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Workers Are Standing Up to Far-Right Violence

In industries across the economy — from airlines to tech — the past two weeks have seen workers and their unions take the lead in combating Donald Trump’s far-right base.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, at the 2019 AFGE Legislative & Grassroots Mobilization Conference. AFGE / flickr

The news reports about the far right’s anti-democratic attack on the Capitol have been terrifying for many. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has implied that she may have narrowly escaped assassination, Ayanna Pressley’s panic button was suspiciously disabled, and we keep learning still more horrifying details about dangers faced by elected officials and Capitol staff that day.) But for workers forced into close contact with the would-be insurrectionists, these last two weeks have been even scarier than for those merely watching the news. Those workers are fighting back.

Flight attendants’ union president Sara Nelson called for banning riot participants from flying home after the Capitol siege last week, a measure she crisply described as “keeping all problems on the ground.” Not only did the rioters present a potential terrorism threat, they exhibited behavior none of us would want in our workplaces; on the way to Washington, DC, they refused masks and insulted the crew with racist epithets. Alas, the rioters mostly were allowed to board the planes, but on the return flight, some were removed for refusing to wear masks; unsurprisingly, they weren’t stoic about such setbacks and the videos enjoyed understandable popularity (because who doesn’t want to see revolting neo-confederates cry when they realize rules don’t only apply to black people). After workers complained of such disruptions, Federal Aviation Administration president Steve Dickson announced Wednesday of this week that the agency would take legal action against anyone assaulting, threatening or intimidating airline workers. American, United, Delta, and Alaska airlines will ban guns on their flights to DC next week, while Alaska is limiting ticket sales on flights to the area.

Alaska Airlines banned fourteen disruptive passengers from future travel (after a flight from Washington, DC, to Seattle) last Friday. Delta Airlines issued some bans as well. These bans by airlines aren’t related to the federal “no-fly” list, which is maintained by the FBI, although Senator Chuck Schumer has called for those involved in storming the Capitol to be added to that list. The FBI has acknowledged that it is considering this. The Transportation Communication Union, which represents a significant share of Amtrak employees, called on Amtrak to ban people placed on the federal no-fly list from its trains that week, though, of course, this would be purely gestural unless the January 6 rioters are added to that list. The “no-fly” list has been criticized by civil libertarians, and whether it should even exist is controversial, but there’s absolutely no reason any participants in last week’s violence should be allowed to return for a rematch next week.

Washington, DC’s Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) demanded this week that its employers make safety plans for the inauguration, warning that a repeat of January 6’s violence would put bus and subway workers in serious danger. The ATU also reminded its members that they have the right to turn down unsafe work, refusing to go to areas where political violence has erupted or deviating from their routes, if necessary, to protect themselves and the public.

UNITE HERE’s Local 25, which represents 7,200 hotel workers in the metro DC area, called for hotels to close ahead of the Inauguration unless they are hosting security personnel. They also demanded that workers be allowed to leave work if they feel unsafe, either from threats of violence or from guests’ refusing to wear masks (an intractable issue in DC hotels last week). Hotels, by closing down, would, of course, also help keep potential would-be insurrectionists out of the city, a significant positive contribution to the day’s events.

Some on the Left don’t like to see Donald Trump banned from social media platforms. But many tech workers have demanded these measures. More than 300 Twitter employees signed an internal petition calling for the president to be permanently banned from the platform after the raid on the Capitol. Employees also made the case strenuously in internal company Slack discussions. After the letter was made public by the Washington Post, the Verge, and other publications, Twitter did ban the president. Amazon workers also called on their employer to ban Parler, a right-wing social media app on which many of the rioters planned the violence of January 6, from its cloud services, and Amazon did so last Saturday. The Alphabet Workers Union also called on YouTube to ban Trump last week, and YouTube has now suspended the president for at least a week. Member Alex Hanna told the Verge, “As workers, we’re in a unique position to speak out against this behavior and push Alphabet towards being responsible for the social effects of its technology when it goes against its profit incentives.”

Workers and their unions will be critical to the far right’s long-term defeat. They deserve credit for leading that fight this month.