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CWA President Chris Shelton's Address to the 78th CWA Convention

Good morning, Sisters and Brothers.

Welcome to our first-ever virtual CWA National Convention.

As you know, Sara and I very much hoped to avoid this situation. We worked hard to plan a safe, in-person convention. But as Delta cases skyrocketed across the country, and as New Orleans became a COVID hot spot, with hospital beds overflowing, we decided that the health and safety of our leaders and staff had to come first.

This meeting over the next three days is truly unprecedented. Going back to the earliest days of CWA, recessions, wars, natural disasters--nothing has ever stopped us from gathering together, face to face, to oversee the direction of our union.

Until now.

As many of you know, I’ve been around for a little while. To be exact, I went to work for the New York Telephone Company 53 years ago. In all those years, nothing compares with what we have experienced over the last year and a half.

It has been a year and a half of extremes.

A year and a half of the most extreme weather I can ever remember--fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves--like we have never seen before. I never dreamed I would see photographs of New Yorkers wading through chest-high water to get to the subway. The catastrophe of what humans have done to the climate can no longer be denied--or ignored.

We are also living through the most extreme public health crisis in 100 years. An extraordinary, tragic, overwhelming crisis which has stolen over 700,000 American lives and 28,000 Canadian lives and millions more around the world. And while tens of thousands of CWA members have made enormous sacrifices--going to work under the most terrifying conditions of their lives--we have also had to put up with a year and a half of insane, extreme reactions to this crisis, with pandering politicians turning basic public health questions like vaccinations or mask-wearing into political talking points.

I want to take this moment to acknowledge the incredible sacrifices made by so many of our members--especially our tens of thousands of health care workers--who put aside everything to serve their patients in the very worst of times. And we salute all of you--telecom workers, flight attendants, public sector workers, passenger service agents, customer service workers, journalists, factory workers, and many more--who had to stay on the job, risking exposure, day in and day out, to this deadly disease.

I also know that many of you lost family members, friends, and co-workers to COVID-19. Our hearts and our prayers go out to all of you. Later, we will hold a special memorial for those we lost to Covid-19.

This has been a year and a half of political extremism as well.

Never before in our history has a sitting President refused to accept a peaceful, democratic transition of power. Never before in our history has one political party systematically campaigned to undermine the legitimacy of an election. And never before in our history have insurrectionists carrying the Confederate battle flag stormed the Capitol of our country--the seat and symbol of this nation’s unique democratic history--in a fascist attempt to disrupt the government and nullify the results of a free and fair election. An election, I might add, that the candidate supported by these vigilantes LOST by SEVEN MILLION VOTES!!!

Brothers and Sisters, our country has been tested over the last 18 months by a social, political and economic crisis which can only be compared to the Great Depression or the Civil War. And while we survived the Trump presidency and have restored a measure of normalcy to our politics, the verdict is still out on what lies ahead. Apparently, with a handful of exceptions, the Republican Party as we’ve known it for the last hundred years has more or less lost its mind--and whatever moral grounding it once had. Most Republican leaders, terrified of the hard-core pro-Trump base which now controls Republican primaries, continue to spread the blatant lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

And the spirit of hate that we saw in the insurrectionist mob on January 6th has now migrated to state capitals across this country. Except now the mob is dressed a little nicer. They wear well-tailored suits instead of Confederate symbols or T-shirts with anti-Semitic slogans, or fur hats and horns like those on January 6th.

This new insurrectionist mob is made up of Republican state legislators in state after state who are hell-bent on making it harder for Americans to exercise their right to vote. And they’re especially focused on making it harder for people of color to vote and to have their votes counted. They want to take us back to the days of Jim Crow.

The people carrying out this campaign know that they can’t overturn the last election. But they are working to lay the foundation for challenging the outcome of the next election, if they lose. Their Plan A is improving their odds of winning by limiting the rights of people they don’t like to vote, invoking non-existent examples of fraud. And if that fails, Plan B is sowing enough doubt in the public’s mind about election credibility to enable them to reject the results of any close election in the future. And at the same time, hard-right, armed militias like the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers are not so quietly preparing for a violent civil war. The actions of much of the Republican Party can only be seen as aiding and abetting these fascist paramilitaries. This is not a pretty picture. As Bob Woodward reported in his latest book, “Peril,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, warned his senior staff after January 6th: “What you might have seen was a precursor to far worse down the road.”

Sisters and Brothers, we will not sit back and let them destroy our democracy. Just as every generation has had to stand up and fight against reactionary forces that want to take us backwards, now is our time to stand up and say ENOUGH! We will not turn back. We will fight to expand our voting rights and defeat the campaign to undermine our democracy.

So we are not out of the woods yet. Not by a long stretch. We are still fighting Covid, primarily because tens of millions of Americans won’t get vaccinated. The climate crisis will get worse before it gets better. And our country remains deeply divided. Sometimes it seems as if Republicans and Democrats are living in two completely different realities. I don’t have time today to explore these differences in depth. They are complicated and they run deep. They are rooted in deep-seated fears and insecurities--fears about racial change and diversity that date back to the earliest days of our country, fears about our country’s changing role in the world, fears about a future that is economically and physically insecure. But whatever its origins, these divides are making it incredibly difficult to address the crises which are facing our society.

Yet, in spite of all that troubles the nation, Brothers and Sisters, I continue to have hope. I have hope because I see a President and a Congress seeking to chart a new, pro-worker direction for this country. I see growing agreement, at least among Democrats, that we can no longer wait to address the climate crisis. I have hope because the movements for racial justice that erupted after the tragic murder of George Floyd have changed history, have forced all of us to reckon in a new way with the legacy of racism in this country. I have hope because there are increasing signs around the country that it is dawning on workers that organizing is the key to a better life. And I have hope because I have seen our union--our CWA--rise up to meet the challenges of the last 18 months, and fight like hell to make sure our members made it through the pandemic as best as they could.

In hard times like these, our job as leaders is to nurture hope, to help it grow, to spread the spirit of hope to our members and to our communities. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said: "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."  Together, that is our mission.

Last November’s election truly was the most important of our lifetimes. I know we’ve used that phrase every four years for the last 30 years, but last year, it was really true. The future of working people and the future of democracy were on the line. Thanks to the incredible work done by all of you--and by thousands of CWA activists across the country--thanks to the enormous effort of the entire labor movement, thanks to tireless phone banking and texting and door knocking by millions of Americans desperate to end the regime of Donald Trump, Joe Biden won.

Two months later, another critical election took place, this time in Georgia. And once again, CWA and the labor movement rose to the occasion. Once again we won critical victories--we shocked the country by electing BOTH Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate, and made Chuck Schumer the Senate Majority Leader.

I’ll be honest with you. I never had any doubt that Joe Biden would be a better President than Donald Trump. No one could possibly have been worse. But I did not know for sure what kind of President Joe Biden would be once he got to the Oval Office. Would he be cautious or would he be bold? Would he be genuinely pro-worker, or too quick to compromise on behalf of rich donors? Would he be a President of half-measures, or would he act decisively to improve the lives of ordinary Americans?

Brothers and Sisters, Joe Biden is hands down the most pro-labor President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and maybe even more openly pro-union than FDR himself. His pro-union video for the Amazon organizing campaign was amazing. He has appointed our own Jennifer Abruzzo, former Special Counsel to CWA, as General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. He insisted that the bipartisan Infrastructure bill include labor standards covering the $65 billion allocated for broadband buildout, making it harder for non-union, low-road contractors to get the work. The American Rescue Plan included hundreds of billions of dollars that kept cities and states afloat, and saved the jobs of tens of thousands of our public sector members, during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. President Biden has been willing to act decisively and forcefully to address the crises affecting the American people.

It seems that President Biden and leading Democrats have finally figured out what Democrats must do to succeed when they have power: very simply, they must use that power to make the lives of regular working people materially better. That is why they poured $1.9 trillion into reviving the economy with the American Rescue Plan. That is why they fashioned the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan which will put tens of thousands of Americans to work rebuilding our roads and bridges, protecting our communities from climate change, and building broadband to unserved areas.

And perhaps most important, that is why both House and Senate Democrats are working to negotiate a huge budget reconciliation plan that will include massive new investments in improving the lives of ordinary working Americans. The reconciliation plan, which will pass without a single Republican vote, has the potential to be the most transformational piece of social and economic legislation since Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed in the mid-1960s.

The reconciliation is filled with provisions that will improve the lives of working Americans:

  • Creation of a federal Paid Family Leave program that will enable workers to take compensated breaks from their jobs to care for newborns or ill family members.
  • Making the $300 per month child tax credit permanent.
  • Expanding Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision care.
  • Universal pre-K classes for 3 year olds and 4 year olds
  • Free or affordable child care
  • Two years of free community college.
  • Major investments in improving home care and elderly care, by expanding the workforce and increasing training and salaries

And all of this would be financed by increasing taxes only on big corporations and wealthy Americans making $400,000 a year or more. Right now, there are intense negotiations over what will be in the final package. Some important elements may be cut because of the opposition of so-called centrists and moderates. But I believe the final bill will still represent a huge breakthrough in this country.

And part of the reason I feel that way is that the current version of the reconciliation bill includes the first steps to strengthen workers’ right to organize since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Here again, CWA has a great deal to be proud of. Along with the Painters Union and several community allies, we have led the campaign to pass the PRO Act. Our outstanding Legislative and Political team in Washington has been working hand in glove with Senator Schumer and Senator Sanders’ staff to ensure that key provisions of the PRO Act are included in the reconciliation bill. And our LPATs have been leading the fight in states and congressional districts all around the country. We are hopeful that the bill will include increased penalties on employers who interfere with organizing drives; will make union dues tax deductible; and increase funding for the NLRB including requiring that NLRB elections be conducted by electronic balloting. These are modest--but important--steps in the right direction. It is by no means the transformative change we need to fix our broken labor laws. We will never stop until the full PRO Act is adopted and the right to organize is truly protected. But thanks to the leadership of our union, the reconciliation legislation is likely to include the most important advance in workers rights since the Great Depression.

The possibility of strengthening organizing rights could not come at a better moment. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a definite upsurge in interest in joining unions among many different groups of workers. In fact, since our last convention, CWA has organized nearly 15,000 new members -- the most in any two year period since we organized American Airlines passenger service workers in 2014. We have begun to make major breakthroughs in the growing technology sector, with over 1,000 Google workers voluntarily paying 1% of their salaries in dues as they build the Alphabet Workers Union; the New York NewsGuild is moving towards an election for nearly 800 tech workers at the NY Times; we have organized nearly 900 workers at major non-profits like the National Audubon Society, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Sunrise Movement; over 1,000 journalists and other newspaper workers, from the Arizona Republic to the Miami Herald to the NBC News digital staff, have joined the NewsGuild; in the public sector and health care, thousands of workers have gained bargaining rights in units in Kansas, Colorado, and New Jersey; and we continue to build non-traditional organizations like the United Campus Workers on campuses across the South and in Arizona and Colorado.

Yes, it is true that we are not yet at the point where millions of workers are walking out--or sitting in--to demand union representation, the way they did in the 1930s. There is still too much fear in the workplace. There is still too much anti-union propaganda. We will not end income inequality or have a truly democratic society until millions of non-union workers at companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart have a voice on the job. But there are sparks out there; flames of unionism are igniting. Our job is to fan those flames until they become a full-blown organizing wildfire.

Increasing interest in unions should come as no surprise. The pandemic made it clearer than ever before why every worker needs a union. During the pandemic, CWA fought like hell to make sure our members were protected as best they could be. We obtained work from home agreements for tens of thousands of members. Where workers could not work from home, like telecommunications technicians, we arranged for home garaging of trucks so workers did not have to gather in garages before and after work. We fought to make sure workers had the personal protective equipment they needed.

I am so proud of how hard our union worked to protect all of our members in this terrible, terrible time.

Compare that to the plight of workers who had no union to fight for them. Non-union workers at meatpacking plants sent back into the factories despite major COVID outbreaks, forced to work side by side on assembly lines with no protections. Fast food workers whose bosses lied to them about sick co-workers, and threatened to fire them if they didn’t come to work, eventually sickening many more workers in the same stores. Health care workers who had no union to make sure they were provided with the proper Personal Protective Equipment. Warehouse workers at Amazon who had to threaten wildcat job actions to get social distancing and PPE in their workplaces.

During the early months of the pandemic, having a union literally made a life and death difference to working people.

As I said at the outset, the last 18 months have been extraordinary--among the most challenging and heart-breaking we have ever faced.

But honestly, we should be so proud of how CWA responded to this crisis!

Across the country, our local leaders, our shop stewards, our members, stepped up. You fought for safe working conditions and proper PPE. You helped workers join CWA so they could have a voice on the job. I know that every single one of us is so grateful that we have a fighting union to represent us on the job. If we were physically together, I’d ask all of you to stand up and give yourselves a standing ovation for the amazing job you have done since those fateful weeks in March of 2020.

And I want to recognize two outstanding recent examples of how we fight. A couple of weeks ago, about 1,700 Frontier workers in California staged a successful one-day grievance strike, which forced management to abide by an NLRB decision that the company was simply ignoring. And in Buffalo, New York, about 2000 members at the Catholic Health System are on Day 18 of their strike to win increased staffing and higher wages, so that they can provide the high quality patient care their community needs and deserves. The members of Local 1133 are prepared to stay out as long as it takes to win what they need for the people of Western New York and for themselves. Congratulations to both of these groups for their determination and their militancy.

Finally, this brings me to a discussion of the most important issue facing us at this Convention over the next couple of days. We all saw the critical difference a fighting union makes in our members’ lives. But we also know that the pandemic hit our members, and our union, hard. Tens of thousands of our members lost their jobs, and we are continuing to fight hard to revitalize the economy and bring back good union jobs. But these layoffs compounded the long term financial challenges our union has been facing because of Corporate America’s decades long campaign to undermine union density by outsourcing, offshoring and downsizing. And the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, in June, 2018, cost CWA $6.5 million a year in public sector fair share fees with one stroke of the pen. In the face of all of these attacks, we must take the necessary steps to keep CWA on a sound financial footing.

Your Executive Board has worked hard over the last 18 months to stay ahead of the problem, finding ways to cut costs and save money without laying off union staff who are critical to servicing you and your locals.

So far, we have weathered the storm, but the long-term challenges are very real. We have developed a proposal to help our union build back better from the pandemic. It’s called the SMART Resolution. SMART stands for Support Members and Rebuild Together. It would allocate a portion of our existing Strategic Industry Funds to fund new, permanent CWA staff reps and Organizing Coordinators to ensure that the union can keep building power for our members.

Let me repeat that because I have heard that there is some confusion about this. The SMART proposal will allocate a portion of our existing Strategic Industry Funds for direct service to members and organizing to build our power. That means hiring new CWA Staff Reps and Organizing Coordinators to support locals and members.

SMART doesn’t take any money away from the Members Relief Fund - our strike fund.

It doesn’t raise member dues - it will increase our capacity without raising a penny in dues.

It doesn’t change the local dues “split.”

We have to keep our union strong, by fighting for the expansion of good union jobs in every bargaining unit possible, and ensuring that as hiring rebounds, CWA members are first in line to fill open positions. We must provide our current members with effective representation. And we must ORGANIZE, ORGANIZE, ORGANIZE to build the union. To get that done we must use our resources - both people and money - in the most effective and efficient ways. The SMART resolution does just that.

The vote on this proposal will take place this afternoon. I will conclude by saying this:

The SMART proposal is critical to the future of our union. It represents a SMART reallocation of our existing dues revenue to enable us to provide the best possible service to members and to invest in organizing efforts that will build the future of our union. Your Executive Board worked long and hard to develop this proposal and has endorsed it unanimously.

Over the decades, we have made numerous adjustments to our structure to strengthen CWA. You may remember that prior to the 1989 NYNEX strike, we relied on a Defense Fund that had about $25 million in it. When the Defense Fund was bankrupted during the 17-week strike, the next Convention decided to create the Members Relief Fund. I don’t think we ever dreamed that it would have $425 million in it, enough to support members through the largest, longest strikes imaginable. Then, about 10 years ago, we created the Strategic Industry and Growth Funds to support new initiatives and programs that have greatly strengthened our union. Now we need to make this SMART update to our structure. On behalf of our Board, on behalf of the members who will inherit this union when we have all retired, I urge you to vote yes on this critical proposal.

Brothers and sisters, we come together at a moment of both extraordinary challenges and extraordinary possibilities.

Joe Biden is the most pro-union president any of us have ever seen. American workers are more interested than ever in bringing the power of union to their workplaces.

Are you ready to rise up and make the most of this opportunity?

Are you ready to rise up and fight for our health and safety until the danger of the pandemic has passed?

Are you ready to rise up to fight to protect voting rights, rise up to fight to end the filibuster and rise up to fight to pass the PRO Act?

Are you ready to rise up and fight the corporate lobbyists who will say anything to divide working people and protect their power and their profits?

Are you ready to rise up to fight for good union jobs, for strong contracts, and to help workers join our great union?

Are you ready to rise up, and kick some ass for the working class???!!!

Brothers and sisters, we have been through hard times together before. But we will not give up and we will not let up. I know you will keep on fighting until every job is a union job and every worker is treated with respect and dignity.

We are CWA and when we fight, we win!