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CWA President Chris Shelton's Address to the 76th CWA Convention

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Good morning Brothers and Sisters.

Welcome to the 76th International Convention of the Communications Workers of America. It is great to be with all of you here in Pittsburgh.

I want to start by thanking Sara Steffens, our Secretary-Treasurer, who is doing an amazing job making sure that our accounting and membership systems are state-of-the-art, and that the Secretary-Treasurer’s office is meeting the needs of all of our members and locals.

I also want to thank all of my colleagues on the Executive Board. Each and every one of these brothers and sisters is out there fighting for you every day. I am lucky to have such a great team working alongside me.

And I want to thank each and every one of you. CWA is the greatest union in the world because of the sacrifices and commitments you make every day. I could not be prouder or more humbled to be your President.

I’m not going to waste any time beating around the bush. These are hard times for working people. As hard as I have ever seen things in my entire career in the labor movement.

Private sector union density is down to 6.4 percent--the lowest level it’s been since 1910. 1910. 107 years ago. Now, they’re coming after the public sector, the last remaining bastion of union strength in America.

Corporate America smells blood. The Koch Brothers smell blood. And with the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, with Neil Gorsuch entrenched on the Supreme Court, and with that nitwit Donald Trump tweeting in the White House….well, I can see why Corporate America thinks it’s time to go in for the kill.

This attack is not just on unions and working people. It is an attack on democracy itself. At every level. Because the union movement is not just about wages and benefits, though it IS about that. The union movement is not just about decent working conditions, though it absolutely IS about that, too.

More than anything else, the union movement is about DEMOCRACY—the rights of regular people to have a say in their daily lives. The union movement is all that stands in the way of every corporate bully imposing tyranny in the workplace. Without unions, the workplace is little better than a fascist dictatorship, with the bosses free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. 

And it’s not just that unions give workers a voice in the workplace. The labor movement is the key to a democratic society. Unions give regular people a collective voice in the political decision-making process which determines the quality of all of our lives. 

And since Corporate America does not want the concerns of regular people to get in its way, it is laser-focused on destroying us. 

The attacks on the labor movement are intensifying. There is an entrenched anti-labor majority on the Supreme Court. Our political system is drenched in corporate money. Republicans have gerrymandered their way to power in State Houses across the country. 

Right-to-work for less laws have passed in former union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin.

But Brothers and Sisters, let me say this to you and I hope you will not forget it: Working people have faced even worse before. We have been knocked down, beaten up, even killed for what we believe in. And always, always, always, working people have risen up to fight for what is right.

And we will do it again!

Think about this: 125 years ago, in 1892, just about six miles from where we are meeting right now, a literal war took place during the strike at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works. The workers had gone on strike against a 20 percent pay cut. Henry Frick, Carnegie’s right hand man, brought in river barges filled with 300 armed Pinkerton guards. But the strikers had guns, too; they even had a cannon. 

In the early morning of July 6th, when Frick’s barges landed on the banks of the Monongahela River in an attempt to break the strike lines, gunfire erupted. Nine strikers and seven Pinkertons were killed. Within a week, the Governor of Pennsylvania had called in thousands of state militia, and the strike was broken, destroying unionism in the steel industry for another 40 years.

Yes, times today are tough. But our grandparents and our great grandparents suffered through much worse in order to build this movement. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. 

And the question for us is, are we up to meeting the challenge of preserving the workers movement in this time of great attack? I ask you, Brothers and Sisters, are we up to that challenge?

Are you ready to do what has to be done?

Donald Trump got elected President for a lot of different reasons. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves about those reasons. For starters, Trump tapped into a vein of racism and sexism and xenophobia that has no place in our society. 

He pandered to those animosities; he whipped them up, and unleashed some of the ugliest, most hateful forces in our society. People Tweeting Swastikas; people parading in white hoods and robes. We reject racism and sexism and xenophobia; we will fight those sentiments in our ranks and throughout American society.

Donald Trump also won because there are whole sections of this country that have been economically hollowed out, where all the good jobs are long gone, where NAFTA is a four letter word, where young people are overdosing on opioids, where life expectancy is actually falling. These people voted for change, even if the change Donald Trump was peddling was just a bunch of BS.

And Donald Trump won because too many Americans—even, I suspect, a lot of our members—see the big divide in this country as not between working people and the one percent, not between working people and corporate CEOs, but between themselves and politicians. They see politicians as self-interested, self-dealing elitists who don’t care about people like them.

And to these misguided voters, Donald Trump was the anti-politician, the person who could shake things up, the person who would “drain the swamp.”

Well, now we are all in the swamp, and it is starting to feel more like quicksand. Trump didn’t eliminate crony capitalism. He raised it to a fine art.

He’s personally profiting from the foreign delegations booking rooms at his hotels. His cabinet is filled with Goldman Sachs executives. Scores of industry lobbyists—from chemical companies, and big banks, oil companies, coal companies and telecom companies—are now rewriting regulations to put smiles on the faces of their old bosses. A Verizon lawyer is running the FCC. OSHA regulations two decades in the making are being rolled back. The NLRB is being gutted. The Department of Labor should be renamed the Department of Union-Busting. And with Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, we can expect public sector agency fees to be outlawed within the next year.

Our work is cut out for us. But let me tell you this: I am 100 percent confident that we are up to the task. I have spent my entire adult life building this union. I know what CWA is made of. I know that every one of you will do whatever we have to do to save our union and to save our labor movement. I know that we are CWA STRONG and that nothing, nothing can break us!

My confidence comes from what I see already happening in our CWA STRONG program. Step 1 for CWA STRONG is increasing membership levels. Step 2 is more mobilization and member engagement. Across this union we must renew our commitment to building our union from the bottom up. At the same time, we must continue to reach out to our community allies who will stand with us against our enemies. A stronger CWA means a stronger foundation for a progressive movement.

Locals, large and small, are working hard to sign up agency fee payers and non-members in both the public and private sectors.

Take Local 6137 in Corpus Christie, Texas. On the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, almost as far south as you can go in the continental United States, this Local represents 472 AT&T employees, and 463 of them are CWA members – 98 percent!

Local President Kristie Moeller Veit says the key to keeping the union strong is simple—you actually have to talk to workers. "In this social media driven world,” she said,” it's more important than ever to develop real and personal relationships. It's the best way to get people involved."

In our biggest public sector unit, in the State of New Jersey, every one of the eight locals has an organizing plan with specific goals. There have been staff trainings and stewards’ trainings. And despite political warfare with outgoing Governor Christie, a huge budget fight and a three day government shutdown—when Christie infamously went to a “closed to the public” beach ― our organizing efforts are paying off.

Statewide, the number of agency fee payers has been cut by 21 percent. All the locals are moving forward but Local 1040, led by President Carolyn Wade, has been exceptional, reducing the number of agency fee payers from 1300 to 600—more than 50 percent. The local set up an Organizing Rapid Response Team composed of 30 stewards who went through an organizing training and then went right into the field and signed up 300 members in two days. Local 1037 has pushed its membership to over 90 percent by signing up over 500 of their 1350 agency fee payers, and Local 1036 pushed its membership up by seven percent to 74 percent.

Statewide, CWA public sector membership has gone from just over 70 percent to just under 80 percent, and our state and local government locals are determined to get to 90 percent before the Supreme Court eliminates agency fee payers in the public sector. 

Building membership levels is the foundation of CWA STRONG.

Across the South, and in every other “right to work for less “state,” our Locals are working every day to make CWA STRONG. Take Local 3603 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Since our launch of the CWA Strong Campaign, their organizing committee has signed up 95 non-members in 5 bargaining units. 

At their monthly organizing committee meetings, they make plans to ensure that they:

  • sign all new hires to membership,
  • ask all non-members to join, and
  • update Orion records so we know who those members are.

Committee member Michael Roberts says “Our more frequent presence on job sites has been huge. Our members are getting to engage with us one-on-one about concerns and issues on the job and our non-members are seeing this and signing up. In an 18 week period, Local 3603 has grown from 61.1 percent to 79.21 percent organized. Local President, Bonnie Overman, thank you for your leadership and making CWA Strong in North Carolina.

Membership levels is one measure of the strength of our union. The number of activists and leaders is another. Across District 7, more and more local activists are being trained and recruited. For example, Local 7076, a public sector local, knew that it was only a matter of time before the Supreme Court eliminated agency fee payers. Through CWA Strong, they added 29 stewards, doubled the number of activists, and have added 700 members to the Local. 

We are CWA STRONG when it comes to legislation and politics, too. Take, for example, what happened last year in Arizona. 

As we did everywhere across the country, our activists there worked their butts off for Bernie Sanders for President. But when the Arizona primary arrived last March, the Maricopa County Registrar had slashed the number of polling places from 200 to 60.

Tens of thousands of Bernie supporters had to wait up to four hours to vote, and tens of thousands more just gave up.

But rather than getting bitter, CWA local union activist Yolanda Bejerano, with the support of Local 7019 President Irene Robles, decided to get even.

That night she told long-time Phoenix civil rights lawyer Adrian Fontes that he simply had to mount a challenge to the incumbent registrar. And at the same time, CWA became involved in the general election campaign to take out the notorious anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Mobilizing like never before, and working in a broad progressive coalition of community organizations and unions, Yoli and the local played a key role in winning both of those races—kicking out both Arpaio and the 28-year incumbent County Registrar. That is political movement-building at its best.

That’s just one story of dozens. All across the country, we are training more activists at Boot Camps, recruiting more volunteers, and signing up more members to PAF -- our political action fund program. In some places, like in Texas, we are combining PAF drives with our campaigns to sign up public sector agency fee payers, and doing a fantastic job.

Likewise, our legislative work is second to none. After the shock of Trump’s victory sank in, we decided that we shouldn’t attack him personally, but we should focus on opposing his policies and nominations that were bad for working people. Now that turned out to be a target-rich environment.

Thanks to the respect CWA has earned from the progressive community because of our past leadership on fights to reform the Senate rules and stopping TPP, we were able to galvanize a coalition of progressive opposition to Trump’s nominees.

We didn’t stop all of them, by any stretch of the imagination. But we did defeat the nominee for Secretary of Labor—Andrew Puzder—who didn’t believe in the NLRB, overtime pay, or the minimum wage. By fighting these nominees aggressively, we helped slow the momentum for the rest of the President’s anti-worker agenda, including giant tax cuts for the rich, and his bogus infrastructure give-away to Wall Street. 

We accomplished this because of the thousands and thousands of calls our members made against these nominees. We accomplished this because we are CWA STRONG and our members are engaged and our activists are leaders.

And perhaps most important of all, CWA was a major player in the incredible fight to stop the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Together, we protected health insurance for tens of millions of people and stopped them from shifting the costs of the uninsured onto our plans. Together, we literally prevented the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans who would have died without their health coverage. 

The fight against ACA repeal proves once again that when we fight, we win, and in the process we can make a difference in the lives of millions.

Now CWA is taking the lead on the fight to rein in Wall Street. Wall Street plays the tune that every CEO must dance to. The one percent and Wall Street are the reasons our bargaining grows harder with each round. And we have launched a multi-year fight to rebuild our Main Streets and stop Wall Street from wrecking our communities.

We are going to fight to make sure that Democrats in Congress support a real infrastructure bill that rebuilds roads, bridges and schools, and creates millions of good union jobs, not a bunch of trickle down tax cuts for Wall Street investment in privatized roads and bridges. 

We are going to mobilize like hell to maintain Wall Street regulations and stop mega tax-giveaways to the one percent. We are going to mobilize to insist that Wall Street pay its fair share of taxes.

And we are going to continue spreading our Runaway Inequality Training program, through which we’ve trained 50 CWA local activists to lead trainings, conducted 66 workshops in 10 states and trained nearly 1,000 people. Now Runaway Inequality is spreading to our allies, like the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Citizen Action, the UAW, Jobs with Justice, and local allies like the NAACP and the Sierra Club in Michigan.

We have a lot to be proud of. We are CWA STRONG in all of these critically important areas —organizing, political, legislative, and educational. 

But the bedrock of our work remains the day-to-day fight to improve the wages, benefits, and working conditions of our members, at the bargaining table or in the streets, if necessary. That’s why day-to-day representation and collective bargaining has always been the base of the CWA Triangle.

And when it comes to fighting for members, and winning good contracts, the record of CWA is second to none!

Over the last 16 months, nearly 70,000 CWA members in the telecommunications industry — well over 15 percent of our total membership — have walked picket lines anywhere from three days to seven weeks. 

We have taken on two of the 15 largest corporations in America. If you walked on an AT&T picket line—stand up; if you walked on a Verizon picket line—stand up; if you are the leader of a local where Verizon or AT&T or AT&T Mobility workers went on strike—stand up; if you picketed in support of these striking workers—stand up, stand up, stand up—and give yourselves a round of applause. The labor movement will not grow; the labor movement will not survive, if it forgets how to fight. 

Brothers and sisters, you have not forgotten how to fight! CWA will never forget how to fight! These strikers set an example for – and sent a message to – the entire labor movement. When we fight, we win.

More than anything else, this is what makes us CWA STRONG.

Brothers and Sisters, as President, it is my responsibility to set strike dates. This is a heavy decision; one which requires me to measure our will, the strength of our potential strike issues, and the level of our membership’s readiness and mobilization. I want to be clear with you − I will never call a strike where we are not prepared or one where we do not have a strategy to win.

We won a magnificent victory last year at Verizon, and I want to congratulate everyone who made that victory possible. We are still in a battle with AT&T and AT&T Mobility, and we will keep up that fight until we’ve won contracts we can be proud of.

Of course, these are not the only collective bargaining fights in our union and not every round of bargaining ends in a strike. We’ve bargained great contracts at United Airlines for flight attendants, at hospitals for nurses in Buffalo; for Passenger Service Workers at American; for telephone workers at CenturyLink; for broadcast technicians at NBC and ABC; for reporters at Digital First media; and for manufacturing workers at GE.

I am especially proud of the 700 members of IUE-CWA who walked the picket line, through the rain and snow and freezing cold, at Momentive Materials in upstate New York for 105 days until we were able to get Governor Cuomo involved to help us win that strike.

I am proud of our union. I am proud of all the work we are doing. But Brothers and Sisters, let’s not kid ourselves. We are at war—a war to save the labor movement. In a war, there are no neutrals. To paraphrase the old union song, in times like these, every working person must decide: which side are you on? Are you a union activist, a union militant, or are you a scab for the bosses? No middle ground. No bystanders.

That means we must build CWA STRONG, in every workplace, in every community, in the streets, at the ballot box, from the bottom up. 

Every work location must have a trained, effective steward. Every local officer must redouble his or her efforts to talk to members, to listen to members, to explain what is at stake in this war. We must, must, must make it clear to members that we need to mobilize in every arena—the bargaining table, the State Houses and Congress, on the campaign trail, alongside our brothers and sisters in the civil rights, environmental, women’s, and other social justice movements. There are no neutrals. There can be no bystanders. It is time for all hands on deck.

Fifteen months from now, the midterm elections will take place. State Houses now dominated by union-busting Republicans will be up for grabs. Control of both Houses of Congress will be at stake. This will be our most important opportunity to stop the national union-busting movement in its tracks. This will be our best chance to stop the anti-worker Trump agenda. We have to win back at least one House of Congress. It is the key to surviving 39 more months of the Donald Trump attack on working families. It could be the key to the survival of the labor movement.

Yes. The survival of the labor movement.

I want everybody in this room to take a minute to think about what that really means. I mean, really think about it. Think about what it would mean to live in the union-free society that Corporate America has been dreaming of for the last 40 years.

Imagine in your mind’s eye what it would mean to go to work every day, without a union, without a contract, without a grievance procedure, without a shop steward. With no rights whatsoever. Every employee an at-will employee. Working whatever shift the boss tells you to, transferred wherever he wants at the drop of a hat, your pay and benefits slashed without recourse, without any say from you or your fellow workers. 

This is the non-union Nirvana that the Koch Brothers, and Trump, and Ryan and McConnell are all dreaming of.

We in this room did not ask for this fight. We did not ask for the responsibility of saving the American labor movement. But now we have that responsibility, and we better not screw it up, for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of our children, for the sake of generations of working people in decades to come.

I am asking each and every one of you to make the commitment to join this fight. Sitting on your tables are our CWA STRONG pledge cards. 

They commit your local to building up your shop stewards structure, to bring membership levels up to at least 80 percent, to putting a mobilization structure in place. They commit your local to mobilizing for contract fights, for legislative fights, and fights for social and racial and economic justice. Right now, I want you to fill out that card and give it to a sergeant of arms. Commit right now, right here to this fight. Is everyone doing that? 

But filling out the card is the easy part. I want you to do more. I want you to commit that you are going to go back to your locals, to wherever you came from, all across this great country, and you are going to do whatever it takes to save this labor movement, to ensure that future generations of working people have the chance to enjoy the opportunities you have had, to stop the corporate bastards and the right-wing union busters from destroying what it took generations of workers to build. 

Can I count on you to make that commitment? Are you willing to go to war to save the labor movement? Are you clear which side you are on?

One hundred and fifteen years ago, a tremendous strike broke out across the coalfields of Pennsylvania, including the area where we are meeting today. In an unprecedented move in that era, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in the strike and forced the coal operators into arbitration with the United Mine Workers of America. 

In his summation of the Mine Workers case, the famous labor attorney Clarence Darrow told the judges: “The blunders are theirs,” referring to the coal operators, who had relied on child labor, starvation wages and deadly working conditions as their path to profits. He said:

The blunders are theirs because, in this old, old strife, they are fighting for slavery while we are fighting for freedom. They are fighting for the rule of man over man, for despotism, for darkness, for the past. We are striving to build up man. We are working for democracy, for humanity, for the future.

Brothers and Sisters, we are still, to this day, working for democracy, for humanity, for the future. We are still fighting for democracy, in the workplace and in the society. We are still fighting for a more humane life for every working person. 

We are still fighting for a better future for all working women and men.

This is what’s at stake at this moment. This is the challenge we face. This is the task that lies ahead. And I know this: when we are united, when we are committed, when we have a vision, there is no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.

I know that the union makes us strong, CWA STRONG, and that together, we will prevail.

We will win. Brothers and sisters, join me in this struggle, take the pledge, stand at my side, and together we shall overcome all our obstacles.

Thank you.