Sara Steffens Remarks to the CWA 77th Convention

Las Vegas, Nevada

Hello, CWA family! First, let me start off by thanking you for all you do for our union, for your locals, and for all of your members. The people in this room are the heart and soul of CWA, and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this union family.

I also extend my gratitude to the members of our CWA executive board, who every day prove their willingness to take on the hard issues, and especially our great president, Chris Shelton, for his extraordinary dedication to our union. And finally, a huge thanks to my staff in the Secretary-Treasurer’s office who rise to meet seemingly impossible challenges again and again. They work so hard for us all; please give them a round of applause.

On that happy note: We have launched our new membership and dues system! I spent much of this spring on the road with our data staff, training hundreds of local users in person, online, via email and on the phone. We are just two months in now, and I know you have a lot of questions still. Our data specialists are here to answer your questions one-on-one. The local interface we launched last month is only the start. We are working to build a state-of-the-art data operation. More than ever before, information is power, and by building our data program we are making CWA stronger every day.

Technology can help us operate more efficiently, but it can’t solve all our problems. We need to rethink how CWA spends money, and how we choose our priorities. Amid continual attacks on our locals and our members, we’ve made the tough choices needed to keep CWA spending within budget each of the past four years, even as our employers have cut jobs. Last year’s Janus decision cost us in annual fair-share revenue, but we were able to absorb the loss by planning ahead. Together, we are getting through this, and fighting back.

We are CWA STRONG, but the seas ahead are rough. Our major employers, especially AT&T, continue outsourcing and offshoring our work. Even after signing up thousands of new members in Mobility, and the public sector, and raising our union density to record levels, we lost members overall due to telecom industry job loss.

The only way to break out of this cost-cutting cycle is to grow. Sisters and brothers, organizing must be our north star. It is the only course that leads us forward, into better times. Our CWA STRONG work, as Chris described this morning, is paying off – thanks to the efforts of many of you in this room.

Our successes have been remarkable: In just two years, membership density has grown by 10% in the public sector, 7% in passenger services, 5% at AT&T Mobility and 4% in AT&T wireline units. Our AFA-CWA flight attendants have gained 5,260 members, and more than 1,100 media workers have joined The NewsGuild-CWA. 

But we need to double down on our efforts to reach out to people, to explain why we need their help, to sign them into membership and move them into action. We need to invest in proven union builders who know how to build our membership and organize in new industries.   And we need to build on our CWA STRONG foundation by recruiting and training tens of thousands of new stewards and activists.

We are already mapping out what it takes to get there. If thinking of the work ahead makes you feel tired, that means you’re paying attention. I get tired, too. Sometimes it feels like we’re always bracing for the next storm. But we need to look further out, toward where we are trying to go. To really see what we are fighting to build, and why.

Every time I think about what’s ahead, I think about my three daughters, who are in the guest section today. They are all my hopes and dreams. They have gotten so much bigger since we moved to DC. Grace is 9 now. June is 10. Rosie, my oldest, turned 13 yesterday, and suddenly her adult life seems alarmingly close. It is Rosie, who I think of first, when I look ahead to picture what we are trying to build together. At this moment, the stakes feel huge – not just for my Rosie, who is lucky enough to be raised in a union family, but for all our kids.

I hope you are fortunate enough to have a young person in your life that you love. A son or daughter. A grandchild. A niece or nephew. A friend or neighbor. And I hope when you think of that person, and the life you want for them, it inspires you to dream big. We are our best selves when we make a point to think about those who come next. 

So when I get tired, or discouraged, knowing how hard we need to fight to keep our union strong, I think about my daughters. And I think about all of your daughters and sons and their generation, and of the future CWA members just now graduating high school or college and going to work for the first time.

Here is my dream for them. I want our kids to grow up in a country full of strong unions and fierce union members. Where workers are truly free to organize, and no one is scared to speak up because no employer would dare retaliate. A world where taking abuse is never part of your job description. Where workers earn a fair share of corporate profits, and our bosses ask for long agreements, because they know our contracts get stronger every time we bargain. A world where walking a picket line is as common as waiting for a brunch table. I dream of a world where my daughters won’t earn less because they were born female, nor earn more simply for being born white. 

We know that a world of strong unions is a world where equal pay and equal opportunity are on the rise. Not only are unions the best way to reduce the wage gap, but in the U.S., union workplaces are the only places where equal pay is actually expanding for women and people of color.

My dreams are bigger, though, than what unions can do alone. We need to keep building a broader movement for social justice. Because I want our kids to grow up in a nation that puts their needs, as human beings, ahead of the relentless greed of corporations and the 1%. A world with well-funded public schools and affordable child care. Where my girls, and all our kids, can go to the doctor when they’re sick, to the emergency room when they’re hurt, where anyone can get the medications or mental health care they need without fear of bankruptcy or bill collectors.

When our kids become parents themselves, I want them to be free to spend a few precious months at home with their new babies, knowing their leave will be fully paid and their jobs protected by federal law. And when my girls grow old someday, I want them to be happy and carefree old ladies who do whatever they damn well please in retirement, thanks to a secure pension and robust retiree healthcare.

And let me really dream big. I want our kids to live in a world where a woman can be president not only in theory, but in reality. We are on the way, sisters. We have five women running this year. Two are widely named as frontrunners. Maybe 2020 is the year; maybe not. But it’s not far away. We can see it.

It was 100 years ago that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote, plus another year for it to ratify. Our sisters of color were not given effective access to the ballot for another 45 years, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We have come such a long way. And it could be lost so quickly. It has been six years since the Shelby decision gutted the Voting Rights Act, and since then, every single state freed from oversight has restricted access to the polls for people of color.

After decades of progress we still find ourselves living in a time where Congresswomen are targeted with chants of “send her back.” This racist rhetoric endangers us all by eroding the founding belief of our democracy – that every citizen who loves our country has not just the right, but the duty, to speak up and fight for a more perfect union.

“Send her back,” I can’t stop thinking about it. To which era would they like us to return? Let’s stop romanticizing the past, which after all was not so great for all of us. When we look ahead, we are better people. Instead of stealing from our younger generation with massive corporate tax cuts, we invest in them with education and public services. When we look ahead, we put the kids first. And we never back down.

So I ask all of you, moms and dads, grandparents, beloved aunties and uncles, to join me in building a better world. We can only do this if we can dream it. And if we believe that it is possible. Everything is impossible, until it is possible. When we aim big, and work hard, we win big.

Seven years ago, when the Fight for 15 started, critics called it a massive overreach. Now it’s the law in New York, California, DC, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Illinois. By 2022, nearly one in four Americans will live in a city or state with a $15 minimum wage. And last week the House of Representatives voted to double the federal minimum wage, bringing it to $15 by 2025. OK, yes, it’s true, the Senate majority has promised their corporate masters never to vote for this. And that’s why we will vote them out, because that’s possible too, as long as we work hard and believe.

Today, right now, we are in an unprecedented moment of opportunity. In the past three years, millions of ordinary people have taken to the streets to demand a better and more responsive government. Workers haven’t been this mobilized in decades. Young people’s support for unions has reached an all-time high – in fact, the fastest growing segment of our labor movement is workers younger than 35.  More than two thirds of those ages 18-29 support unions.

That’s not surprising, when you think about what they’re facing: Staggering student debt. Stagnant wages. Skyrocketing healthcare costs. Young people want to organize and join together in unions because they, more than any other generation, have experienced what a world without unions is actually like. In short: it sucks. So, young people are with us. Workers are with us. Our kids are counting on us. Let’s not miss the moment. We need to go big and bold while we can.  

CWA, the future is ours to build. Let’s leave this convention ready to tackle the hard work of making real change. Together, we must fight with everything we have to turn our dreams into action, to organize and mobilize and keep CWA STRONG, not just for our kids but for all kids. 

Thank you.