Remarks of CWA President Chris Shelton to the A Philip Randolph Institute

I’m pleased to be here to celebrate with you the 50th Anniversary of the APRI.  This is an important milestone for an organization founded on the twin principles of economic and social justice and I congratulate you. 

Clayola, thank you for your leadership.  APRI stands for what is best in our movement. I especially want to recognize three members of the CWA Board who sit on the APRI Board as well: Claude Cummings, Linda Hinton, and Brooks Sunkett.

Claude chairs our Human Rights Committee and is leading our efforts to double down on building a movement to restore voting rights and end voter suppression.  As part of our efforts, we reached out into our membership to encourage and support their engagement in meetings like this.  We have several CWA members here today.

Linda Hinton is our board member from the Great Lakes region. She chairs our National Executive Board’s Legislative and Political Committee and will help chart our next round of political and legislative initiatives.  

And lastly, Brooks Sunkett, who is our most senior vice president on the National Executive Board and represents over 100,000 CWA Public Sector members.

They, like me, understand that the victims of institutional racism in this country, whether in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, NY; Charleston, SC; Baltimore, Md.; or Waller County, Tex., are always working class people of color, and the labor movement has an obligation to speak out for them.  We must end structural racism, and its ugly consequences to achieve social justice in our country.  And at our convention last year, we adopted such a resolution supporting the “Black Lives Matter” initiative, and CWA will live up to that resolution.

In CWA, we are committed to diversity.   Five years ago we took an important step to further increase our diversity and our strength. Delegates at our National Convention voted to add four diversity members to our board.   The National Executive Board brought this proposal to the convention, because we thought it would take too long to see the composition of our board fully reflect our membership if we solely relied on elections to the existing position on the National Board.  So we added four new board seats to bring in two types of diversity to the board.

First, for CWA, this change created greater gender and ethnic background diversity on the board.  Our board now looks much more like our members as a result and is better off for it. 

Second, these four members are local officers.  As such, they bring a fresh and close to the membership point of view to our deliberations.

Through this action, we affirmed that diversity is not a luxury or a feel good add-on.  It’s a necessity as it leads to a better, stronger organization.

Brothers and sisters, A. Philip Randolph may have said it best:  “Freedom is never given; it is won.”  

And today, just as 50 years ago, we must rededicate ourselves to building a movement to secure our freedom.   This begins with a freedom from want ‒ a decent standard of living -- a union job, and the ability for our children to do better than we did. 

And our democratic freedoms  -- 0ur right to vote, our right to have a truly participatory democracy by and for the people.  Not a democracy by and for the corporations and big money interests.

The only way we restore these rights is, as A. Philip Randolph said, “to fight for it.”  We must build a vibrant progressive movement for democracy and economic justice.  And unions are the foundation of this movement for economic and social equality.

These are principles on which APRI was founded -- the principle that the goals of African-Americans and minorities and the goals of the working class are intertwined.

Even to this day, that principle has held in word and in deed: APRI came out against TPA/TPP, or Fast Track.   APRI recognized the damage caused by these trade deals across both racial and economic lines.  Our communities from east to west have seen the loss of millions of union jobs in manufacturing jobs.  These jobs were the bedrock of our communities and sustained a decent tax base that, in turn, supported good services and good schools.  Trade deals pulled the plug on folks who depended on this work and left behind their devastated communities.   We see it in the high unemployment numbers for African Americans.  We see it in Detroit and its bankruptcy woes.  We see it in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson and the explosive response to injustice.   At the root, these trade deals work for Big Business and the one percent, but not for workers and our communities.

Together, our coalition against bad trade deals and Trade Promotion Authority – Fast Track -- won the support of over 160 Democrats in the House and delayed passage of the one percent trade policy by six months of fierce grassroots education and lobbying.  The Congressional Black Caucus stood strong in its opposition, although we lost a couple of votes – Terri Sewell in Alabama and EB Johnson in Dallas.  

The fight against Fast Track and the delay it caused just may prove fatal to the trade deal. None of the politicians who supported the Republican majority, the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, and sadly, our President, wants to debate a trade deal during an election period.  The vast majority of the American people – no matter what their party affiliation -- oppose it and so do other people throughout the world. 

Right now there is a national election in Canada.  And guess what?  The Canadian government doesn’t want to talk about the trade deal until the election is over in November. 

Again, these delays may prove fatal, but this trade deal and the process are flawed.  You cannot have a democracy and have secret trade deals that rip up our society.  This is not what democracy looks like.

While we narrowly lost the vote to block Fast Track, we are not done.  We plan to join with our allies and challenge House Democrats who voted the wrong way.  The trade fight brought together a vast network of political allies and activists and emphasized again that we must build a new independent politics.

Over the last 15 years in District 1, my home district, we’ve worked with the Working Families Party, in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, to build independent power for working people.  Our own political party, that stands unequivocally with us on every issue, whether it is the fight against TPP, or to raise the minimum wage, or to enact Paid Sick Days legislation or to raise taxes on the wealthy or to get corporate money out of the political system or expand voting rights.  It is an organization that we built and that working people and their allies run.  And most important, it has the capacity and the willingness to take on the corporate Democrats who oppose us.  

I’d like you to join us and adopt this strategy.  Already there are Working Families Party affiliates in Maryland, Pennsylvania, District of Columbia, Wisconsin, Illinois, and in Oregon.

I urge you to get involved and help build new affiliates in new states.  Because while we will be pragmatic about what we must do at election time, we also must have a vision—a vision of a politics that serves the 99 percent, not just the one percent.  And to do that, we need to build our own, independent, anti-corporate, pro-union, political organizations!

As another part of our social justice work, CWA is committed to standing behind a new Voting Rights Act -- a key action element pushed by APRI.   As you know better than I, APRI, in 1965, was founded on the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act through the joint efforts of civil rights groups and labor.  This coalition and the deep bond that ties our struggles together is needed more than ever with the continued attack on voting rights across the country.

We will join with you to push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act that would help correct the hole left in the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision.   On the 16th of September, CWA will join with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, and many other members of the Democracy Initiative in a massive lobby day for a new Voting Rights Act.  It is an outrage that the Republican House majority has refused to permit hearings on the impact of voter suppression.   CWA will be sponsoring five buses from New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina and even Texas.  Chris Kennedy, our Human Rights Director, is coordinating the work with Claude Cummings.   So if you want a seat on the bus, contact us.

While our progress at the Federal level is blocked, we must speak truth to power in the best tradition of A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, and other great leaders.  At the same time, we can move forward in the states and so must reallocate our energies to focus on making progress at this level. 

CWA, along with Democracy Initiative allies, will lead an effort in the states to promote and pass a positive, pro-voter agenda that gives everyone a voice in our democracy.   We hope to turn around the voting debate – from false worries on fraud to the right to vote and duty of government to make this right of citizenship readily available.

We applaud APRI which joined with other partners in a lawsuit in North Carolina to stop the so-called “Monster voting law.”  This law was the worst of many reactionary state initiatives to curtail voting rights.  It was part of a coordinated attack on our democracy by the one percent to disenfranchise the 99 percent.  They shortened the early voting period by a week; eliminated same day registration, prohibited provisional ballots cast out of precinct from being counted and made it easier to challenge voter eligibility.  

We must also move on offense.

We are working to introduce and mobilize Americans in states across the country around what we call the “Gold Standard Model Voting Bill” that incorporates the key elements of a truly fair voting system: voter registration modernization, re-enfranchisement of Americans with prior criminal convictions, and early voting to give working people more opportunities to vote.

No other country in the world puts such registration barriers in front of its citizens on their path to vote.  A modern registration system will let people register on-line or register on the same day.  Their registration would follow them as they move.  Sixteen year olds could pre-register as they apply for drivers’ licenses.  We should encourage voting and our bill calls for early voting 15 days before the election with broad ability to ask for an absentee ballot without reason.

Those who have lost the right to vote because of his or her incarceration upon a criminal conviction would be eligible to vote again when that person is discharged from incarceration.   This re-enfranchisement would put hundreds of thousands of working class voters back into the system and change the outcome of elections.  Our country criminal justice system is a crime.   

Structural racism has filled our jails, yet we have not prosecuted the biggest criminals of our time…the big banks, the one percent and Wall Street barons who destroyed our economy.

I am sick and tired of Wall Street wrecking Main Street.  I am sick and tired of Wall Street writing the rules of the game, and then forcing us to bail them out when they lose a game they rigged for themselves!  I am sick and tired of corporate CEOs making 300 or 400 or 1000 times what the average worker makes!  I am sick and tired of Wall Street’s deregulated, anti-union, trickle-down, one percent economics being propped up by Wall Street’s massive out of control campaign contributions to our so-called elected leaders!

As Fannie Lou Hammer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

We must kick the big money out of our political system. Brothers and Sisters, the Koch Brothers and their allies are literally killing our democracy—drowning it in an ocean of mega contributions the likes of which we have never seen. The Citizens United decision was a cruel joke—the idea that corporations are people and that money equals free speech—is just pure BULLSHIT.  Our voices will never be heard until we stop the flood of corporate cash from buying our legislators.   

Money out, voters in.  There are several paths to stopping big money from polluting our system:  a democratic election in the Fall of 2016 will ensure another Supreme Court Justice who might overturn Citizens United.  There is a movement to amend the Constitution, and at the local and state level we can enact Public Financing for elections.  This reform provides matching contributions for community, small donor contributions to a campaign.  In my home city of New York, this system matches each dollar a worker donates with $6 more. 

This makes it possible for independents to run for office, and we’ve seen the benefits of a publicly financed campaign system.  Without that system, we would never have elected progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio, nor would we have elected a 51-member City Council that is now led by a 22-member and community-backed progressive caucus.  I want to take the fight against big money to every battlefield we can find in this country because literally, American democracy is at stake.  And this is a reform that we can bring to our cities and states.

Each of us has a specific agenda which is core to the founding of our organization or interest group.  But none of us will achieve our top priority if we don’t stop letting the one percent pollute our politics and commit to getting big money out and voters in.   Each of us must engage in these fights and make it our number two agenda if we are to make structural change.   Only then will we have laid a foundation to achieve our goals.

We must do this together.  Any and every organization that supports the middle class and the working class must come together and fight like hell.  CWA is ready and I know APRI is ready.