CWA President Chris Shelton's Address to the 75th CWA Convention | Communications Workers of America


CWA President Chris Shelton's Address to the 75th CWA Convention

Brothers and Sisters:

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I am deeply, deeply humbled—and truly honored—that you have placed your trust in me to lead this great union.

Forty-seven years ago, when I first took a job at New York Telephone, I never would have imagined—NEVER would have imagined—standing at this podium under these circumstances.

I am humbled to walk in the shoes of the great CWA Presidents who have preceded me: Joe Beirne, Glenn Watts, Morty Bahr, Larry Cohen. I hope that with your support and your help, I can live up to the standards set by these extraordinary trade union leaders.

Needless to say, I did not get here by myself. There are so, so many people to thank. It would take far too long to thank everyone who helped me get here, but there are a few I have to recognize.

That list starts with the one person whose love and total support are the most important reasons I’m standing here—and that is my wife Joyce Patrella. Joyce and I have been together for 35 years. She was a telephone operator at Bell South in Florida, then transferred to New York Telephone and later on, an officer of CWA Locals 1110 and 1108. She has had to put up with everything that comes with leadership in our union—the long days and nights, the endless travel, the headaches and aggravation that come home with you every day from the job. But because she shares my love for this union, and my deep commitment to the cause of justice for all working people, she has never wavered. Joyce, I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

To my children, Kim and Brian, and their spouses, Phil and Tiffany, not forgetting my grandchildren Maya and Abbey, who have your new President wrapped around their little fingers, I am so proud of you and thankful for your love and support. Thank you for being there for me at every step along the way.

I want to thank my friend, my brother, the new Vice President of CWA District One, Dennis Trainor. Dennis served as my Assistant for 10 years, and no one could ask for a more dedicated, intelligent, hard-working and loyal friend and colleague than him. There is no way I could have gotten here without him, and I know that with Dennis serving as Vice President, District One will be in great hands.

I want to thank all of my District One Administrative Staff and Staff, and all the local officers and delegates who are here from District One. Anything I accomplished while I was District Vice President—it was because of you. I feel so lucky to have been able to work with all of you since the time I became a Staff Rep back in 1988.

I want to thank my running mate, Sara Steffens who has had to fight like hell to join our Union, and who now has her seat at the table. Who has made me proud of her and my decision to run with her, every day of the long campaign. Sara will be a great Secretary-Treasurer.

I have been lucky to be able to learn from some of the best, the most outstanding trade union leaders in the country. There are four men who I consider to be my mentors, and sadly, two of them are no longer with us, but they are still foremost in my memory.

I want to thank Larry Mancino, who preceded me as Vice President, and Ed Dempsey, who was my leader at Local 1101 for decades. They forgot more about trade unionism than I ever knew. And of course I want to thank someone who has been a hero and a leader to all of us, someone who I have always seen as a true giant of our union. My great friend and leader: Morty Bahr.

And what can I say about Larry Cohen? For the last ten years, as the President of the CWA, Larry has been one of the most visionary, transformational, and effective labor leaders in the nation. He began his career by organizing 40,000 state workers in NJ into CWA in 1981, and he has been reshaping our union ever since.

He introduced us all to the idea of mobilization, which started in NJ and has become standard operating procedure in every contract fight we have. He founded Jobs with Justice, to promote the idea of solidarity and militancy at a time when the dimensions of labor’s crisis weren’t even apparent to most of us. He built CWA’s organizing program into one of the best in the country, bringing in tens of thousands of workers at ATT Mobility, at the airlines and at many other employers.

As President, Larry Cohen has equipped our union to face the difficult challenges confronting working people in the 21st century. He initiated new programs like the Strategic Industry Fund and the Growth Fund, which have enabled us to launch new campaigns and programs to build our union, confront our employers, organize the unorganized, and better fight for our members. Most importantly, Larry has led all of us towards a new vision of “movement-building”, rooted in the idea that unions will survive and grow only if we succeed in building a vibrant progressive movement for democracy and economic justice. For the last 35 years, Larry has committed himself—literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week—to building this movement that we love.

With his piercing intelligence, his analytical mind, his incredible drive and focus, he has developed a vision to guide our union—a vision of movement-building, democracy and militancy.

But Larry is not only a great labor leader, he has been my friend—and a friend to so many of you. He has supported me and he is the one who urged me to run, much as I begged him to serve another term. I am deeply grateful to Larry Cohen, both personally and for all that he has accomplished in his amazing career. I know that I speak for each and every one of you when I say, Larry, we will miss you.

Finally, I want to say thank you to my fellow Executive Board members, and to all of you. I love this union, because of what it stands for, and because of the difference it has made in my life, and in the lives of hundreds of thousands of working men and women. And I love it because of all the incredible people—all of YOU—who work so hard every day, who put up with all the BULLSHIT every day—giving your lives to this union and all of our members. I want to thank all of you for what you do, and say again that I am humbled and grateful that you have put your faith in me to lead our union. I know that with all of you alongside me, everything is possible for us.

Campaigning for this job has been an exciting and rewarding opportunity, despite too many hours spent on too many airplanes, and too many hours spent eating crummy airport food waiting for delayed flights. Mostly it has been great because I have gotten the chance to meet so many of you. I have heard about the struggles, and the accomplishments, of our members and local unions across the country. I know that in the years to come, I will be lucky enough to meet and work with many, many more of you.

Today, I want to spend a few minutes introducing myself to those of you I haven’t met. I want you to know a little bit more about where I’ve come from and what makes me tick.

I was born in Manhattan—that’s a small island off the coast of New York State—and raised in the Bronx. My mother and father were immigrants from Ireland. My mother was a high school teacher and one of the founding members of the Catholic High School Teachers Union. My father worked for the Post Office. He very proudly carried a union card proclaiming his membership in the American Postal Workers Union and a shop steward’s card in the same union. He was one of those Irish working class guys who, along with everything else he was imbibing, imbibed the values of unionism and solidarity on the job—and those values became the bedrock of everything he stood for in his entire life.

He taught me about unionism from the perspective of a shop steward. And if he could have gotten over the shock—he would be bursting with pride if he could see me standing here today, as President of my international union.

Like a lot of tough Irish kids in the Bronx in the 1960s, I didn’t give a damn about school. School was just a pain in my ass, to tell the truth. So much so that I got myself kicked out of two high schools before I finally got a degree from Theodore Roosevelt High School. I wasn’t going anywhere on the strength of my academic proficiency.

Lucky for me, though, in 1968, New York Telephone was hiring. I got a job as a technician—and I got my membership in the Communications Workers of America. Within a few months, I’d become a shop steward. By 1970, I was a Chief Steward—and the next year, when I was 21 years old, I hit the street for seven months in the longest strike in telephone company history.

I had a union job—and I was a member of a fighting union. And we fought for everything we got from the phone company.

New York Telephone—NYNEX—Bell Atlantic—Verizon—none of them ever gave us a damn thing. We battled for every measure of fairness and dignity and justice we ever got. Most of the time, we had to strike them to get what was rightfully ours.

After a few years as a CWA member, my lack of interest in high school didn’t matter much anymore. I had gotten a real education—on the picket line and in my local union hall.

Fast forward to now. I’ve put my kids through college. My health care and my retirement are secure. Joyce and I own a modest house in a nice neighborhood in the East Bronx—a much nicer house in a much nicer neighborhood than I ever dreamed I would live in 35 years ago.

I owe all of it—I owe everything I have in my life—to my union—to our union—the Communications Workers of America.

My union made me—and tens of thousands of women and men just like me—just like all of you—middle class. The American Dream? Yeah, I’ve lived the American Dream. But not because of some bogus, flag-waving, right-wing, rugged individualist fantasy about how every man can make it on his own.

I lived the American Dream because I was lucky enough to have a union job, a CWA job, and CWA knew how to fight so that all its members could enjoy their piece of the American Dream. And I will never, ever forget that.

And this, at last, brings me around to my thoughts about what we need to do and where we need to go in the years to come. Because today, American workers like me and you are less and less likely to have a shot at the union-made American dream.

Today, unions don’t set the standard for the wages and working conditions of the typical working class kid searching for his or her piece of the American dream. McDonald’s and Wal-Mart do. And that standard is a mere shadow of the standard set by unions like the CWA and the UAW two generations ago. It is a standard that leaves most working class Americans a day late and many dollars short, unable to guarantee that their children will have the opportunities most of us have been able to provide for our children.

During the 47 years I have been a CWA member, the labor movement which made my middle class life possible has dwindled to the edge of extinction. If things keep going in the same direction for the next 10 or 20 years, who can say where the bottom will be?

So today I ask you, brothers and sisters, do we want to be the generation of labor leaders who presided over the death of the American labor movement? Or are we ready to “Stand up and Fight Back?” Are we ready to rededicate ourselves every day to kicking ass for the Working Class? Are we ready to fight?

I’ve just got a couple of minutes left here, so let me tell you a little about what my priorities are going to be for the next four years.

First and foremost, I believe the strength of our union is built on the bedrock of our unity and militancy at the bargaining table.

I am 100% committed to building that unity and militancy wherever our members work. Over the last ten years, with the help of the District One staff, locals and presidents, I have been able to help build that unity among all the local unions in our region.

I say to you here and now, that with your help, with the help of every local officer in this room, we can build that unity and militancy—whether it’s at Verizon or ATT or American Airlines or United Airlines or the States of Texas or Missouri or New Jersey or ABC or NBC or the Canadian Broadcasting Company or Health Care, or The New York Times or Frontier Communications or CenturyLink or General Electric or wherever the hell our members are in a fight. Brothers and Sisters, we will unite and fight because we are fighting to defend the living standards not just of our members, but of the entire working class and that is our job and that is our mission.

Second, I am 100% determined to carry forward President Cohen’s commitment to building a broad, radical, progressive social movement in this country. We need a movement that will challenge corporate power across the board.

As Larry has taught us, this is about much more than CWAers going to the Sierra Club’s rally in July because we want them to come to our picket line in August.

We must unite civil rights groups and women’s groups and community organizations and environmentalists and labor unions not simply because we want strength in numbers. We must unite all these forces because we have the EXACT SAME ENEMIES.

They are powerful enemies who we will never beat on our own, but only by building a powerful progressive, anti-corporate movement.

The labor movement has only grown in times of great progressive upheaval, whether it was in the 1930s or in the 1960s. We need movements of that magnitude, of that scope, to shake this country up and open up the space to grow again. We need progressive movements that name corporate power and inequality as the enemies and labor unions as the solution. Building that movement is not a luxury. It is a necessity, and together, WE MUST DO IT!

I intend to carry on the fight to get 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. The voices of working people will never be heard until we stop the flood of corporate cash from buying our legislators.

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 I will tell you where else I want to take our fight—to Wall Street! I am sick and tired of Wall Street sucking the life from 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 CEO’s 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 their massive out of control campaign contributions to our elected so-called leaders!

I say it’s time for CWA to join the fight to enact a Robin Hood tax on stock trades—a half percent tax that could generate $350 billion a year from Wall Street speculation that we could use to rebuild our infrastructure and create millions of jobs, both in the public and private sector, or do away with student debt, or save millions of homes from foreclosure. I say it’s time to build a movement that takes on Wall Street power in our economy and in our society, that puts an end to the overwhelming power of big banks and investment firms. I say it’s time we had an economy that works for the 99% not the Wall Street 1%!

And let me say one final thing: It’s time to quit relying on the Democrats to move this agenda forward. Yes, we are going to fight in every state and every Congressional District in this country to defeat the crazy, wing-nut Republican Tea Partiers who want to roll back history to a time when African Americans and Women and Gays and Lesbians knew their place, kept their mouths shut, and were forced to hide in the closet. And we have to elect a Democratic President in 2016 if only because the next President is likely to make up to four appointments to the Supreme Court.

Over the last 15 years in District One, we’ve worked with the Working Families Party, in New York and 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. 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.

Brothers and Sisters, I want to tell you, this is a strategy I think we should pursue wherever possible—and I think the entire labor movement should adopt this strategy also. Already there are Working Families Party affiliates in Maryland and Pennsylvania, in the District of Columbia, in Wisconsin, in Illinois, and in Oregon.

I urge you to get involved and to 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 working class. And to do that, we need to build our own, independent, anti-corporate, pro-union, political organizations!

Another target area of my Presidency will be fighting against discrimination in all its hateful forms that we have seen fester and create division all over our country. The targets of discrimination, whether it’s in Ferguson or Staten Island or South Carolina or Baltimore, are always working class people and if we won’t speak for them who will. The one percent and their political allies use race and hate to separate us.

But we call each other brother and sister for a reason, because we are brothers and sisters, all of us, and we must expand union solidarity to the rest of the 99%.

This is an ambitious agenda. But we need big ambitions if we hope to meet the challenges which face working people in this country.

A century ago, at another time when labor was in a deep crisis, the great socialist labor leader Eugene Victor Debs and one of my idols - put it this way:

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, slandered bythe press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is  the setting of the sun.”

Brothers and Sisters, all of us in this room have known the “vital and potential power” of a great labor movement. And we have seen the terrible effects on working people and on society when the Corporate Elite is determined to grind the labor movement into dust.

Together, it is time for us to stand up. Together, we must fight to ensure that the corporate bastards don’t end up destroying us. Together, we must fight to ensure that the labor movement survives and thrives, that it remains capable of carrying on the fight for future generations of working men and women.

I ask you now, and every day for the next four years, to join with me, with my staff, with the Leadership of this magnificent union, in a common project to strengthen CWA and to rebuild our beloved labor movement. That is our mandate. That is our responsibility. That is our obligation, to our children, and to our grandchildren.

Brothers and Sisters, I can’t do these things alone, without you and our members I am nothing. CWA needs each and every one of you to unite to join the fight to become a Union like we have never been before, one where every member has every other member’s back, one where every Local joins with every other Local and there are no phoney dividing lines between Districts and Sectors or from one occupation to another – a Union where we all fight side by side in every fight, everywhere.

Brothers and Sisters, to sum up, my Presidency will be about one thing, just as every other office I have ever held and that one thing is the members, who make CWA the greatest union on earth. So Brothers and Sisters, I have to know –

Are you ready to stand together -

Will you join with me, will you join with me;

Will you stand up and fight for all our members;

Will you stand up and fight not only in the United States but in Canada and Puerto Rico as well?

Will you stand up and fight for nurses and flight attendants; telephone workers and for those folks who still manufacture things in the USA;

and public workers; and for printers and newspaper folks and Broadcast Technicians;

Will you stand up and fight for every member of CWA.

If you are ready to stand up and fight, I am ready to lead the charge, and, together, there is no mountain we can’t climb, no boss we can’t beat and no enemy we can’t defeat.