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CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens' Address to the 76th CWA Convention

August 9, 2017

Last time we gathered, in Detroit, none of us would have predicted the storm we find ourselves in today.

In these difficult times, it is heartening to be here with all of you -- my dedicated and talented union sisters and brothers. No matter how rough the seas ahead, I am glad we are navigating them together.

These are dangerous times for CWA, and for our labor movement. Everything the bosses have ever wanted to do to unions, they will try to do now.

As President Shelton made clear, this is a fight for the very survival of our labor movement.

A majority in Congress and the Senate are all too willing to do the bidding of their corporate masters by introducing bills designed to attack and weaken unions. States and even counties are stepping up their attacks on fair-share fees, paycheck deduction, even collective bargaining. Janus vs. AFSCME, the lead case designed to devastate public worker unions, is on its way to the Supreme court right now.

Make no mistake: These are blatant attacks on working families.

When corporate interests want to hurt the labor movement, they dream up things that cost us money and waste our time.

Never forget: It's not the union's money they are wasting -- it's the members' money. CWA members deserve to have their dues work for them, not wasted on anti-union schemes.

Corporate CEOs do not want us to be able to come together and demand good wages and safe working conditions. And so they are attacking provisions and policies that have been sources of strength -- in some places, union members have even lost the basic right to request that dues be taken from their paycheck.

But there is one thing they can't ever steal from us: Our solidarity.

Our strength is rooted in our connection and commitment to each other and our shared vision of a better life for all workers.

Now, more than ever, we need to be a union by the members, for the members.

There has never been a more important time to connect with every member, one on one. And we have to do this work together. We need all of us to be all in to keep CWA Strong.

Strengthening CWA begins with everyone here in this room. It happens in our workplaces, with our shop stewards, in our union halls.

CWA Strong means having conversations, every day, with everyone you can, about what we are working to achieve together, and why.

CWA Strong means collecting emails and mobile numbers so we can reach people in a hurry.

CWA Strong means asking ourselves, in every task, if there is a way do this work that engages our members and grows our union.

Here's the silver lining: When we do this right, CWA will come out stronger than we've ever been.

Our power comes from our members and we need to remind ourselves every day -- and help remind them -- just how powerful we are together. Our members are the reason for everything we do and they should be central in everything we do.

As union leaders we are tenacious, and stubborn, and that’s a good thing. No one has succeeded yet in convincing us to give up, and they won’t now.

If corporate America thinks they're about to deal our labor movement a death blow, let's show them just how wrong they are.

In a few minutes the finance committee will share their report. You'll see that CWA has weathered the past two years well.

Organizing has helped to steady our membership numbers. We have held our spending under budget and within dues revenue.

And we are taking common-sense steps to improve the financial health of our union for generations to come. We halted the runaway costs associated with Orion, our outgoing membership system. We have evaluated every budget line to save money, rebidding vendor contracts to reduce fees and combining offices so that a full floor of headquarters could be leased to a rent-paying tenant.

Most significantly, we froze CWA's staff pension plan, which was threatening our financial stability with unsustainable costs. CWA will soon launch a new pension benefit that will provide retirement security to our staff at a predictable, affordable cost.

Saving our staff pension was not something I imagined having to take on as a new secretary treasurer, and it was not an easy change for our employees.

To their credit our staff unions understood the problem and worked with us to reach a solution, showing their commitment to supporting all of you, our members and the mission of our union.

Could the staff members in the room please stand? . Let’s take a moment to recognize their dedication to our union and the hard work they do every day.

Generations of workers built CWA into what it is today, and it falls on us all to ensure that our unity endures for those who follow us.

As secretary treasurer, my job is to protect our resources -- and I include in those not only our financial and physical assets, but also the unity that binds and sustains us.

To me, as to President Shelton, CWA Strong is about much more than signing up non-members. In the Secretary Treasurer's office, our commitment to CWA Strong means strengthening the core of our union's operations.

You can't sign up non-members if you don't know who they are. And it's hard to engage members when you don't know how to reach them. We know that locals need new tools to track members and collect dues.

That's why my office has been hard at work building a new membership database and dues-processing system. We have negotiated and signed strong contracts with Aptify, a vendor with a proven track record of moving large membership databases onto their modern, Web-based platform.

We are still in the early stages of implementation, but I encourage you to stop by our Secretary Treasurer’s booth to preview the Aptify system.

We are very excited about Aptify's capabilities and the smart, capable team they have dedicated to CWA.

In Phase One of the Aptify project, we will move all member, non member and retiree records into the common database, along with all dues processing.

We expect to go live with this phase before the end of 2018.

The Aptify database will serve as a central hub supporting functions throughout our union. We want everyone to share a single, accurate source of member information that’s accessible at any time, anywhere, including on your mobile phone.

This database will be a powerful tool to keep CWA Strong -- but it will not solve every data or dues problem that CWA faces.

Technology alone can never ensure that an e-mail has no typos, or that an employer actually processed the dues authorization card we gave them.

That’s why we need every local to be part of building our strong, central database -- and you can start right away, by logging into Orion and checking that everyone who has signed a membership card at your local is listed either as "member" or "pending member."

Will the Secretary Treasurers present here today please stand up? Brothers and sisters, look around you: This group of people are the backbone of CWA Strong. Without them, we cannot track who and who is not a member of their locals. Our local secretary treasurers are the unsung heroes of our labor movement -- their efforts make everything we do possible.

Join me in applauding these local leaders and the incredibly valuable work they do daily to make our union strong.

CWA Strong also means planning to withstand future crises. With paycheck deduction increasingly under attack, we know that locals will need new ways to collect dues.

That’s why CWA has partnered with PledgeUp, a Web-based system that allows members to sign up to pay dues by credit card or straight from their bank account. PledgeUp is a much simpler way to hand-collect dues, and it erases the liability of handling individual financial information.

By preparing for worst-case scenarios, we know that we will be able to withstand any attack, and stand CWA Strong.

It would be easy, given the challenges ahead, to lay low, to sit back and hope to ride out the storm.

But we will not do that. Too much is at stake. Our labor movement has never had it easy. The powerful and the 1% have always wanted us gone. We are still here because we won't let them win.

Decades of CWA members before us put it all on the line to build this union, and we will do the same.

Like many of you, I have been horrified to watch the hate that has unfolded in our country these past months -- attacks on immigrants and people of color, on our LGBT brothers and sisters, on our CWA members who work in journalism, on our most vulnerable citizens and the health care that sustains their lives.

Too many days, reading the newspaper, I see the ugliest side of our nation.

But it's important not to get lost in despair. We need to cultivate hope, another vision of who we can be.

A few weeks ago I heard a radio report that affected me deeply. Some of you may have heard this story on the news.

Hundreds had gathered on the beach in Panama City, Florida, to sun and swim, when two boys got caught in a dangerous rip tide and couldn't break free.

Their mother, their grandmother, and two other family members swam out to save the boys, only to be overcome themselves.

Beachgoers saw what was happening, but had no rope or buoys. Four more people swam out to help; but all were caught in the deadly current.

At this point there were 10 people struggling against the surf, moments from drowning, when something amazing happened.

Strangers on the beach began to form a human chain.

The first stood on the solid ground of the shore, forming an anchor. Others ventured out deeper and deeper, linking arms, until the chain stretched more than 80 people, hundreds of feet into the surf.

A strong swimmer was passed to the end of the chain, where she grabbed the exhausted victims so they could be passed, arm to arm, to shore.

When the last stranded swimmer reached the safety of the beach the rescuers cheered, elated… And then they went their separate ways.

I can't stop thinking about that. A random group of strangers, setting aside their own safety because fellow human beings needed help.

So in these times, when we see the worst of who we can be on display all around us, remember that human chain -- the best of who we can be.

It happened so fast, so spontaneously, as though all of us are waiting, all the time, for the moment when we can be our best selves. The moment when someone calls out for help and we say, “yes, of course, a thousand times yes.”

Every delegate in this room today has answered someone's call to serve our brothers and sisters in the labor movement, to help build a brighter future for working families and to keep CWA strong. Let us never be afraid to challenge others to do the same.

This human chain is who we are. We are united in our love, our solidarity and mission to serve our members.

Like this human chain, we take care of each other, even when the seas are rough and the odds seem stacked against us.

Our solidarity will never be broken.

We are CWA.