CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens' Address to the 78th CWA Convention

Hello CWA!

It’s good to be here with all of you -- even though I would rather see you in person, hug you hello and hit the dance floor together. But we can see the light now at the end of the tunnel and I know we’ll be together soon.

We are meeting today in a moment like none before. Since our last CWA Convention, we have feared for our lives, and the lives of our union family members. We have mourned coworkers and loved ones. More than 30,000 of our members have lost their jobs, most with no path to being rehired.

We have fought with everything we have for every employer to respect our members’ basic needs - - for protective equipment and safe working conditions. Paid time for quarantine and flexibility to care for kids home from school and daycare.

If you have cried, I assure you, you are not alone. If you have been scared, you are not alone. And if you feel exhausted, you my union siblings are not alone.

Remember though that being weary is not the same as being weak, just as being courageous is not the same as being unafraid. If you weren’t scared, you wouldn’t need courage.

Despite everything, we have endured. And as we gather here today, we are ready to fight forward and rebuild our union together.

We’ve talked a lot, these past five years, about what it means to be CWA Strong. We have been building our union to be ready to withstand challenges, and we have succeeded. If acting in the face of adversity is the definition of strength -- then we are indeed CWA Strong, stronger than we have ever been.

I want to highlight a few of the ways our union has grown stronger since we were last together.

We helped elect the most pro-labor president of our lifetimes, who appointed the most pro-worker General Counsel the NLRB has ever seen, CWA’s own Jennifer Abruzzo. Jennifer’s stirring memos to NLRB staff open a new era for workers rights.

We won Congressional majorities, however thin, that provide a path to make gains for working families.

With support from Growth Funds, we have built a modern data operation that is fueling mobilization, activism and political work throughout our union.

We have grown our voice in the larger labor movement by affiliating all our locals with their state AFL federations, and freed up local operating funds in the process.

Together, we won payroll protection for airline workers, call center protection bills in six states, and a historic $76 million back pay settlement for hundreds of workers illegally fired by CNN.

Our strike fund stands strong at $425 million and our project funds are thriving. These funds support ambitious contract mobilizations to win gains for members, local training in every district and sector, and breakthrough organizing in tech, banking and at public universities.

We welcomed new units of Google workers, Lawrence school employees, and Denver healthcare workers. And we locked in organizing wins with first contracts at Beneficial State Bank and the software companies Glitch and Blue State.

Even as we fight forward, we are making the tough choices needed to ensure that our union can survive in lean times. We have faced our financial problems head on -- over the past four years, we have cut nearly $15 million in General Fund spending from our national operations, and we did it without laying off a single CWA employee.

Of course, hiring freezes and cost cutting are not a long-term solution to membership decline -- we need to invest in rebuilding our union. So we are asking you as Convention delegates to approve our pandemic response plan to Support Members and Rebuild Together.

The SMART Proposal allows us to hire new staff where they are needed most -- in permanent positions as staff reps and organizing coordinators assigned to support your locals and our members.

By hiring from money that members have already set aside to strengthen our union, we can immediately boost our efforts to win and enforce strong contracts, build union density in our core industries, and ensure that CWA has a foot in the workplaces of the future.

Sisters and brothers, union siblings, there is no magic route to recovery.

The way forward is the same it always has been -- the only way our movement has ever won anything -- by bringing working people together to fight for what we are due.

We must fight forward using all of our tools -- member mobilization, aggressive bargaining, and whenever needed, our greatest tool, the strike. And we must fight by organizing workers, one by one, to understand that standing together is the best way to build better workplaces and better lives.

None of us can do this alone, but we know that our best starting point is to bring passionate, skilled CWA staff together with local leaders and well-trained stewards.

I know that we can do this.

It has been a hard few years -- so hard that some of you have asked whether recovery is still possible.

With private sector union membership now at just 6%, it’s easy to fear these are the end times for the labor movement we love. But labor history tells us a different story -- and offers a roadmap for the way forward.

Imagine yourself, for a moment, as a labor activist in 1930. Union membership has fallen to a dismal 7.4%. Worldwide GDP is falling fast, triggering an economic depression like none the nation has known. Millions of families have lost their jobs, their savings and their homes, turning to souplines and cardboard shantytowns.

As a labor activist in 1930, you would have felt weary, scared and angry. But what you wouldn’t know was that a Great Awakening lay ahead -- thanks to people just like us who fought to turn this country around, planting the seeds of a labor revolution.

Depression labor activists elected FDR. They fought to secure the sweeping New Deal that protects American workers to this day.

In 1935, thanks to tireless activism by labor organizers, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, fueling double digit union growth through the 40s and 50s -- union growth that brought unprecedented prosperity to American families and created the middle-class standard of living that defines the American dream.

Let’s be clear: The 1930s didn’t turn around because the bosses decided to treat workers better. Union leaders just like us made it happen, through bold, aggressive organizing and collective action.

Today, we have all the right conditions for another labor revolution: A pro-labor president. Overwhelming public support. And a renewed understanding that we are responsible for one another’s wellbeing.

Most importantly, we have CWA, our nation’s best union, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars, fueled by thousands of first-rate stewards and armed with a militant membership that understands first how to build power -- and then how to use it.

CWA members know we have to be ready to demand what’s right.

Right now, we stand in solidarity with 2,000 CWA healthcare heroes, our beloved nurses and hospital workers walking picket lines in Buffalo, fighting for safe staffing for their patients.

Two weeks ago, 2,000 of our members at Frontier in California who were working past contract expiration walked off the job to win grievances.

In August, hundreds of tech workers walked out to demand that their employer, the New York Times, respect their right to join CWA.

We will win these battles because our members are united and prepared -- just as they were for the ULP strike at AT&T Southeast in 2019, the AT&T Mobility strike in 2017, and the 45-day Verizon strike of 2016.

We are CWA Strong when we build on tried and true strategies, and also when we find the courage to try new things -- like doing the math to prove to investors that hedge funds not only hurt workers, but actually reduce the future earnings of their corporate targets. These Wall Street vultures are flocking to our industries, but we’re fighting them off with their own weapons.

We are CWA Strong when we unite in the understanding that racism and sexism, that all forms of bigotry, can no longer be allowed to divide us.

When we commit ourselves to action knowing that, as our executive board clearly stated, “The only real way to dismantle racism and build the working-class power we seek is for every worker to take on the struggle for justice for Black people in this country as their own.”

We are CWA Strong when we push on -- with courage and solidarity and hope -- no matter what.

Every day, we are writing our own story -- one that will be told and held up as inspiration to generations of labor activists after us.

And we will keep fighting until our story has a happy ending -- so that when our children and grandchildren read the history we are making today, they will learn how the 2020s were the time when CWA led the way to rebuild our labor movement.

I am so proud of all of you, the heart and soul of our union family. We don’t know our strength until we are tested. It is in tough times that we learn what we are truly capable of.

We have seen you, as local leaders and activists, step up even as the pandemic spiraled out of control. You didn’t hide from the challenge. You fought for safety, PPE and paid time off. For Black lives, and voting rights, and democracy itself.

And now it’s time to test our newfound courage, and to build our union into the powerhouse that our members need. That millions of not-yet-union workers need. That this nation needs.

I love you all and I am proud to stand with and fight alongside every one of you as we rebuild together.

Because we are CWA -- and when we fight, we win!