“It’s Our Turn”: We Can Unite For Economic Justice and Democracy

This is an excerpt of a speech delivered today at the Detroit convention of the Communications Workers of America.

We are here under a banner that reads “It’s Our Turn.” Can we challenge ourselves to march out of here fiercely determined to make that a reality?

There is no question about the justness of that cause. It’s Our Turn, and if not now, when? The one percent that controls the wealth of our nations now believes they can control our democracy, our workplace, our environment, our earth.

We can’t keep playing by their rules—the deck is stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is fixed. It is not hopeless; there is always a path to resist, always a way when we are under attack to Stand Up and Fight Back.

By ourselves, unions are not large enough to accomplish this.

We cannot negotiate alone, organize alone or do political work on our own. The last 10 years have taught us that our broader story or narrative of economic justice and democracy, potentially draws in the support of millions – millions who do not have a union at work, or a political movement that speaks to them and for them.

So we must go deeper—our traditional CWA triangle needs to grow in the hearts and minds of our members. Together we need to nurture our activists and leaders. You made this possible in recent years by launching our Strategic Industry and Growth Funds to do just that, and you will hear much more about that from our Defense Fund Oversight Committee.

Gaining Strength

Relative to many unions, CWA is in a stronger position today than two years ago when we met in Pittsburgh. We should be proud of the contracts we are bargaining and the way we bargain—with the members involved and mobilized, with elected bargaining teams, town hall calls, an army of stewards, and actions to galvanize support and increase our voice at the table.

Recently Local 1400 demonstrated this strength, striking Fairpoint Communications for 131 days through more than 100 inches of New England snow, shouting “One day longer, One day stronger.” The strike was against drastic cuts in health care and retirement, and gutting of our employment security provisions.

This year, more than 200,000 of our members are negotiating, telling employers across Canada and the United States and from Puerto Rico to Guam that “It’s Our Turn!” That is what our employers need to hear all year and we will be joined by 160,000 more in Big 3 Auto, 200,000 Postal workers and many more.

We will fight for a $15 minimum wage but we will also put our employers on notice that whether we are fighting for $15 or $40 per hour, we will fight harder than ever and we will raise our pay and standard of living this year. It’s our turn.

In total, we have organized more than 19,000 members in new units since we met and in our existing units more than 75,000 new members have joined. Again, hard but not hopeless as we will see when we celebrate these achievements.

The Fight Against the TPP

For more than two years we have helped lead the fight for fair trade and against Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade framework that is left over from the shameful U.S. trade record of the 20th century. Our presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, keep using trade as a foreign policy weapon sacrificing our jobs and our living standards and piling up an $11 trillion trade deficit in the last 20 years. This deficit is the measure of how much we are not producing and how many jobs we have lost. Sadly, President Obama and his trade representatives have continued on this path of devastation for workers and our communities.

We have helped build the broadest coalition for fair trade ever, millions of Americans calling, writing letters, meeting with elected officials and pushing, pushing and not giving up – and figuring out how to work with others and build something deeper, something lasting … a movement.

In many cases, our allies in fighting Fast Track are the same allies who worked with us to save the National Labor Relations Board and change Senate rules.

These campaigns teach us how democracy issues and economic issues are connected.

We learn why our elected leaders fail to fight for fair trade and instead, too often, support corporate trade deals.

We learn how electeds raise their money and how they vote.

We learn why we support patriotism and they support investment profits and call it patriotism.

The Broad Trade Coalition

Wherever I go, from The Ed Show to the Iowa Working Families summit, from the Capitol to rallies in the streets, I hear from other organizations or reporters about CWA’s amazing work on fast track and TPP. I am so proud we don’t ask for that credit. At times we don’t want credit since it’s so critical to hold up the broad coalition of more than 2,000 groups—labor, environmental, students, faith-based, immigrant rights, LGBTQ, human rights, family farmers, small business–millions of Americans, rural, urban and suburban, and in Canada as well, building a broader movement.

CWAers are leading everywhere. Some are long time Legislative Political Action Team members. Others are from Unity at Mobility, Next Gen, or our customer service network. All understand that our call center jobs are even more vulnerable with TPP.

Any nation can dock on Fast Track once it is adopted and the Philippines is almost certain to do so.

With TPP, our jobs go, our wages stagnate; our rights are viewed as a cost, no longer a right.

And worse, if any TPP nation legislates changes that improve its environment or workers’ rights, and a foreign corporation claims their future profits will be hurt, that national or local government can be sued under Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS. These are one way lawsuits which only corporations can file before secret international tribunals.

ISDS has escalated since first introduced in NAFTA. Today, there are 500 lawsuits with multinationals suing governments in secret arbitration proceedings. The multinational corporations are winning—we are not even on the field as no government, union or citizens organization can file suit.

Ecuador lost a $2.3 billion case to Occidental Petroleum when Ecuador denied drilling rights to protect their coastline. They don’t have $2.3 billion to spare so likely Ecuador settles the case and lets Occidental drill. Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia because those nations legislated plain packaging of cigarettes and while that case is pending, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have held up their own plain packaging legislation. Vattenfall, a Swedish engineering company, is suing Germany for $5 billion euros after Germany legislated a phase out of nuclear power after Fukishima.

“This Fight Is at Its Peak”

In contrast, because of CWA’s work, the president invited me to the oval office and told me that TPP would fix NAFTA! When I pressed him on our jobs and pay and workers’ rights, he said labor rights would be in the document and enforceable. I answered that I had recently been in Honduras and learned that more than 100 human rights lawyers, journalists and unionists had been murdered in recent years and that we had filed complaints under the Central America Free Trade Agreement. I continued that three years later, we have a good report from our government on these violations and that’s it.

I suggested that eventually our trade representative will meet with the Honduran government but in a similar case with Guatemala that took six years and nothing has changed. We get reports and corporations get reparations! I said, Mr. President, in the case of Mexico and NAFTA, none of our partners in Mexico have had a single meeting with their government on TPP and human rights. The only thing that will change is the words in the text. Eventually we will get a report and a government-to-government meeting while the multinationals sue for billions in reparations. That’s not right!

The president told me that he was too far down the road to change. I told him respectfully that the broad coalition that we were building was deeply disappointed, and that we would work every day for the change we still believed in.

Indeed, our resistance has been awesome. Resistance because none of us have real input into the trade deals being proposed. We react while the multinationals have hundreds of their lawyers and lobbyists writing the 29 chapters of TPP with the U.S. Trade Representative. They write; we resist. We must continue to ask ourselves and everyone who will listen, “Whose world? Our world!”

This fight is at its peak right now as we meet. House Speaker John Boehner is waiting to schedule a vote until he believes he has the votes to pass Fast Track for the TPP. But we ask the handful of undecided House members, who will determine the outcome, why would you Fast Track a 1,000+ page TPP that is all but done? As we demanded a week ago at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman—show us the deal. The president has said anyone can read it. We say unwrap it. Take it out of the Trojan Horse where the corporate lobbyists have hidden goodies for themselves and let us see it.

Reclaiming Democracy

But what about our turn? All of the 2016 presidential candidates will talk about economic inequality but few, if any, will take on the gap between stock market returns and the stagnant standard of living of working women and men. Are we trapped in an endless cycle where our bargaining suffers from a declining percentage of U.S. workers who have collective bargaining rights, and when we fight to change that, as we did with the Employee Free Choice Act, we run into one democracy block after another?

Money in politics results in candidates in both parties being hesitant to take on their donors. In 2016, major candidates will each spend in excess of $2 billion, nearly all raised from the top one percent, and nearly all of that will be spent in just six states. Thirty percent of our citizens are not registered, as more states pass legislation that discourages registration and voting. Twenty million immigrants, nearly all working class, have no path to voting rights.

In 2013, in the months following our last convention, we helped lead “Fix the Senate Now,” a project of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights, labor, environmental, democracy, community organizations and other groups. When we met in Pittsburgh, we faced the end of the NLRB as the five-member board terms expired and the Supreme Court had blocked recess appointments by the president. Republicans in the Senate blocked confirmation in order to prevent a Board majority that would support workers rights.

But the coalition of millions from the Democracy Initiative groups pressured the Democratic Senate majority to use that majority to confirm the NLRB members and the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Secretary of Labor, and then a few months later adopt the majority rule for all nominations so more than 100 federal judges could be confirmed.

So these two campaigns, our coalition against fast track and TPP and our work on Senate rules reform both point to a similar path for change.

Building a Movement

We can’t accept the stacked deck we face when we bargain or organize, but to change it we need allies and deeper coalitions than in the past because the obstacles are much tougher. We call these deeper coalitions movement building because we are forming something together beyond a single issue, a deeper sense that we are building a movement together that can move from one issue to another linked by our goals of democracy and economic justice.

We take our inspiration from earlier times, like the founding of the CIO [the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which later became the AFL-CIO] when unions like mine, steel and auto helped form CWA but also pushed for labor law reform, minimum wage and Social Security, and won, and built a political movement known as the New Deal. We take our inspiration in recent years from other nations–Brazil and South Africa, Germany, and Australia–where labor is a part of something bigger, and as a result there is a path to major advances in democracy and labor and human rights.

When I am asked why I did not run again for president of this amazing union, largely I point to this movement we are building and explain that even though I am not running again, I am committed to building this movement. Ten years as president and all of it in a time when we have been under attack like never before. Bargaining mostly on defense, holding on to what we gained in earlier years when our movement was stronger.

First, the economic collapse of 2008; and then four years ago, reeling under the attacks on the public sector led by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin but spreading everywhere, including to our own 50,000 public worker members in New Jersey. In New Jersey, it was Democrats joining [New Jersey governor Chris] Christie to eliminate the right to bargain health care for public workers. And now our pensions in New Jersey are under attack again. At the same time, the Supreme Court is taking aim at the agency shop for all public workers.

But as we predicted, the public sector attacks spread to the private sector as so-called right to work laws aimed at private-sector union members were adopted across the Midwest—Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Through it all, I have been honored and excited every single day to serve.

But knowing that we had very able candidates ready to run for president if I stepped aside, I decided to do that and focus on movement building for the years ahead. But my ability to help build what we call the movement of 50 million will continue to rely on our new CWA President, our Executive Board and all of you. I commit to you that I will fight just as hard, shoulder to shoulder with you to build this movement, as you lead our union and this movement.

In the years ahead I do hope to live a little better, love a little better and laugh a little better, but I will not rest unless we are well on the path to economic justice and democracy. As I wrote in September when I announced I would not run again, we are all perched on the earth as it orbits around the sun at 65,000 miles per hour; perched with 7 billion others for a short period of time. But when we commit to each other, the meaning of our lives grows geometrically .In 1987, when we started Jobs with Justice, we signed a pledge card, still used by the 40 JwJ coalitions today—I’ll Be There! I’ll be there five times a year for someone else’s fight, as well as my own. If enough of us are there, we’ll all start winning.

In that same spirit I pledge…

I’ll be there with you as we continue to build a stronger and deeper movement for change. I’ll be there with you as we build the Democracy Initiative to get big money out of politics and voters in.

I’ll be there with workers and organizers who are organizing at least one day longer than the union busting management and their high paid lawyers.

I’ll be there in Iowa or New Jersey or wherever we can connect economic justice and democracy to political action.

I’ll be there to keep up the fight against fast track and the TPP until we have fair trade and workers rights, not just investor rights.

As a founder of JwJ and author of the pledge, I was inspired by the final scene from the film adaptation of the Grapes of Wrath as Tom Joad spoke to his mother and I’ll close with that….


YouTube: Speech by Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) from Grapes of Wrath – “I’ll Be There”


Larry Cohen was elected president of the Communications Workers of America in 2005. In September he announced that he would not run again for president, but that he would continue to play an important role in movement-building, Most immediately in the movement to stop fast track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He will also continue his work with the Democracy Initiative, which seeks to halt the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics. He will soon by joining the Campaign for America’s Future as a senior fellow. This is his last speech to the CWA as President.

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