Remarks of CWA President Chris Shelton to T&T Leadership Conference

Thank you, Lisa, for that warm introduction.  But I want to thank you for something else, too ‒ and that’s the incredible leadership and the vision you’re providing not only to T&T, but also to our National Union.  Lisa’s bringing new energy and vitality to our union.

Since becoming T&T Vice President, you’ve closed out a mountain of grievances – some of them going back 14 years.  You’re building on the strengths of our union -- coordinating support and moving resources to support Districts that are bargaining with CenturyLink, Windstream, and other telecom units.

You’re opening new channels of communication among locals working in T&T.  And, you’re leading our fights!  

Many of you know that in preparation for yet another Wall Street deal, Nokia’s acquisition of Alcatel/Lucent, the bankers and managers of Wall Street thought it would be a good idea to move $3 billion of our pension money to their underfunded pension plan in order to clean up their balance sheet.  

Well, Lisa, thanks to your leadership, the T&T office filed suit against this Wall Street power grab.

Years ago, the union and management were able to work together to change the law to make it possible to use excess pension funds to cover retiree health care costs.  Now, as the vultures descend on the carcass of Alcatel-Lucent, they’re saying they want to use our retirees’ money as their personal piggy bank.  And Lisa’s leading the way to see that it never happens.

No industry has gone through as many changes as ours.  A long time ago, I started at New York Telephone. Then it morphed into NYNEX, then Bell Atlantic, and then, Verizon.

Has it improved the quality of service customers have a right to?   No. You listen to a lot of consumers and they’ll tell you it is worse.

Has it provided the economic security our members earned through the years of hard work and productivity?  No.  Instead, a lot of Verizon workers are barely holding on by their fingernails.  But a lot of investment bankers made many millions.  When I began working at New York Telephone, the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 45 to 1.  Now, it’s 829 to 1!

Sisters and brothers, you hear some people say that workers are being squeezed.  But I don’t think that’s true.  Workers aren’t being squeezed; we are being crushed!  And the reason is simple.

It’s that to corporate America, workers aren’t an asset to be protected; we’re an expense to be cut.  Today, the people who call the shots in this industry aren’t in the business of providing quality services with a well-trained, stable workforce.  They’re in the business of making money for themselves and for the Wall Street investors who are pulling their strings.  The way they see it, their product is profit.

One way to think of it is that you and I might look at an old, beat up classic car and say, “you know, with a good engine and some body work, we’d really have something here.”  Well, they’d look at the same car and think; “I might be able to make a few bucks if I sold off the hub caps, and, maybe, the spare. I’m sure someone would buy the radio. And the rest I’ll sell for scrap. Oh, and then I’ll claim it as a business expense and take it off my taxes!”

Sisters and brothers, that, in essence, is what’s called financial strip-mining.  It is robbing workers of their jobs, their wages, and their pensions – their right to have a union – and it is driving this industry into the ground. Throughout our industry, at company after company, we negotiate with management, but our true enemy is Wall Street and the culture of greed they’ve fostered in this country.

Just think about the history of Centurylink.  Many of our members at Centurylink started out as USWest employees.  USWest served the Rocky Mountain, Pacific Northwest, and Plains states – home to the famous picture of a lineman struggling against a blizzard to get to a downed line to bring customers back into  service.  That’s who we are – we’re high tech heroes bringing quality service to customers through storms, blizzards, earthquakes, hurricanes you name it.  When Wall Street looks at us, they see something else.

During the first high tech bubble, a second generation, speculator named Philip Anschutz used his inflated stock and lots of debt to buy USWest.  Wall Street was ecstatic. Anschutz became a billionaire, but USWest, now renamed Qwest, was saddled with $24 billion dollars of debt. Now, to most people, taking on $24 billion dollars of debt may not make a hell of a lot of sense. But Anschutz didn’t care about what made sense, only what made money.

The story gets worse.  To keep up with Wall Street expectations, and in order to make his own $300 million dollars, the Qwest CEO, Joseph Nacchio, needed to meet Wall Street numbers.  And the only way he could do it was to cook the books to make it seem like they were succeeding. 

And, when the bubble burst, Nacchio went to jail, but our company was still saddled with the $24 billion dollars in debt. 

All of you who worked at Qwest knew the situation wasn’t good. You were under the gun and our retirees took major hits.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Wall Street looked at the carcass of Qwest and cooked up another deal.

This time it was an acquisition by CenturyLink which guaranteed to pay back the debt.  Making guarantees to Wall Street pays big time for the CEO who is making $12.4 million dollars and for shareholders holding the stock.

How are they managing that? It’s a simple formula for them:  take it out of our pockets and give it to Wall Street. Move our work to non-union sites, slash wages, bring in more contractors, take a meat axe to the health benefits of our active members, trash the health benefits of our retires, and demand every other concession you can imagine.

Does any of that bother Wall Street?  NO. They actually reward it because their only priority is making sure that CenturyLink keeps pouring money into the pockets of its shareholders.  Their message to CenturyLink is, “we don’t care how you get the money, just keep it coming.”

But we are not sitting still either. We must go out and talk to the unorganized folks in CenturyLink.  It is on us to build the union.

Sisters and brothers, today I think that we want to send a message to Glen Post: “It’s our company too.  We deserve a better tomorrow just like you.”  When it comes to protecting our wages, our pensions, and our union, CWA isn’t a union that sits back; we’re a union that stands up and fights back!

And it’s not only CenturyLink that’s playing the financial strip-mining game.  There’s Windstream, which gamed the tax code by creating a Real Estate Investment Trust for their properties.

Why? So they can shower their shareholders with more dividends without paying taxes on their earnings.

Then there’s Frontier, which at least is struggling to figure out how to run a communications company and sitting down and bargain with us. But, at the same time, it’s still paying out the highest dividends of any major company in this industry -- all to keep its Wall Street puppeteers happy.           Different companies, but all using the same playbook.

And it’s not just our industry, Wall Street has transformed America.  It’s created a culture that puts human greed before human need.  A culture that says the only way to move ahead is to leave everyone else behind.  An America where the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

I’m from the Bronx, but a Texas Tycoon put it best when he said, “money is a lot like manure.  Spread it around and it does some good.  Pile it up in one place, and it stinks.”  Well, it sure stinks now.

Our political system used to be the envy of the world, but the amount of raw power exercised by the billionaire class has transformed us into one more country under the thumb of an oligarchy. A billionaire class that is above the law and beneath contempt.

One hundred and fifty eight families – let that settle in – 158 families wrote checks equaling half of all the early political donations to presidential candidates.  These people aren’t contributing to candidates; they’re buying them!

And that’s one of the most remarkable things about Bernie Sanders campaign:  it isn’t financed by billionaires; it’s powered by small donations from millions of ordinary people like you and me.

You know, our endorsement of Bernie Sanders wasn’t preordained.  As you remember, we asked our members if they wanted CWA to endorse in the presidential race and, if they did, who we ought to get behind.  We said that whatever you tell us to do is what we’ll do.

Of course, not every union operates that way, but not every union is CWA.  So, we had a poll. It was open for three months. 

Members could vote and change their minds – but only their last vote counted and we filtered out any votes from non-CWAers.

Our members’choice? Bernie Sanders.  And that’s who we endorsed.  And I want to tell you that, for as long as I’ve been part of this union, I have never seen our members more pumped for a candidate than they are for Bernie. 

Bernie isn’t speaking to us; he’s speaking for us. He’s speaking out for fundamental change so our children and our grandchildren can have an America that is fairer, and more just, and offers more opportunity than the one we live in today.

Sisters and brothers, he is unlike any major presidential candidate in our lifetime.  There’s no one who even comes close.  And his election holds the promise of turning this country around so we can have government that works for working people again.

What would that mean?

Well, look at what happened in France over the course of the Nokia acquisition of Lucent/Alcatel.

During her last year as head of Lucent, Pat Russo paid herself $13.6 million dollars.

After Wall Street plundered Lucent, Alcatel picked it up for a song and named a man called Michael Combes as its CEO. When Nokia decided it wanted the company for itself and, as part of the deal to buy it, Combes was promised a $15.6 million dollar golden parachute. Fifteen point six million dollars for doing nothing but packing up and leaving his office!  It’s disgraceful.

And, you know something? The French people and their government agreed.  When word of the deal got out, the French finance minister said ‘hell no’ and from that point on it was only a matter of time before Combes’ parachute wasn’t quite as golden as it was before.

A powerful CEO backing down because the government stood up for the people and not for him! Pretty amazing, isn’t it? But that’s the kind of thing that happens in a country with a democratic socialist president!

A president who, I should add, said that he would only support Nokia purchasing Alcatel on two conditions: One is that it would have to increase research in France, and the other is that it would have to guarantee that jobs are created in France.

Wouldn’t it be great if our next president said he’d only support telecom mergers that increased investment in research and guaranteed the creation of more middle-class jobs here at home?

Sisters and brothers, that’s the kind of president we need and that’s the kind we’re going to have once Bernie is elected on Tuesday, November 8!

Sisters and brothers, make no mistake:  We’re fired up!  We’re in it to win it!  And that’s exactly what we intend to do!  But that can’t happen without your energy and your leadership.      

I want to tell you there’s something else we need to do and that’s make sure our members know the real story about Donald J. Trump! Now, if you mention Trump’s name sometimes you hear a few chuckles, but Trump and what he represents is no laughing matter.

We know that a lot of Trump’s supporters back him out of hate, but we need to remember that there are some who back him because he taps into our economic insecurities and fear of the future.  Scared people make big mistakes – and some of those people are members of our union.  And we’re the folks who can get through to them.

Most of his proposals make no sense.  How many seriously believe he can build a wall along the length of the US‒Mexico border, and make Mexico pay for it? Trump talks over and over about all the terrible stuff immigration is doing to American workers, but the fact is that he’s been using – and abusing – immigrant workers for years.

The Trump Tower in Manhattan ‒ beautiful building.  You know who did the demolition work to build it?  Two hundred undocumented Polish workers, putting in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week with no overtime. Some of them were paid $5 an hour or less -- when they were paid at all!

We have more information about Trump – and we’ll be getting it out to you – but what it all comes down to is telling our members the truth: that Trump is a fake, but there is someone running for president who is going to fight for good jobs and who will change Washington forever – it’s a man named Bernie Sanders!

A worker voting for Donald Trump is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.

I should add that I’m not only talking about the labor movement, but environmentalists, the civil rights community, and grassroots activists all across this country who share our vision and who are willing to fight to make it a reality.

We don’t need letterhead coalitions; we need to organize working partnerships.  It’s something CWA’s already doing.

In New York, we took the lead in creating the Working Families Party, an independent political force that’s brought together progressives to elect our own and, at the same time, move Democrats to the left.  Today, it has branches in DC and six more states, and more are on the way.

It all comes down to joining forces with our allies to combat financialization on every front:

  • The war the billionaire class has been waging against public and private sector unions. 
  • The top one percent grabbing all the new wealth in this country while leaving the workers who created it behind.  
  • The drive to pass the TPP and other trade deals that export middle class jobs. 
  • All protected by a campaign finance system that’s made Congress a puppet of Wall Street and the big banks.

Sisters and brothers, that’s not the kind of America I want to leave for my kids and I don’t think that’s the kind of America you want to leave to your kids, either!

That’s why CWA founded the Democracy Initiative and pledged to mobilize for mid-April demonstrations called the Democracy Awakening.

These demonstrations will bring together activists whose vision of a better world is thwarted by billionaires’ big money dominating politics and putting obstacles in front of voters.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King. Dr. King once said:

                “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Sisters and brothers, that’s never been truer than in 2016.  There are those who say that backing Bernie isn’t realistic.  There are those who say that working with environmentalists and others really isn’t in labor’s interest.

Well, sisters and brothers, in CWA, we have a vision. We have a history.  We are leaders. And we CWAers understand, as few others do, that if you fight for what you want you may not always win, but if you refuse to fight at all you’re certain to lose.

CWAers understand that true union power can never be mandated from the top down; that it grows from the grassroots up. CWAers believe labor’s mission isn’t only to speak out for justice on the job, but to fight for it in the community. And, in CWA, we understand that democracy isn’t an obstacle to union strength – it’s the key to union strength.

Sisters and brothers, I’m here to tell you that, in 2016, we’re not going to hold back; we’re going to push back.

                We’re pushing back against AT&T!

                We’re pushing back against Windstream!

                We’re pushing back against CenturyLink!

                We’re pushing back against Nokia!

                We’re pushing back against Wall Street!

                We’re pushing back against every CEO who puts their paychecks and stock options before our members’ jobs!

                We’re pushing back against Donald Trump and every billionaire political hack who thinks working people are too stupid to see through their lies!

                We’re pushing back against every Democrat who wants labor’s money, but refuses to get off their ass to fight for labor’s agenda!

Sisters and brothers, we’re pushing back against anyone who says Bernie Sanders is too radical to be president when you and I know he’s exactly what this country needs!

Like Bernie, our message is that it is high time for a political revolution in this country!  A revolution to see to it that everyone who wants a union can have one!  A revolution to put human needs first and Wall Street last!  A revolution to take America back for the women and men who built it!

Sisters and brothers, the time is always right to do what’s right! And I’m here to tell you that by standing together, fighting together, strong, proud, and united — we will make it happen!