Linda Chavez Thompson on Labor Issues in LA & the Nation

Working people through their unions have completely changed LA's politics

Published on LatinoLA: February 5, 2005

Linda Chavez Thompson on Labor Issues in LA & the Nation

This is an historic speech by the top ranking person of color in labor and woman in the labor movement. I asked her for a copy of it for the press and she took her text out her notebook and gave it to me. Here it is as a public document, it shows the importance of the LA County Federation of Labor, led by Miguel Contreras, to the working people of this nation. The speech was delivered at the national AFL-CIO Awards Dinner In Commemoration of the 76th Birthday of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The dinner was the part of a 5 day commemoration with workshops, actions, meetings attended by hundreds of labor leaders, particularly those active on civil rights/equality issues. This was the first time in about 25 years the AFL-CIO commemoration was held outside of the South an indication of the importance that labor gives to what's happening in L.A.
- Rosalio Munoz

I'm delighted to be here.

It's great to see you -- I've been looking forward to it -- it's such a pleasure seeing so many good friends here.

I'd like to start out by paying tribute to the terrific people we're honoring tonight...

Bill Adams, the secretary-treasurer of the ILWU...

Clyde Rivers, the president of the California School Employees Association and a member of our AFL-CIO Executive Council...

LA Council member Martin Ludlow...

Reverend Jim Lawson...and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

All our honorees have made incredible contributions to social justice.

I also want to pay special tribute to all of you who live here in the LA area.

I'm so happy that this year, we're getting together in Los Angeles.

The first reason is that this has become one of the most effective union cities in the country.

It wasn't easy -- no way.

For many years -- in fact, for generations -- this city was controlled by the big utilities -- the military contractors -- the real estate interests -- the right-wing newspaper barons -- and they treated Los Angeles like it was their private playground.

When working people tried to organize into unions and have a voice on the job, they were often silenced -- and fired -- and in the old days, they were arrested or driven out of town or killed.

But in the last several years, with the leadership of folks like Miguel Contreras in the LA central labor council and Art Pulaski in the California state federation, the union movement here has built and struggled and organized harder and smarter than ever before...

and the results for working families in LA are terrific.

Home health care workers and janitors and many, many other workers have won tough battles for higher wages and a better life.

The union movement has joined with its community partners as never before.

It's won victories for a living wage and for community benefits agreements around LAX and the Figueroa corridor for employer neutrality in organizing campaigns, and affordable housing, and new parks, and assistance for families who are displaced.

And working people through their unions have completely changed LA's politics.

Elections used to be controlled by the corporate interests -- but no longer.

Today, Los Angeles has some of the most progressive politics of any city in America -- and it never, never would have happened without the women and men of the union movement, including a lot of people in this room.

The truth is that this courage -- this dedication -- this vision are an old and beautiful tradition in LA.

This is a city of heroes going back to the 1850s.

That was a time when southern whites could freely bring their slaves to California while free African-Americans were nearly barred from the state...

but that didn't stop a great, fiery African-American preacher in this city named Peter Cole.

He told his congregation in the African Methodist Episcopal Church:

"We are here -- ready, willing, eager to do battle against the oppressor.

"Not another century shall catch us slumbering.

"Here, in this western world, let the work begin."

Against all the odds, Reverend Cole and his congregation did begin that work.

They did battle against the oppressor.

And for a century and a half, that work has been carried on by countless people in Los Angeles whose names we'll never know...

byAfrican-Americans and Latinos and Asian-Americans and progressive whites -- by women, and people with disabilities, and LGBT people...

and by some wonderful union activists right here.

There are some things I want to say to you.

The first thing comes from my heart...

and it is that I want to thank you for every bit of hard work and courage and creativity that you're giving to the union movement every day.

What an amazing group you are!

I know the great work you do, and I know exactly why you do it.

It's because you deeply believe in one idea, pure and simple, which is building a better life for the working women and minorities we serve.

It all comes down to that.

Next, I'd like to talk about what's coming up for all of us in the union movement.

In the short term, a terrible thing is going to happen next week.

George W. Bush is going to be inaugurated for a second term.

All of us here know that he's one of the worst enemies of working people and women and minorities who has ever taken control of the White House.

But he's a very different kind of enemy from the Southern sheriffs whom Martin Luther King dealt with.

Their weapons were attack dogs and firehoses and jails.

Bush's strategy is to smile at us and charm us -- and then sell us down the river, destroy our rights, and turn our country over to his multi-millionaire supporters.

Look at his anti-civil rights strategy.

He doesn't go on national TV and say he wants to make life worse for minorities and women.

No -- of course not.

What he does do is he slashes the federal government's enforcement of civil rights laws -- he appoints right-wing extremist judges -- and just this month, he selects Gerald Reynolds, an African-American who says that affirmative action is "a big lie," to be the new chair of the Civil Rights Commission.

The right wing has used this trick before.

When those guys want to attack minorities or women, they hire an anti-minority minority or an anti-woman woman to do the dirty work.

We saw it with Clarence Thomas -- we're seeing it with Gerald Reynolds and Alberto Gonzalez -- and we're going to see it over and over again in the next four years.

It's now two months since Bush got elected...

notice that I didn't say "re-elected", because in my opinion, he wasn't really elected the first time around...

and this is a good time to pause and ask ourselves what we can learn from that.

Was the election a huge disappointment for us?

Of course it was.

It's true that we did win some great victories at the state and local level...

and you deserve a tremendous amount of credit for those.

It's also true that Labor 2004 was the biggest, most unified, most effective political program not only in the last few years but in the entire history of the union movement.

We did our best -- and more.

Everyone contributed -- everyone pitched in -- and the result is that just about one out of every four voters is one of us.

We've never achieved anything like it before.

But despite that, for a variety of reasons, the final election results were a disaster.

Will Bush and his people do everything they can to undermine us and all we stand for?

Sure they will.

Is this the end of the world?

Absolutely not.

Right now, it's very, very easy for us to forget the single most important rule in politics -- and that is that things can turn around much sooner than anyone can imagine.

That isn't wishful thinking -- that's the cold, hard reality, and it happens over and over and over.

Let me give you just one example.

When I was a young woman, Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in one of the biggest landslides in American history.

I'll never forget it.

The Democrats controlled the White House -- and the Senate -- and the House -- and most of the state capitals.

The Republicans did so badly that a lot of people -- and I mean a lot -- thought that their party would probably just wither away and die.

The Republicans knew they had two choices: they could give up, or they could fight back.

Those jerks took the second option: they fought back.

They worked hard -- they organized -- they put out a different and more clever message -- they kept their eyes open and they grabbed every chance they had...

and two years later, this party that was supposed to keel over and die gained 48 more seats in Congress -- 3 seats in the Senate -- and they elected several new governors, including a terrible B-rate actor named Ronald Reagan.

Then two years after that, the Republicans got Richard Nixon elected to the White House, and the rest is history.

It's terrible history, but it's history.

Am I suggesting that we use the Republicans as our role models?

You bet I am.

Now, of course I'd never suggest that we adopt their policies, which are anti-worker, anti-union, anti-fairness, anti-justice, and anti-us.

But I do suggest that we need the wisdom and foresight to understand the great truth that the Republicans understood...

and the union movement in Los Angeles understands already...

which is that if we fight smart, and if we fight hard, and if we fight creatively, and if we fight tough, we can turn this country around sooner than anyone expects.

And that brings me to the next thing I want to talk about: what comes next for our movement?

No one has all the answers -- but I'm glad to say that we're starting some serious dialogue about what direction we should head and how we should get there.

One thing I'm convinced of is this:

What we shouldn't do is tear down everything we built for Labor 2004...

which happens to be one of the greatest achievements of our movement in this generation...

and just toss it away.

What we should do is to take what we learned, take what we built, take the momentum we created, and keep a permanent structure so we can mobilize better for the big causes we're fighting for.

We need that structure so we can battle back and defend ourselves against the attacks that Bush and his people will launch against us...

but we can't only be defensive in the next few years.

We also have to launch some big offensive fights.

Right now, and for the rest of 2005, there will be many struggles.

Let me talk about three great struggles that you and I and the entire union movement need to lead.

The first is the fight to protect Social Security from privatization, protect our defined benefit pensions, protect our retirement security.

The Social Security battle will be huge.

This is one of the most successful family protection programs not only in our country but anywhere in the world...

yet when George W. Bush looks at it, there are dollar signs in his eyes and he sees a huge pool of cash that can make his ultra-rich buddies even richer.

His big scam is that he's pretending Social Security is in a major crisis when it's really strong and all it needs is a little fine-tuning...

then he'll use that as an excuse to tear its insides out, run up the deficit, hand over billions and billions of dollars in fees to Wall Street, and leave millions of working people like us with Social Security benefits that are too small for us to survive.

That's what is at stake.

Our second big battle is for good jobs for ourselves and our kids...

and I mean good jobs that have health insurance and decent retirement benefits, not the Wal-Mart type jobs that drive down wages and destroy benefits for all of us.

Our third struggle -- and this is all-important -- is protecting the freedom of every worker to join a union and gain a voice at work.

You know what that's all about.

We need to link this to every single election this year and next year -- local, state, and federal.

Every candidate we support for every office should take a stand and join us in this struggle.

All of this is up to us.

The way we fight these battles -- the way we take the momentum we built last year and run with it -- will define who we are and how successful we can be.

At the same time that we're fighting these battles, we're having our own conversation and dialogue and debate about reshaping the union movement we love.

How are we going to decide where we go?

John Sweeney's said -- and I agree -- that we have to hear from women and men at every level of the union movement, and especially from people of color, and women, and LGBT people...

we have to bring people together around new ideas and work through the conversations together...

and he's set up a process for that.

He's gone to the leaders of every union, every state federation, every CLC, every constituency group...

and he's asked them to talk with their own leaders and members, and give him a list of issues they want addressed and suggestions for how we can meet our challenges.

You may have shared your ideas already...

but if not, we need to hear from you.

It's easy.

Just go to the AFL-CIO website at and go to the link that says, "Give Us Your Thoughts."

The AFL-CIO's Executive Committee is fielding the recommendations and presenting the ideas to the Executive Council next month for a full discussion.

Where we can move forward quickly, we will.

In the spring, President Sweeney will take the ideas coming out of the Executive Council to the grassroots for feedback -- to national and local union leaders -- state feds -- CLCs -- and constituency groups.

And in July, the Executive Council will make its final recommendations to the AFL-CIO convention.

We're also developing plans for a full participation conference around the time of the convention.

But in the meantime, we can't stand still.

We have to maintain and build on the energy we generated last year.

What does this mean for each of you?

It all comes down to this.

The fact is that there's never been a time when you've been more important to the union movement.

There's never been a time when our movement has needed your talent -- your experience -- your passion more than it does now.

Because of that, I want to underscore my request.

I want to make it a personal invitation.

I urge you to follow this process of change very closely -- get involved with it -- be part of it -- make it your own.

What is our agenda?

Martin Luther King set it out in 1964 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

He talked about all the gains -- all the progress towards equality -- America had made...

but he said we had so much more to do.

He said, "With patient and firm determination, we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope...

until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion...

until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity."

Today -- 41 years later -- for us in the union movement -- that is our agenda, that is our mission, that is our dream.

For all you are doing -- and for all you will do -- to help that dream come true, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Rosalio Munoz of Lincoln Heights is a veteran progressive activist/journalist since the movimiento days. Linda Chavez Thompson is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO

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