WATERVILLE — The first Monday in September is a day used to recognize the American labor movement and celebrate American workers. That was on full display Sunday afternoon, as the region’s labor council held its annual Labor Day picnic at Head of Falls.

The event’s keynote speaker, Sara Nelson, is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants and will be visiting the state’s other labor councils on Monday. The Central Maine Labor Council held their celebration on Sunday, and Nelson visited it first. Nelson said she got involved with unions when she was first starting out as a flight attendant. After going to school to become a teacher, Nelson was convinced by a friend that the pay, hours, pension and other benefits were better for flight attendants, so Nelson drove to Chicago to apply at the airport. She said she didn’t know it at the time, but she didn’t just drive there for the job; she drove there for the union contract.

Nelson was stationed in Boston, living in an apartment with seven other women. Some of her flight attendant friends were already starting to get their first paychecks, but Nelson’s didn’t come. She waited, and when she asked her employers about it, she was told she would get her check soon. But soon didn’t seem to want to come.

Nelson said she started flying reserve assignment flights, just so she could have a free meal. Soon she was completely out of money, with no way to pay for food, but still she was told to wait for her check. Nelson said she started crying in the office when she was told that, tears starting to roll, when someone tapped her shoulder. Nelson turned, saw a woman with her checkbook, asking her how to spell her name. This woman gave her two things: a check and advice. The check was for $800. The advice was to call her union. Nelson did call her union, and the next day, her first check came.

“I learned everything I needed to know about my union in that moment,” she said.

Eventually, Nelson got more involved with her union, becoming a strike captain. She was working for United Airlines at the time, and then Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. She said she knew attendants on one of the planes. After that, she said United Airlines filed for bankruptcy, and in doing so, attempted to strip workers of their pensions, pay and jobs. Things continued to get worse, until one day, when she was doing communication work for the union, she was called by the company president, who said they were going to furlough 2,500 employees. Nelson told the president she needed a minute just to cry. After that, she said began sending out more union communications, that they were going to “fight like hell” to preserve their rights.

“We are the last check on corporate greed,” she said of unions, adding that the super-rich “won’t stop until they have everything.”

Nelson said unions and the labor movement are more important now than ever, especially in the wake of the devastation in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, since it is the labor movement preparing to rebuild Houston, she said.

“Together, we are going to make sure Houston rebuilds,” she said.

The Maine AFL-CIO — a federation of 160 local unions representing 42,000 workers and their labor councils — has established a Hurricane Harvey relief fund.

Nelson’s union is made up of 50,000 flight attendants, including 60 from Maine.

Josh Hartford, president of the Central Maine Labor Council, said this was the second time Waterville had played host to the event. In years’ past, it was held in Augusta’s Capital Park, but he said Waterville has a lot of union members, so the move made sense. He said the event was a way for any union member to come together and celebrate Labor Day and have a free lunch. He said over 20 local unions were represented in the Central Maine Labor Council, which is made up of four counties and constitutes about 7,000 members. There are three other labor councils in the state: the Southern, Eastern and Western labor councils.

Kathy Phelps, a hairdresser out of Winslow, was introduced to speak out on the Yes on 2 campaign, which seeks to expand Medicaid access. Phelps, who works 40 hours a week and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said she lost her health care coverage in January of 2014 because she didn’t have dependents in the house.

“A lot of hard working people like myself don’t have health care coverage,” she told the few dozen people on the overcast Sunday afternoon.

Speaking of her illness, Phelps said it was a terrible feeling not to be able to breath, and said she was willing to do whatever it takes to make sure “every one of us has health care coverage.”

“Maine needs health care coverage,” she said.

Hartford said he hopes they will pass Yes on 2 in November, and there was a booth about the campaign at Head of Falls.

Cynthia Phinney, Maine AFL-CIO president, said advancing the rights of workers allows for an economy with working people at the center of it.

“Today is all about the workers and the working people,” she said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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