Nelson’s first major burst of publicity came earlier this year during the government shutdown when she called for a general strike, a seldom-used nuclear option in which union leaders incite widespread work stoppages across multiple industries. A general strike hasn’t occurred in earnest since 1946, when more than 100,000 workers in Oakland, California, shut down the city for three days. While Nelson’s proposition was legally dubious—federal workers face severe consequences for striking without authorization—less than a week later, air traffic controllers called in sick, snarling flights up and down the East Coast. President Donald Trump caved hours later, and the longest shutdown in American history ended.
“She’s the closest thing to kind of a charismatic labor leader we’ve had since, you know, maybe Cesar Chavez.”
It's an accomplishment that Nelson proclaims in almost every speech. The fact that Nelson didn’t actually do anything tangible to end the shutdown—she was not in the room negotiating with Trump and has no direct influence over the air traffic controllers, who have a union of their own—is almost beside the point. What matters, in the eyes of more than a dozen people in the labor movement who spoke to me for this article, is that she said what an increasingly agitated swath of union supporters wanted to hear.
“She’s the closest thing to kind of a charismatic labor leader we’ve had since, you know, maybe Cesar Chavez,” said Peter Dreier, a union historian at Occidental College.
Nelson, 46, is now weighing a run to become first woman to lead the AFL-CIO, effectively the leader of organized labor in the United States, representing 12.5 million workers who still have the power to shape major legislation and swing elections. The election to replace the federation’s leader, Richard Trumka, who is expected to step aside, won’t happen until October 2021, well after a presidential contest that is shaping up as referendum on the nation’s tolerance for seismic left-wing change to the economy. Nelson has tied her candidacy to the same progressive ideas that are dominating the debate among the Democratic aspirants for the White House and wants to remake the labor federation as dramatically as candidates like Sanders and Warren hope to do from the White House. She rejects the current labor leadership’s moderate approach and unapologetically calls on labor to embrace a more liberal set of values as a way to reverse decades of systemic decline in membership and influence.