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Remarks of CWA President Chris Shelton to the 2022 National Legislative Political Conference

Good morning CWA leaders and delegates to the 2022 LegislatIve and Political Conference!

I am so glad to be saying that live and in person once again. It’s great to be back in the same room with all of my CWA Union Family after two and a half very long and challenging years.

Let me begin by saying how proud I am of how our union has functioned during the Covid-19 pandemic. We had to change the way we work over the last 27 months, but we didn’t change what we do. We kept fighting for our members at the bargaining table, on the picket lines, and in the grievance procedure. We lobbied--mostly by Zoom--to pass bills on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, that advance the interests of our members. And our Organizing team has been busier than ever because of a huge upsurge in workers wanting to join CWA--many driven to unionism by their bosses’ mistreatment of them during Covid. Despite all of the obstacles put in our way, despite all of the crises we have faced and the losses we have suffered, we have continued over the last two years to be CWA STRONG! So I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you, all of you who have provided the leadership in the trenches, and all our amazing hard-working staff, for your incredible perseverance and dedication to our members, and to all working people throughout the pandemic. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I also want to take a moment to remember those we lost to COVID. We do not have an exact count of how many CWA members have been lost to this terrible pandemic since March 2020. But we know that at least 150 CWA members were among the more than one million Americans who died from Covid 19 over the last 27 months. And countless more family members passed away as well--parents, grandparents, spouses, uncles, aunts, cousins, even children.

Let us observe a moment of silence to remember all those we have lost.

Let us also take a moment to honor the tens of thousands of our members who served on the front lines of this pandemic. First and foremost, the thousands of CWA health care workers, in hospitals and nursing homes across the country, who put themselves in grave danger struggling to protect their communities from Covid’s onslaught. The disease washed over the hospitals in wave after wave, exhausting front-line health care workers, and putting their health and the health of their families in jeopardy. These workers have been overworked and understaffed for decades, and Covid-19 pushed many to the breaking point. Let’s recognize them now.

Of course, it wasn’t just health care workers. Many of our public employees--our airline workers--our telecommunications workers--journalists and broadcast technicians--our manufacturing workers–were unable to work from home during the pandemic. All served the public at a time of great risk and great fear. Let us honor and recognize all those CWA members who served their communities and our nation at one of the most difficult moments in this country’s history.

I also need to say that while it is great to be back together, we also must be aware that this pandemic is not over yet. With hundreds of us in the same room together over the next two days, we can’t forget that this deadly pandemic still threatens us. We must continue to observe all the necessary safety protocols. I sincerely hope that all who can safely do so are vaccinated and boosted. And we are requiring that everyone in the hall be masked in order to minimize the chance of exposure for everyone. Let me thank you in advance for observing these rules, and urge you to be safe in everything you do while here in DC.

This is the CWA 2022 Legislative and Political conference, so my speech today is going to be about politics.

As you know, politics is pretty damn controversial these days. In fact, I can’t remember the nation being more polarized than it is today, except maybe at the height of the Vietnam War.

But I’ve been around way too long to start pulling my punches now. I’ve never bullshitted you before and I’m not planning to start today.

So let me warn you before I start: Some of you are not going to like what I have to say today. Some of you may get so pissed off you’ll want to walk out. If that’s how you roll, be my guest. Because what’s going on in this country is too important to me--and too important to all working people--to beat around the bush. I’m going to tell you exactly what I think.

You know, in recent months I’ve gotten more than a few emails--I wouldn’t exactly call them fan mail or love letters--from some of our members out in the field.

More than one wrote to me: “Shelton, you’re just in Biden’s pocket.” Some others made the same point, just a little bit nastier.

And here’s my answer: guilty as charged.

You’re damn right I’m in Biden’s pocket. And you know why: Because without a doubt, Joe Biden is the most pro-labor President in my long, long career in the labor movement. No question. No contest.

Some of you might respond: “Well, you’re just saying that because you’re a Democrat, and you’ve always been a Democrat.”

Well, let me tell you. This is not about being a Democrat or not being a Democrat. When Democrats pushed NAFTA and TPP, this union went all out to defeat those agreements. When Democrats failed to stand up for us, didn’t show up on our picket lines, or didn’t support our agenda, I was the first to call them out, and when they came looking for our endorsement and our PAF money, we said no. We even launched - and won - primary challenges this Spring -- against Democrats who supported the TPP and those who would not co-sponsor the PRO Act.

No, this isn’t about Democrats and Republicans. I’m in Joe Biden’s pocket because I have never seen an Administration more committed to supporting CWA and the labor movement. So over the next few minutes, I’m going to lay out all the things that this Administration has done for labor and for CWA. And how much more Joe Biden could do if we had a functioning majority in the U.S. Senate. And how bad things are going to get if we lose control of the House and the Senate to the anti-labor Republicans this fall.

I’ll start with organizing rights. The NLRB under Joe Biden has been more aggressive than I have ever seen in taking every possible step to support workers’ right to organize. One big reason for that is that he appointed Jennifer Abruzzo as General Counsel of the NLRB. Before she was appointed, Jennifer was my Special Senior Counsel at CWA. Jennifer is an amazing friend, and a brilliant lawyer, and one Washington journalist has described her as “the most potent champion of worker rights that the government has seen in a great many years.” The Senate confirmed her on a 51-50 vote without a single Republican vote of support. Vice President Harris had to break the tie.

As General Counsel, Jennifer sets the agenda for the NLRB. She’s not just pushing to roll back the anti-union policies the Trump Board put in place. She’s looking to restore the power of the National Labor Relations Act to actually support workers who want to organize, the way it was before corporations spent 40 years trying to destroy it.

For example, she has asked the Board to rule that employers should not be allowed to hold so-called “captive audience” meetings, where employers force workers to listen to hours of anti-union bullshit on company time. And she is asking them to rule that workers can join a union through a majority card check if the employer cannot provide a reason to doubt that a majority of workers want the union. This was the policy until a rogue NLRB attorney undermined it in a Supreme Court case in 1969.

The Board has already stepped up its use of injunctions to stop employer Unfair Labor Practices during organizing drives. The Board has toughened penalties imposed on employers who commit Unfair Labor Practices. And the Board forced Amazon to give union organizers on Staten Island access to the company’s premises even when they were not on work time, which enabled the Amazon Labor Union to build an in-plant committee strong enough to overcome Amazon’s anti-union campaign.

But it’s not just Joe Biden’s NLRB that is breaking new ground to advance the rights of workers.

President Biden has established an Administration-wide task force requiring every cabinet secretary to find every available tool to strengthen workers’ right to organize. He issued a rule barring federal contractors from firing workers in an effort to break a union when a federal contract changes hands.

President Biden has lifted up the importance of union organizing--in unprecedented fashion--by inviting five rank and file workers from across the country who are leading organizing campaigns to the Oval Office--including our very own Alex Speidel. Alex is a tabletop game designer who has been organizing with CWA at a company called Paizo. The delegation also included workers from Amazon and Starbucks and REI.

And we should never forget that President Biden made a 2 minute and 20 second video, released on the eve of the first vote at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, urging the workers to vote for their union. In that video he said:

“I made it clear when I was running that my Administration’s policy would be to support unions organizing and the right to collectively bargain. I’m keeping that promise."

Never before in history--never before--have we seen a United States President speak out directly in favor of workers joining a union on the eve of an NLRB election. While this statement was not enough to defeat Amazon’s vicious anti-union campaign in Alabama, it set a tone that has given hope and energy to workers organizing across this country.

But that’s not all, brothers and sisters. I want everyone in this room to know that Joe Biden appointed the most effective, most responsive Secretary of Labor since, well, since Franklin Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to be the Secretary of Labor in 1933. Over the last 18 months, I have called on Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh over and over again. I have asked him to help us end strikes. I have asked him to advocate for our issues with other Cabinet secretaries. I have asked him to make connections with corporate CEOs. I have asked him to visit our picket lines. He has never, never, never NEVER once turned me down. Marty Walsh is a member of the Laborers Union and he believes in solidarity. He is one of us, and he walks with a union card in his pocket just like you do. He has responded to every one of my asks without raising an eyebrow. So I want all of you here to know that Joe Biden has appointed the best Secretary of Labor ever, bar none!!! And you will get to hear from him tomorrow morning.

So in the area of workers’ organizing rights and collective bargaining, the Biden Administration is the best friend we’ve ever had. But that’s not all he’s done for working people, by any means.

President Biden has creatively used the power of the federal government to raise workers’ wages, create good jobs and raise the living standards of working people. Most important for us, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year includes the first ever labor standards applied to federally subsidized broadband buildout. It’s also the biggest investment in broadband buildout and adoption ever, over $40 billion. Our legislative team--led by my Assistant Shane Larson and Government Affairs Director Dan Mauer– and members of our Broadband Brigade worked like hell to persuade Congress to include these standards, which give our employers a much better shot at obtaining these subsidies because low-road, low-wage telecom contractors won’t be able to meet the high standards the bill requires. This is huge. But this effort is not over. The money will be distributed at the state level, and we need every single CWA local to get involved to make sure that the states fund projects that use CWA labor!

In a similar direct benefit to our members, the 2021 CARES Act included a Payroll Support Program for airlines devastated by the pandemic requiring them to keep over 50,000 CWA flight attendants and passenger service agents on the job and preventing the companies from cutting their pay for most of 2021. And the American Rescue Plan extended the Paycheck Protection Program to cover TV, radio stations and public broadcasters, saving thousands of jobs of NewsGuild and NABET-CWA members.

But there’s STILL more. The Biden Administration has:

  • Mandated that all federal employees and federally contracted employees are paid at least $15 an hour.
  • It has limited the use of non-compete clauses that prevent workers from changing jobs in order to get higher wages and benefits.
  • It has strengthened overtime protections for salaried workers.
  • The Biden Administration increased the child tax credit to $300 per month.
  • And they reversed a Trump-era rule that had made it easier for employers to treat workers as independent contractors with no rights on the job.

There’s a lot more, on protecting pensions, and global labor rights, limiting the power of Wall Street private equity firms, and strengthening worker safety and health. But I think by now you are getting the point. In a little less than 18 months, the Biden Administration has compiled an outstanding record of positive action to help CWA members, members of unions everywhere, and all working people in America.

But most of our members, let alone the general public, simply do not know this record. All they read about is Democrats fighting each other over the Build Back Better bill, or inflation, or disputes about whether or not we have to keep wearing masks. I’m not saying Biden has done a perfect job communicating with the American people--far from it--but there is a disastrous disconnect between working people and what this Administration has been trying to do for us.

I’m not arguing that what the Biden Administration has accomplished so far is enough to solve the challenges facing working people in this country. There is far, far more that needs to be done. Take organizing rights. The steps that the Biden Administration has taken are critical--the most important in decades. But what is really needed is a complete rewrite of American labor law so it once again does what it was meant to do when Senator Robert Wagner introduced the National Labor Relations Act in 1935--ensure that workers have the right to organize totally free of intimidation or coercion by their bosses. That is why we have been working so hard for the past several years to pass the Protect the Right to Organize Act, the PRO Act, and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and why we worked so hard last year to get critical provisions of the PRO Act into the President’s Build Back Better plan.

But Washington is paralyzed by a stalemate not of Joe Biden’s making. You know the story well by now. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema--two renegade Democrats-- have stood in the way of getting the 51 votes needed to move any version of the Build Back Better plan. Legislation that would have truly made the lives of tens of millions of American workers so much better. Legislation that includes free, universal pre-school and child care. Affordable high quality care for our aging parents. Making health care under the ACA more affordable. Making critical investments in reversing climate disaster. Investments in affordable housing. And,as I mentioned earlier, several key provisions of the PRO Act. All these have been blocked--by an unholy coalition between 50 Senate Republicans and Manchin and Sinema--despite the tremendous efforts by the President, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This stalemate has blocked this Administration from addressing the critical issues facing our country, and undermined the Biden Presidency. Am I angry about that? Damn right I’m angry!!!!

My friends, we stand at a critical crossroads. A critical crossroads for our labor movement and for our nation. We have the most pro-union Administration we have seen in our lifetimes, an Administration that backs up words with deeds when it comes to encouraging workers to join unions. At the same time--and it’s not a coincidence--we have seen a significant upsurge in workers organizing across the country. The combination of the pandemic, a tight labor market with 3.5% unemployment, and a pro-union political climate have inspired workers, at long last, to start fighting back. Polls show that Americans are more supportive of unions than they have been in decades, and among young people, an amazing 77% support the idea of unionization.

We can see the impact of these factors. There was the amazing breakthrough at the JFK Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. There is the unstoppable wave of organizing that is rolling across Starbucks. We’ve seen victorious union elections at retailers like REI. And we are definitely seeing a surge of workers joining CWA as well. The enthusiasm of retail workers for unions has spilled over into Verizon Wireless stores in Washington State. We have an amazing situation at Apple retail stores, where hundreds of workers have contacted us and we’ve helped workers form organizing committees at several stores, which has already resulted in a $2 an hour across the board raise for Apple store workers. In Austin, Texas, 900 workers at Integral Care, a county mental health facility, won recognition with CWA last month.

ATT IHX workers have organized in seven states. The NewsGuild has increased its ranks by 40%, with nearly 7,500 new members over the last four years. Including 650 technical workers at The New York Times, the biggest unionized tech bargaining unit in the country. We’ve seen workers at non-profits like the Audubon Society and the Sunrise Movement flock to CWA. We recently won an overwhelming victory among 350 adjunct professors at Fordham University. And the Jobs to Move America coalition, which includes IUE-CWA, recently negotiated a community benefits agreement with the New Flyer bus company. This agreement lays the groundwork for a transformational partnership between New Flyer, its workers, and their communities and sets a new standard for the revitalization of manufacturing in North America. And, as I announced at the Presidents Meeting yesterday, we have negotiated an unprecedented neutrality agreement with one of the biggest companies on Earth – Microsoft – for workers at the video game publishing giant Activision-Blizzard, which will take effect if Microsoft’s proposed merger with Activision is approved. These are all incredible developments, and I want to shout out our national organizing director, Tom Smith, for his great leadership of all these campaigns across the country.

Now, I don’t want to exaggerate what’s happening here. Amazon employs over 1 million workers in the U.S., and just over 8,000 work at the one unionized warehouse on Staten Island. WalMart employs 1.6 million in the U.S. and none are organized. McDonald’s and its franchises employ 800,000 workers and none have union representation. If we are going to turn what’s been happening over the last few months into our CIO moment--comparable to when the UAW and the Steelworkers and the Rubberworkers and the Electrical Workers built the modern labor movement in the late 1930s--we are going to need to work our asses off. We must keep building on this moment. We must fan the flames of worker resistance. We must support workers anywhere and everywhere they decide they want a union. The entire labor movement must focus all its energy and resources on organizing the unorganized to capitalize on this moment and expand the ranks of labor.

Which brings me to why this November’s election is so important. The moment that we are in--the opportunities before us--the hope of rebuilding the labor movement, and reversing the decline of the last 40 years--will be on the ballot this fall. For the last 40 years, Republicans in Congress and in the White House have carved away at workers’ rights, undermining the National Labor Relations Act, cutting funding for the National Labor Relations Board. They aided and abetted employers, who put an army of anti-union consultants to work, broke strikes and defeated organizing drives, and drove the private sector unionization rate down from 35% in the mid-1950s to 6.5% today. Then, Republicans in state legislatures across the country amped up their anti-union campaign, taking aim at public sector unionism. Starting with Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey, they rolled back bargaining rights and eliminated dues deduction for public workers. Then, of course, there was the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, issued by Bush and Trump appointees, eliminating public sector agency fees, and costing CWA millions of dollars in revenue every year. There is no mystery about the goal here--they want to destroy the labor movement.

And this is not just about making the world safe for bosses. This is about destroying democracy itself. Because unions are one of the strongest forces for democracy in every society. We exist to guarantee democracy in the workplace, to give regular people a voice in their everyday lives on the job, to end the complete and total tyranny of the boss. And we fight for those values in the public arena. We stand for the rights and participation of all people in the decisions of their lives, no matter what their color, no matter where they came from, no matter how humble. Our enemies know that. And that is why they want to destroy us.

Today, there is a faction of the Republican Party that simply no longer believes in democracy. We all know the stories now. We saw a plot organized directly out of the White House to decertify the results of the election in critical battleground states. You might have noticed that so far in this primary season, none of the winners or even the losers in the Republican primaries have uttered a single word about the results that directly affect them being fraudulent. Then we saw a plot directly out of the Oval Office to pressure Mike Pence to singlehandedly overturn the election results, egged on by nuts like John Eastman, Sidney Powell, Peter Navarro and Mike Lindell. And across America we have seen the dangerous spread of white supremacist paramilitary groups, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys, who are prepared to take up arms to overthrow any election results they don’t like.

My friends, these are very dangerous times.

I truly believe that this fall, and again in the Presidential election of 2024, the very future of democracy and our labor movement are on the line. We know what the agenda of our opponents is. They want to resume their long-standing project of destroying the labor movement. And a significant faction of them are prepared to undermine our democracy to do it.

The threat to democracy could not be more real. The hearings on January 6 that began last Thursday night exposed how close we came to an actual coup in this country. They showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the plot against America began at the very top.

Friends, we cannot have Donald Trump as our President ever again. This is a man who cares about nothing but himself and his own power. He has demonstrated a disrespect for the truth and for the rule of law that is unprecedented in American history. He evidently went so far as to endorse the idea of hanging his own Vice President. If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President in 2024, the very future of our nation will be on the line.

This is no longer a Republican or a Democratic issue. This is an issue of the fundamental values of our country. This is an issue of whether this great American experiment in people’s democracy can survive the current threats, and continue to flourish for another 230 years.

These issues of workers’ rights and democracy unite our members. When we polled our members after the 2020 election, and we gave them a list of 15 issues to consider, an overwhelming majority of them chose workers’ rights as the most important one for us to work on. 96% of Biden voters and 86% of Trump voters agreed. Workers’ rights--and a functioning democracy-- must be the agenda that unites us and inspires us to get out and work our asses off for pro-labor candidates this fall. We need to elect a Congress that is as committed to standing up for workers rights as our President is.

Friends, let me ask you:

Are you committed to building a country that respects workers’ rights? Are you committed to building a country in which trade unions are strong? Are you committed to building a country where we have a thriving democracy, where the rights of all people are respected, and where working people have a voice in their workplaces and in the society as a whole?

If you are brothers and sisters--and I KNOW YOU ARE--then are you prepared to fight this fall for pro-worker candidates? Are you prepared to knock on doors, and make phone calls, text and talk to your fellow workers and your neighbors, and urge them TO VOTE FOR UNIONS AND DEMOCRACY?

Friends, we must all stand up and fight. We must stand up for unions and democracy, not tomorrow, but today, and every day from now until november 8th!

Are you ready? Are you ready to stand up? I will be there with you, on the doors, on the phones, doing everything i can to save our labor movement and our democracy. Stand up, stand up! Will you be there, too?

I know you will. I know you will. Because the stakes have never been higher and together we will save our beloved labor movement and our democracy.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!