Communication workers’ leader, Shelton: Unions and the nation in dangerous times
Delegates at the convention express their feelings about Trump and his attacks on the four Democratic members of the "Squad." | CWA Facebook page

LAS VEGAS—Saying the union and the nation “live in dangerous times,” Communications Workers President Christopher Shelton outlined a three-pronged program to overcome the difficulties workers and everyone else face. Political action in the electoral arena and dumping Donald Trump are a big part of the overall program.

The key to the three-part program, Shelton told the union convention’s 2,000 delegates, meeting in Las Vegas, is politics, and recruiting and retaining allies among civic, community, civil rights, and women’s rights groups, among others.

The three prongs to do that are to focus on economic, racial and income inequality, build workplace power through more organizing, more collective bargaining, and better steward training, and “electing a pro-worker government in 2020,” said Shelton, who was re-elected president of his union by acclamation.

The Las Vegas meeting comes as CWA, and the labor movement as a whole, is starting to sort out what to do politically next year, faced with a nation divided on race and class lines by racist right-wing Republican President Donald Trump and his GOP acolytes.

“The stakes could not be higher: Whether or not we will have a pro-labor Supreme Court, whether or not we will have a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board, whether or not we will have a Department of Labor that protects workers, not employers, whether or not we will have a government that reins in the big banks rather than showering tax dollars on the one percent,” Shelton declared.

“And whether or not we will have a Congress that gets big money out of politics, and not destroying voting rights,” he added.

But the labor movement can’t achieve all this alone, Shelton admitted. “Movements cannot succeed in isolation. We need each other. Progressive movements force the government to stand on the side of workers, not on the side of the bosses,” he explained.

Left unsaid, however, is a pattern among many progressives: They’re sometimes missing on key issues to workers and their unions despite the fact that progressives and Democrats often depend upon unions to provide the foot soldiers and often money for their causes.

With few exceptions, notably the Steel Worker-founded BlueGreen alliance of top unions and several leading environmental groups, too many progressives are missing in action when it comes to the right to organize unions and job safety and health measures to protect and enhance the workers’ lot.

Meanwhile, Trump has been fanning the flames, Shelton said, by targeting four first-year Democratic representatives, all women of color, for ire and vitriol. He’s also stoked his followers against them, so much so that congressional officials have had to provide extra security for one of them, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis.

Omar and another Trump target, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, are the first two Muslim Americans ever elected to Congress. Tlaib and Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Boston and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York were all born in the U.S., while Omar is a political refugee from Somalia’s civil war. Muslims have been a particular Trump target, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates unanimously passed a resolution strongly denouncing Trump’s racism, especially against the four lawmakers, “offensive, demagogic, dangerous and racist.” (See separate story).

But the danger is not just to individuals, but to the U.S. as a whole, Shelton said.

“Slavery and racism were the original sins,” Shelton said when the U.S. started as colonies in the 1600s. “We see that legacy in the resurgence of neo-Nazi groups…And we see it in the assault on voting rights and in the hateful rhetoric every day from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” the address of the White House in D.C.

“Whenever discontent flares up, racial divisions flare up,” Shelton said.

CWA President Christopher Shelton. | CWA

“Who’s to blame? It’s not working people,” as Trump and his allies like to note, meaning workers both abroad and of other races at home. “It’s the billionaires, the banks and the corporations. It’s our job to focus on the 1 percent.”

At the same time, however, Shelton sees signs of hope: He mentioned the continued uprisings against Trump and his policies, progressive candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination – especially Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., whom CWA endorsed in 2016, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. – and the activism and enthusiasm for unions among young people.

Too many young people face dismal circumstances when they finish college, graduate school or other training: Burdened with student debt, they often have to make it on minimum wage jobs where they face virulent employer repression of workers and denial of health care, pensions and other benefits.

“But these young activists have tapped into the same deep well of outrage that” abolitionist leader “Frederick Douglass used in 1852, a fiery stream of ridicule, reproach, and rebuke.” It’s also the same stream Dr. Martin Luther King tapped more than 100 years later, Shelton said.

“The challenges have never been greater. This is no time for apathy and complacency, but a time for vigorous action.”

“Stand with me to take back Congress!” he roared, to a standing ovation. “Stand with me to take back America from the racists and the billionaires!”

“We need to knock on doors, to fight together, but most of all, to win, win, win.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.