After the Biden administration announced last month that all federal employees must be vaccinated, most major airlines (which are technically government contractors) have followed suit, requiring their workers to get vaccinated as well. As a result, there’s been an emerging sub-genre of disgruntled airline employees coming forward on social media to complain about being subject to the indignities of having to get a shot that protects themselves and their families from getting sick. There hasn’t, however, been any evidence that employees are quitting en masse, despite the best efforts of anti-vaxx activists.
But that isn’t stopping some from expressing their displeasure online. One such disgruntled employee is Shawn Andrew Walker, a pilot who last week cited the forthcoming mandate in an awkward anti-vaxx rant that is now going viral in right-wing media circles.
“I have to choose between putting food on the table for my family, and freedom of choice,” Walker says before opining about the nature of America on top of footage of a Civil War reenactment. He then warns that “shifting baseline syndrome” will destroy the nation’s conception of freedom entirely, complete with pseudoscientific graphics of brain activity to bolster this point. The video ends with Walker directing viewers to a website for a group of pilots, dubbed the U.S. Freedom Flyers, who oppose the vaccine mandate.
Walker’s video has gone viral among the right, with more than 50,000 views on TikTok. It has been shared by far-right pundits Candace Owens and Benny Johnson, the plagiarist-turned-right-wing media troll, who tweeted, “This is the single bravest thing I’ve seen in years.” Both Johnson’s and Owens’ tweets of the video have each received over 17,000 retweets as of Monday afternoon.
Although Walker claims in his video that he is being forced to choose between the vaccine mandate and his livelihood, that may not be entirely true. While Walker’s LinkedIn page states that he’s flown for American Eagle, now Envoy Air, for just over 17 years, and that he is based in Chicago (his Twitter account says he’s in Paradise, Texas), the TikTok page on which he railed against the vaccine mandate belongs to “Cell Sauce,” a performance supplement brand he founded after recovering from a motocross accident. “Our supplement line is formulated by science… backed by doctors… and proven by professionals,” the site reads, noting that Walker is “not a fan of pharmaceutical drugs.”
Most of the videos on the Cell Sauce TikTok page are of motocross and/or Walker dispensing nutritional advice. But Walker doesn’t appear to be above using his credentials as an airline pilot to promote his brand: in a video posted in July, he talks about the need to use probiotics like “gut sauce” from the cockpit of a plane, wearing an American Airlines lanyard.
When reached for comment, American Airlines directed Rolling Stone to the October 1st letter from its CEO to employees explaining the forthcoming vaccination policy, with CEO Doug Parker writing that while the company is still working out the details, “it is clear that team members who choose to remain unvaccinated will not be able to work at American Airlines.” The company declined to comment on Walker, or even to confirm or disconfirm that he is currently a pilot with their company.
Cell Sauce doesn’t appear to be Walker’s only business. His Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages promote his copywriting skills business, CopySkillz. His LinkedIn also lists him as the CEO of RisingMarketers.com. The website doesn’t work, however, nor do links to CopySkillz. Regardless, it’s clear that Walker is deep into affiliate marketing and other dubious online business schemes. In 2014, he wrote on Facebook that Vimeo banned him for posting, as Vimeo put it, “videos pertaining to multi-level marketing, affiliate programs, get-rich quick schemes, money coaching, cash gifting, work-from-home gigs, or similar ventures.”
Walker did answer questions from Rolling Stone about his employment status or other businesses by press time. The U.S. Freedom Flyers also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Walker’s video has gone viral at a time when anti-vaxxers are trying to gin up the narrative that pilots are leaving their jobs en masse in order to protest the vaccine mandate. On Sunday evening, for instance, after Southwest Airlines announced it would be cancelling more than a quarter of its flights due to an “operational meltdown,” a rumor circulated among those on the far right that the cancellation was due to “sickouts,” or workers using sick leave to stay home to protest the mandate.
There is no evidence that pilots are orchestrating a “sickout” in response to vaccine mandates. The FAA has issued a statement saying that bad weather conditions, in combination with staffing shortages in a Jacksonville control center due to Covid, are the reason behind the cancelations. The Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association union has also denied this, saying in a statement, “There are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise. Under the RLA, our Union is forbidden from taking job action to resolve labor disputes under these circumstances. SWAPA has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.”
A similar rumor also spread in September regarding 27 U.S. Air Force pilots reportedly walking off their bases following the vaccine mandate, which has since been debunked. That rumor was also fomented by a video that went viral on Twitter after being shared by a slew of right-wing pundits, ultimately garnering 1.1 million views.
But the fact that there is no evidence to support any of these claims hasn’t stopped right-wing pundits from sharing Walker’s video and celebrating the cancelations in pursuit of pushing the idea of a vaccine mandate-prompted “sickout” that, as it turns out, never happened.