CWA President Larry Cohen's Address to the 75th CWA Convention

Thanks Dave [Skotarczyk, temporary chair] and Linda [Hinton, VP District 4] for all you do to build our union in the Midwest in these toughest of times here in the heart of industrial America.

We have been under relentless attack since Madison in 2011, yet this district is in the forefront of fighting back, whether leading the campaign to defeat the repeal of Ohio public sector bargaining or, right now, in the battle against Fast Track and TPP.

Dennis, thank you for welcoming us to Detroit, a city which means so much to so many of us. We chose Detroit because it is the home of UAW and we like to be in cities that remind us of our CIO values, to organize and unite all workers.

But more importantly, you reminded us of our special ties to UAW. Along with the Mineworkers and Steelworkers, you helped launch our union as the last CIO union and supported telephone worker organizing across the South where early CWAers then, as now, were able to show that mass organizing is possible as tens of thousands from Louisiana to Florida, Georgia to North Carolina and Kentucky joined our union.

CWA-CIO was tough—with nationwide strikes at a time when unions represented 1 in 3 families and bargained “up” our standard of living. That was a time when much more was possible and we followed CIO unions bargaining to raise dramatically the standard of living for hundreds of thousands—wages, health care, and retirement security.

Dennis, you and the UAW mean so much to me and CWA today because our shared values provide a strong basis for us to work together. Whether it’s in our fight to oppose Fast Track, building the democracy movement, or organizing German multinationals who often think that workers’ rights have disappeared when they invest in the USA. Thank you, Dennis.

Let us also welcome our past Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Rechenbach, himself a Midwest activist building the movement every day in Ohio, working with giants like Senator Sherrod Brown and working to make sure the Ohio Democratic Party is a progressive party.

Greetings also from our past president Morty Bahr who is doing well and sends his love as he recovers at home from some minor health issues that prevent traveling.

Let me also give a shout out to retired secretary-treasurer Barbara Easterling who continues to lead the Alliance for Retired Americans, and to all the other retired officers and staff who joined us here today or sent good wishes from home.

We welcome all our retirees and the RMC Chapter leaders.

I want to thank this Executive Board for their willingness to aim higher, take risks, experiment and try everything possible to better our contracts, build our union and our movement.

I want to thank the staff who are here and those at home for committing to the cause each day no matter what we may face.

I want to particularly thank those staff who sit up here and every day support me, despite incredible odds against us in much of what we attempt. We share our love and our anger, our minds and our hearts, and that has been a great experience.

I especially want to thank Rachel and Julie, my two daughters, for their constant love and support and commitment to movement building in all they do.

And finally, thanks to all my friends, sisters and brothers beyond CWA who help provide the basis for my optimism and hope in the future.


We are here under a banner that reads “It’s Our Turn.” Can we challenge ourselves to march out of here fiercely determined to make that a reality?

There is no question about the justness of that cause. It’s Our Turn, and if not now, when?

The one percent that controls the wealth of our nations now believes they can control our democracy, our workplace, our environment, our earth.

We can’t keep playing by their rules—the deck is stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is fixed.

It is not hopeless; there is always a path to resist, always a way when we are under attack to Stand Up and Fight Back.

By ourselves, unions are not large enough to accomplish this.

We cannot negotiate alone, organize alone or do political work on our own. The last ten years have taught us that our broader story or narrative of economic justice and democracy potentially draws in the support of millions—millions who do not have a union at work, or a political movement that speaks to them and for them.

So we must go deeper—our traditional CWA triangle needs to grow in the hearts and minds of our members. Together we need to nurture our activists and leaders. You made this possible in recent years by launching our Strategic Industry and Growth Funds to do just that and you will hear much more about that from our Defense Fund Oversight Committee.

Relative to many unions, CWA is in a stronger position today than two years ago when we met in Pittsburgh. We should be proud of the contracts we are bargaining and the way we bargain—with the members involved and mobilized, with elected bargaining teams, town hall calls, an army of stewards, and actions to galvanize support and increase our voice at the table.

Recently Local 1400 demonstrated this strength, striking Fairpoint Communications for 131 days through more than 100 inches of New England snow, shouting “One day longer, One day stronger.” The strike was against drastic cuts in health care and retirement, and gutting of our employment security provisions. Don Trementozzi and Local 1400 please stand and be recognized…and now let’s roll some video from this successful battle.

This year, more than 200,000 of our members are negotiating, telling employers across Canada and the United States and from Puerto Rico to Guam that “It’s Our Turn!”

Stand up and remain standing if your local represents these huge units that are bargaining or will be bargaining this year.

Flight Attendants at United stand up!

Passenger service agents at American stand up!

ATT Midwest, ATT Legacy T, and ATT South East stand up!

General Electric locals stand up!

Washington Post stand up!

New Jersey state workers stand up!

Verizon east stand up!

and everyone else who has bargaining this year, stand up!

Now all of us are shouting “It’s Our Turn, Stand Up Fight Back.” That is what our employers need to hear all year and we will be joined by 160,000 more in Big 3 Auto, 200,000 Postal workers and many more.

We will fight for a $15 minimum wage but we will also put our employers on notice that whether we are fighting for $15 or $40 per hour, we will fight harder than ever and we will raise our pay and standard of living this year. It’s our turn.

Later this morning we will celebrate our organizing from the last two years—amazing stories of never giving up. In total, we have organized more than 19,000 members in new units since we last met and in our existing units more than 75,000 new members have joined. Again, hard but not hopeless as we will see when we celebrate these achievements.

For more than two years we have helped lead the fight for fair trade and against Fast Track for the TPP, a trade framework that is left over from the shameful US trade record of the 20th century. Our Presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, keep using trade as a foreign policy weapon sacrificing our jobs and our living standards and piling up an $11 trillion trade deficit in the last 20 years. This deficit is the measure of how much we are not producing and how many jobs we have lost. Sadly President Obama and his Trade Representatives have continued on this path of devastation for workers and our communities.

We have helped build the broadest coalition for fair trade ever, millions of Americans. Calling, writing letters, meeting with electeds and pushing. Pushing and not giving up. Too much on the line, too much at stake to give in or give up. Most importantly figuring out how to work with others and build something deeper, something lasting…a movement. We will never give up until we have achieved this for our children and grandchildren.

In many cases, our allies in fighting Fast Track are the same allies who worked with us to save the NLRB and change Senate rules. These campaigns teach us how democracy issues and economic issues are connected. We learn why our elected leaders fail to fight for Fair Trade and instead, too often, support corporate trade deals. How electeds raise their money from the one percent and how they vot.

Why we support patriotism and they support investment profits and yet they call it patriotism

Wherever I go

From the Ed show to the Iowa Working Families summit

From the Capitol to rallies in the streets

I hear from other organizations or reporters about CWA’s amazing work on Fast Track and TPP and I am so proud.

Everyone here who is working against Fast Track, stand up!

At times we don’t want credit since it’s so critical to hold up the broad coalition of more than 2,000 groups—labor, environmental, students, faith based, immigrant rights, LGBTQ, human rights, family farmers, small business.

Millions of Americans rural, urban, suburban

And in Canada as well, building a broader movement to unite across the border.

CWAers are leading everywhere

Some are long time Legislative Political Action Team members,

Others are from Unity at Mobility, Next Gen, or our Customer service network.

All understanding that our call center jobs are even more vulnerable with TPP.

Any nation can dock on TPP once it is adopted and the Philippines is almost certain to do so.

With TPP our jobs go, our wages stagnate, our rights are viewed as a cost no longer a right—

And worse, if any TPP nation legislates changes that improve their environment or workers’ rights, and a foreign corporation claims their future profits will be hurt, that national or local government can be sued under Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS. These are one way lawsuits which only corporations can file before secret international tribunals.

ISDS has escalated since first introduced in NAFTA. Today, there are 500 lawsuits with multinationals suing governments in secret arbitration proceedings. The multi-national corporations are winning—we are not even on the field as no government, union or citizens organization can file suit. Ecuador lost a $2.3 billion case to Occidental Petroleum when Ecuador denied drilling rights to protect their coastline. They don’t have $2.3 billion to spare so likely Ecuador will settle the case and let Occidental drill.

Philip Morris suing Uruguay and Australia because those nations legislated plain packaging of cigarettes and while that case is pending, New Zealand and the UK have held up their own plain packaging legislation.

Vattenfall, a Swedish engineering company suing Germany for $5 billion euros after Germany legislated a phase out of nuclear power after Fukishima.

A month ago, because of CWA’s work, the President invited me to the oval office and told me that TPP would fix NAFTA! When I pressed him on our jobs and pay and workers’ rights, he said labor rights would be in the document and enforceable.

I answered that I had recently been in Honduras and learned that more than 100 human rights lawyers, journalists and unionists had been murdered in recent years and that we had filed complaints under the Central America Free Trade Agreement. I continued that three years later, we have a good report from our government on those violations and that’s it.

I suggested that eventually our Trade Representative will meet with the Honduran government but in a similar case with Guatemala that took six years and nothing has changed.

We get reports and corporations get reparations!

I said, Mr. President, in the case of Mexico and NAFTA, none of our partners in Mexico have had a single meeting with their government on TPP and human rights. The only thing that will change is the words in the text. Eventually we will get a report and a government to government meeting while the multi- nationals sue for billions in reparations. That’s not right!

The President told me that he was too far down the road to change. I told him respectfully that the broad coalition that we were building was deeply disappointed, and that we would work every day for the change we still believed in.

Indeed, our resistance has been awesome. Resistance because none of us have real input into the trade deals being proposed. We react while the multinationals have hundreds of their lawyers and lobbyists writing the 29 chapters of TPP with the US Trade Representative.

They write, we resist. We must continue to ask ourselves and everyone who will listen, “whose world, our world.” Whose world, our world!

This fight is at its peak right now as we meet. House Speaker Boehner is waiting to schedule a vote until he believes he has the votes to pass Fast Track for the TPP. Fast Track, officially Trade Promotion Authority, means TPP and other trade deals for the next six years are guaranteed an up or down vote in the House and Senate within months. There was no Fast Track for the Employee Free Choice Act, there was no Fast Track for real health care reform. There isn’t Fast Track on any issue we care about. Now we are forced to fight against this Fast Track that will destroy our communities, our jobs, and our standard of living.

But what about our turn? All of the 2016 presidential candidates will talk about economic inequality but few, if any, will take on the gap between stock market returns and the stagnant standard of living of working women and men. Are we trapped in an endless cycle where our bargaining suffers from a declining percentage of US workers who have collective bargaining rights and when we fight to change them as we did with the Employee Free Choice Act, we run into one democracy block after another?

Money in politics results in candidates in both parties hesitant to take on their donors. In 2016, major candidates will each spend in excess of $2 billion, nearly all raised from the top one percent, and nearly all of that will be spent in just six states.

Thirty percent of our citizens are not registered as more states pass legislation that discourages registration and voting. Twenty million immigrants, nearly all working class, have no path to voting rights.

In 2013, in the months following our last Convention, we helped lead “Fix the Senate Now,” a project of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights, labor, environmental, democracy, community organizations and other groups. When we met in Pittsburgh, we faced the end of the NLRB as the five-member board terms expired and the Supreme Court had blocked recess appointments by the President. Republicans in the Senate blocked confirmation in order to prevent a Board majority that would support workers’ rights.

But the coalition of millions from the Democracy Initiative groups pressured the Democratic Senate majority to use their majority to confirm the NLRB members and the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, EPA Administrator and Secretary of Labor, and then a few months later adopt the majority rule for all nominations so more than 100 federal judges could be confirmed.

This shows change is possible. Together, with our allies, we made change. You made change and I applaud you.

So these two campaigns, our coalition against Fast Track and TPP and our work on Senate rules reform both point to a similar path for change.

We can’t accept the stacked deck we face when we bargain or organize but to change it we need allies and deeper coalitions than in the past because the obstacles are much tougher. We call these deeper coalitions movement building because we are forming something together beyond a single issue, a deeper sense that we are building a movement together that can move from one issue to another linked by our goals of democracy and economic justice.

We take our inspiration from earlier times when many unions, including CWA, pushed for labor law reform, minimum wage and social security, and won, and built a political movement known as the New Deal.

We take our inspiration from other nations in recent years, Brazil and South Africa, Germany, and Australia where labor is a part of something bigger, and as a result, there is a path to major advances in democracy, labor, and human rights.

When I am asked why I did not run again for President of this amazing union, largely I point to this movement we are building and explain that even though I am not running again, I am committed to building this movement.

Ten years as President and all of it in a time when we have been under attack like never before. Bargaining mostly on defense, holding on to what we gained in earlier years when our movement was stronger.

First, the economic collapse of 2008; and then, in 2011, reeling under the attacks on the public sector led by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin but spreading everywhere, including to our own 50,000 public worker members in New Jersey. In New Jersey, it was Democrats joining Christie to eliminate the right to bargain health care for public workers. And now our pensions in New Jersey are under attack again. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court is taking aim at the agency shop for all public workers.

But as we predicted, the public sector attacks spread to the private sector as so called “Right to Work” laws aimed at private sector union members were adopted across the Midwest—Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Through it all, I have been honored and excited every single day to serve.

But knowing that we had very able candidates ready to run for President if I stepped aside, I decided to do that and focus on movement building for the years ahead. But my ability to help build what we call the movement of 50 million will continue to rely on our new CWA President, our Executive Board and all of you.

I commit to you that I will fight just as hard, shoulder to shoulder with you to build this movement. In the years ahead I do hope to live a little better, love a little better and laugh a little better, but I will not rest unless we are well on the path to economic justice and democracy.

As I wrote in September when I announced I would not run again, we are all perched on the earth as it orbits around the sun at 65,000 miles per hour; perched with seven billion others for a short period of time. But when we commit to each other, the meaning of our lives grows geometrically.

In 1987, when we started Jobs with Justice, we signed a pledge card, still used by the 40 JwJ coalitions today—I’ll Be There! I’ll be there five times a year for someone else’s fight, as well as my own. If enough of us are there, we’ll all start winning.

In that same spirit I pledge…..

I’ll be there with you as we continue to build a stronger and deeper movement for change.

I’ll be there with you as we build the Democracy Initiative to get big money out of politics and voters in.

I’ll be there with workers and organizers who are organizing at least one day longer than the union busting management and their high paid lawyers.

I’ll be there in Iowa or New Jersey or wherever we can connect economic justice and democracy to political action.

I’ll be there to keep up the fight against Fast Track and the TPP until we have fair trade and workers’ rights, not just investor rights.

As a founder of JwJ and author of the pledge, I was inspired by the final scene from the 1941 film adaptation of the Grapes of Wrath as Tom Joad spoke to his mother. I am not Tom Joad but, I’ll close with that….