.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And they probably let you hang out in the snow at least once.


Akilah Hughes: Hopefully.


Gideon Resnick: So that’s rad.


Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.


Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.