Chris Shelton Remarks to the CWA 77th Convention

Las Vegas, Nevada

Good morning, Brothers and Sisters. Welcome to the 77th international convention of the Communications Workers of America. It is great to be here with all of you in Las Vegas.

Brothers and Sisters, we are meeting in dangerous times.

Our nation is deeply polarized, between hope and fear, between solidarity and selfishness, between progress and reaction. Our nation is standing at a crossroads. One road takes us forward towards a more humane and equitable future. The other road leads us to deepening division, more power for the 1%, and disaster. The contradictions are glaring.

On one hand, this is the Age of Donald Trump. It is a coarse, fearful, hateful time. We have never seen such crudeness and dishonesty in the White House.

It is not just Trump’s style and stupidity and endless lying that are offensive. Donald Trump sees confrontations between Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis on one side, and civil rights protestors on the other, and says there are “fine people on both sides.” He demands bans against Muslims. He says that Africa is full of “shithole countries.” He steals children from their families and puts them in cages. He treats women disgracefully. He passes massive tax cuts for the rich and lies about their impact on the economy. He appoints anti-union judges to the Supreme Court and publicly attacks union leaders fighting to protect their members’ jobs.

Worst of all, he has energized the darkest impulses of American history and culture. His naked appeal to white supremacy has divided this country in ways we haven’t seen for half a century — and probably not since the Civil War. Most recently, he has revived a despicable taunt, “send her back,” as a racist rallying cry against four members of Congress, women of color who inflame his anger by daring to challenge his power.

And yet, at the same time, this is not just the Age of Trump. This is also the Age of Bernie Sanders. The Age of Elizabeth Warren. The Age of Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams. The Age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her 4.7 million Twitter followers. The Age of Black Lives Matter, DREAMers, and Occupy Wall Street. The Age of Me Too.

It is a moment when we have started a serious debate over a Green New Deal. A moment when Democratic candidates are no longer debating whether there should be a national health care program, but what is the best way to ensure that every American is truly guaranteed the right to health care.

Brothers and Sisters, this is not just a time of fear and anger; it is also a time of great hopes and possibilities.

But history teaches us that pro-worker, progressive social change never happens automatically. It happens because a group of determined activists organize to make it happen.

Almost 200 years ago, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison built a movement that led eventually to the end of slavery. In the 1930s, industrial workers risked their jobs, and sometimes their lives, to build the CIO in the auto, steel, and rubber factories of the Midwest. In the 1960s, young people sat in at lunch counters, and endured fire hoses and lynch mobs, to end legal segregation and win back the right to vote which had been destroyed for a century after the Civil War. And in just the last few years, we have seen the inspiring leadership of young people again in new movements for social change.

Like their courageous predecessors, these young activists are putting their bodies on the line to build the road to a better society. These activists have tapped into the same deep well of American moral and political outrage at injustice that inspired Frederick Douglass’ denunciations of slavery in the years before the Civil War.

Douglass’ words from 1852 still ring true with us today: "[If I] had the ability, and I could reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened ... the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed."

But these social movements cannot succeed in isolation — and neither can the labor movement. Our movements need each other.

For more than a decade, CWA has been crystal clear that labor cannot overcome the challenges of our time unless we unite with, and build, broad movements for social change. Progressive movements help to create a political climate in which working people realize that change is possible and that union membership can change their lives. Progressive movements force the government to stand on the side of workers, instead of on the side of bosses. That’s what happened in the 1930s, and that’s what happened in the 1960s.

Brothers and Sisters, we are standing at a crossroads for our nation.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, if CWA is going to help bend the moral arc of the nation towards justice, we must be strong, we must be united, and we must be determined. This is our mission; this is our responsibility: to do everything possible to make CWA a powerful force for social, economic, racial and worker justice in this country. Are you with me?

Let me break that mission down into the three main challenges I think we face today.

First, we must dedicate ourselves to overcoming the divisions which split the unity of the working class. Throughout our nation’s history, the U.S. working class has often been divided. The earliest settlers in the 13 colonies sneered at later waves of immigrants who came from places like Ireland — where my mother and father were from — and Italy. A few decades later, the Irish and Italians forgot how they’d been treated, and looked down their noses at the immigrants who came from Russia and Eastern Europe. For decades, Mexican workers were brought in to harvest our crops at starvation wages, then deported when they were no longer needed.

But no division in the working class came close to the division between black and white workers. This is the division that has historically cut the deepest and lasted the longest. Slavery and racism were the original sins of American society, and we are still grappling with their consequences. We see the legacy of racism and slavery today in the resurgence of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. We see that legacy in the disparity between white and black family wealth — the average white family in America has ten times the wealth of the average black family, $163,000 compared to $16,000. We see that legacy in the assault on voting rights. We see that legacy in the hateful and divisive rhetoric emanating every day from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — a house, we should remember, that was built by slave labor, and where 11 of the first 12 occupants were slaveholders.

Whenever economic and political discontent flares up in this country, racial divisions resurface. The problem is, when we allow ourselves to be divided, we become weaker just when we most need our united power to protect the working class.

Who is to blame then, for our stagnant wages, our vanishing jobs, and our crumbling communities? It's not other working people, no matter where they come from or how they got here. It’s the billionaires, the banks, and the corporations, and their policies that crush the hopes of those struggling to realize the American dream. Our job is to focus our anger on the 1% and fight for our fair share of the wealth — not be diverted into fighting for crumbs amongst the 99%.

Real leaders unite us, so we can move forward together. Real leaders reinforce the original promise of being an American, that all people are created equal, and have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Real leaders build unity around the American dream and the bold promise of the Statue of Liberty, which proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!” All of us must provide real leadership. That is the optimism of the America we want to — and we must — build.

Our second focus as a union must be on building workplace power and strengthening the union to take on our employers and meet the challenges of the future.

Recently, we have had some major victories at the bargaining table. We have reached Tentative Agreements at AT&T in the Midwest, Legacy, and Puerto Rico, at Kaleida Health in Buffalo, for Passenger Service Agents at Envoy Air, and are closing in on a Tentative Agreement at General Electric. These were hard fought and in some cases lengthy battles, but our members stood strong and did what had to be done. Speaking of lengthy battles, our brothers and sisters at NABET/CWA are finally, after a 15-year fight, close to settling our dispute with CNN with millions and millions of dollars of backpay at stake.

Workplace power makes the difference every time. And it is everywhere, waiting to be organized and exercised.

Workplace power won Piedmont Passenger Service Agents critical raises last year. Workplace power put Flight Attendants front and center in helping to end Trump’s disastrous government shutdown. Workplace power is providing journalists with collective bargaining across the country, in one shop after another, big and small. Workplace power is challenging the job-killing, wage-cutting Sprint-T-Mobile merger. Workplace power is what won the strike at Frontier in West Virginia. Workplace power is what made AT&T finally bend on our jobs issues in the Midwest, Legacy T, and Puerto Rico.

This power is everywhere, but it lies dormant and wasted unless we organize it and mobilize it.

Two years ago at our last convention, we knew the anti-union bosses were about to throw the Janus decision at us. So we embarked on the CWA STRONG program. We set out to defeat the bosses’ attack on our public sector members. And across this great union, local leaders stepped up to meet the challenge. We increased overall membership density by 6%. Instead of losing members, we increased our public sector membership by nearly 5,000 members and increased our public sector density from 80% to 90%. That, sisters and brothers, is CWA STRONG.

Our third challenge is absolutely critical — electing a pro-worker government in November 2020.

I know you know this, but it is worth repeating: the stakes could not be higher. Whether or not we will have a pro-labor Supreme Court and National Labor Relations Board. Or a Department of Labor that works for workers, not for bosses. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration that will protect workers from deadly on-the-job hazards, rather than protecting employers by refusing to issue any regulations at all. A government that will rein in the power of big banks, and tax those who can afford to pay, rather than showering massive tax breaks on the 1%. A government that actually believes in science, instead of denying the reality of climate change, so that the Big Oil and Gas companies can reap mega-profits as they freely destroy our planet. A Congress that will work to strengthen our democracy, expanding the right to vote and getting big money out of politics — rather than gutting our voting rights and letting corporate money drown our political system.

When Donald Trump campaigned for President, he claimed he would bring back hundreds of thousands of lost factory jobs. But when GM announced it was closing its Lordstown Assembly plant in Ohio and laying off 1600 autoworkers, how did Trump respond? He attacked the president of the local, he said the UAW’s dues were too high, and he called union leaders dishonest people.

I guess the President’s performance on Lordstown should come as no surprise. Look at what happened with our own employers. When GE closed down factory after factory, he did nothing. When AT&T closed down call center after call center, and moved them to other countries, he did nothing.

Last year, I personally met with the President, along with several other union leaders, in the White House. I looked him straight in the eye and asked him to issue an Executive Order that would penalize call center companies that shipped jobs overseas. I don’t think he had any idea what I was talking about. He blusters about creating millions of beautiful new jobs, but as far as I can see, his promises are no more than complete bullshit.

And it’s not just the President we have to change. We must also concentrate on holding on to our House majority. And we must take back the Senate! Mitch McConnell has demonstrated his total disregard for the will of the people. He’s changed and manipulated the Senate rules to stack the courts and block consideration of any pro-worker, pro-community legislation. The national Senate races will be a major challenge. The numbers aren’t easy. But we see a path to victory running through North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Maine and Colorado. Those of us in union-dense “blue” states are going to need to reach out to friends and family and click on donation buttons until we develop big calluses on our forefingers! We must do everything we can to win the Senate and make American politicians serve the American people once again!

Brothers and Sisters, the challenges we face have never been more critical. The choices we face have never been clearer. It is up to us to meet these challenges. There is no standing on the sidelines. There is no waiting until tomorrow. As Martin Luther King said in a speech in 1967: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. ... This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Brothers and Sisters, I ask you to stand with me, “in the fierce urgency of now,” to do what needs to be done: Stand with me to make the changes we need to strengthen our union, stand with me to take back the Congress, stand with me to take back 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, stand with me to take back America from the racists and the billionaires, and stand with me to build a country that gives every working person a shot at the dignity and decency they deserve. Stand up for the future! Stand up for justice! Stand up for democracy! I know we can do it.

Brothers and Sisters, we need to stand together, we need to rally together, to knock on doors together, to march together, vote together, fight together. We must fight like we’ve never fought before. Most of all, we must win together.

Are you ready? Thank you, Brothers and Sisters.