Labor Fightback Conference

Keynote Address to the Second Labor Fightback Conference

New Brunswick, NJ, May 15–17, 2015
by Carol Gay, President, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council

Carol GayGood Morning, Sisters and Brothers,

Once again, welcome to NJ and the 2nd Labor Fightback Conference! Although I prefer to call it the Labor/Community Fightback Conference, which seems a little more apropos.

The winds of change are blowing! Do you feel them? We feel them in many ways — large and small — some good, some bad. We would like to feel them blowing stronger, but yes, change is in the air — it is almost palpable. Those of us here today, and so many more as well, who work for positive change every day, who believe a better world is possible, are longing for that spark that will really set things off, get things moving in a better direction. And yet we know, it will probably not be one cataclysmic event, one moment, it will more likely be a culmination of events, planned actions, movements that will set in motion that sustained movement for meaningful change that we long for. And right now we have several strong movements bringing people together, unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time. Perhaps that movement we are searching for is already underway. 

In recent years we have been inspired by the Wisconsin uprising, the Chicago teachers, Occupy, the Moral Monday movement. Unfortunately, we have seen a right wing backlash halt these uprisings in some cases, or electoral defeats temporarily slow them down in others, and sadly, in some cases, police and military might crush some of these stands for democracy. 

But then we have seen new movements spring up to replace them — Syriza in Greece, the upsurge of youth and unionists in Spain, $15 minimum wage and a Union, first in Seattle and now spreading across the country, as fast food workers and WalMart workers strike for dignity and respect. The Climate Justice movement saw 400,000 come together in NYC last September and that was just one of the actions that took place in 2700 locations in 156 countries around the world. Opposition to global warming, and the destruction of Mother Earth continues to grow and manifest in multiple ways all over the globe. People are demanding that Humanity and the Planet come first.

The Black Lives Matter Movement is growing and spreading by leaps and bounds. Communities from Ferguson, MO, to Baltimore, MD, to Newark, NJ are coming together to loudly denounce police brutality, racism and inequality saying Enough is Enough and No to Mass Incarceration and the new Jim Crow. And students are rising up to swell the ranks of these movements as well as mount their own resistance to student debt and rising tuition costs. This summer we invite you to join the call for the Million Person March Against Police Brutality, Racial Injustice, and Economic Inequality being held right here in Newark, NJ on July 25. We not only invite you to join the call, we need you to endorse this action and mobilize your members. We must fully embrace the struggle against racial injustice because we realize we can play a key role in bringing this fight to the broader labor movement.

As the fightback wing of the labor movement, we have an opening right now to build on these uprisings, rebellions and courageous stands for justice and democracy. Whatever form resistance takes, we need to be part of it. And we know that bold, united resistance is the path that will help us realize this vision for justice and equality.

When the LFN gathered here 2 years ago, our main demand was NO Cuts — no cuts to the social safety net, to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Education. When we left Rutgers, we took those demands for Jobs for All, Expanded and Improved Social Security and Medicare for All, Restoration of Voting Rights, End Military Interventions, and Justice for Trayvon Martin to Washington, DC, the 50th Anniversary of the march for Jobs & Freedom and into the streets and cities around the country. Have we achieved all these goals? NO. Is that going to stop us? No. Can we still make a difference? Yes. Ain’t nothing gonna turn us around, right?

We’re here because we are in this struggle for the long haul, knowing it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, we recognize the challenge and it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it seems to get harder, doesn’t it? Our foes, the plutocrats, just seem to get stronger because of decisions like Citizens United and a tax system that favors the top 1%, Wall Street, the military industrial prison complex, big agriculture, big oil, big real estate, and the list goes on. The attacks against us have continued to escalate because the system is rigged against us. It’s not broken, it’s fixed! But I’m not bemoaning this fact to say, “Poor Us. There’s Nothing We Can Do.” We know there are lots of things we can do to address the economic and racial inequality confronting us. That’s why we’re here again to share lessons learned and formulate an even stronger fightback strategy against the evils of racism, militarism, and poverty. What do we do when we’re under attack? Stand up, fight back! Damn right!

And when we do fight back, I hope we remember that “this just ain’t the time to be nice” How many of you know that song? Let’s remember we can do more than lobby, negotiate, vigil, rally and march. We must continue to keep up a strong visible presence in the streets, of course, but perhaps we can add a few more tactics to our arsenal of fightback actions. There are some tried and true methods, such as sitting in or lying down, or we can form blockades, or chain ourselves to doors and fences, shut down ports or stop trains. The ILWU, along with community allies in Oakland and the Bay area, just shut down the port on May Day to highlight police brutality. Now that is standing up and fighting back!

Yes, we’re here to talk about how we go on the offensive against this right wing assault on labor and community because what affects one affects the other. These are not separate fights. We know Hedge funds are making enormous profits from charter schools and the privatization of public education. Hedge fund gains are the community’s loss. Parents, students, teachers unite! Same struggle, same fight! Here in New Jersey, Christie turned the management of the pension system over to Hedge fund managers to the tune of billions of dollars, and now is refusing to fully fund the workers’ pensions. This could cause devastatingly adverse economic ripples thruout the entire state if workers lose their pensions. Workers and Community Unite, same struggle, same fight!

Fast Track and the TPP are an assault on jobs and the environment, not to mention an outright attack on democracy. Workers and environmentalists are adversely affected by this treacherous trade deal, this corporate coup d’état. The Senate procedural votes this week failed to stop Fast Track. The corporate forces will keep proposing bogus side agreements and deals that must be rejected. We must remain super vigilant right now to ensure that pro-democracy, pro-worker, pro-environment forces prevail instead. The future of people and the planet are intertwined. These struggles cannot be separated. Labor, Environmentalists, Unite! Same struggle, same fight.

The $15 NOW victory in Seattle is gaining momentum and spreading across the country. Raising the wage to $15 an hour is a huge boost to the local economy. A study done on Los Angeles showed that raising the minimum wage to $15.25 will create $5.9 billion for LA’s economy, generate 46,400 jobs and increase state & local revenue by $414 million. Talk about a win-win! $15 and a Union Now! Union and Non-Union workers unite — same struggle, same fight!

A labor/community coalition in Baltimore is calling for union labor to be used to rehabilitate vacant housing to rebuild neighborhoods. Did the Baltimore rebellion come as a surprise to anyone given the lack of opportunity and unequal distribution of wealth in that city? The killing of Freddie Gray, and decades of police brutality may have set it off, but the violence of poverty is certainly the underlying cause. The unemployment rate in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood is 23%.

We know the best solution is Jobs for All — clean, green, sustainable, living wage jobs for all. As a follow up to the People’s Climate March, labor and environmentalists are moving forward with plans for a People’s Climate Movement. New York organizers have seen the climate march as a vehicle for building a labor, justice, and environmental coalition around a green jobs program. US Labor Against War is partnering with climate protection advocates in the labor movement to create strategies for conversion from military to green development. And there are many more labor/environmental coalitions coming together. Climate and jobs under attack — What do we do? Stand up, fight back!

Of course, revenue is needed to achieve these green jobs programs. The revenue is there but not the political will to tap into it. .That’s one reason it is important to talk about forging an independent labor/community political agenda so that we have a more powerful voice to promote our progressive vision thru unified action, because we know there are so many easy ways to raise the revenue if only there were the will! Millionaire’s Tax, Robin Hood Tax, closing corporate tax loopholes like incentives to offshore jobs — all of these are very popular solutions. The winds of change may be blowing but power concedes nothing with a demand. A simple demand for economic justice is not a lot to ask. Do you agree? An alliance of independent labor and progressive community organizations will help us create the strong voice needed to move this demand forward.

And of course, the other revenue stream that can be tapped, or rather redirected is military spending. Stopping endless war and occupation, shutting down some of those 865 unnecessary military bases around the world, stopping drone warfare and cancelling obsolete weapons systems and equipment could free up billions in revenue.  You may have just heard  that the US and Saudi Arabia are 2 of the countries that have not banned cluster bombs, and Saudi Arabia just dropped US supplied cluster bombs on Yemen.  One of the few things still made in America. Cluster Bombs. Truly barbaric! We all remember Martin Luther King’s warning: A nation that spends more money on militarism than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. Money for jobs, not for war, Money for Healthcare, not for war — that’s what we say.

So yes, sisters and brothers, our work is cut out for us. We need a fightback plan for unified action bringing workers and community together around our common needs. We recognize that one of those needs is a strong independent political voice and our plan is to leave here Sunday morning with an action plan including starting an open dialog around the need for independent labor/community politics. We know from both history and experience that unity, solidarity, and organization can accomplish wonders when labor and community stand together. It was a formula that worked in the early days of the labor movement. It was a formula that worked during the civil rights struggle. It is a formula that can work for single payer healthcare, for immigrant rights, for political independence. A shared vision for social and economic justice, a vision for people, peace, and the planet over profits is a winning strategy. Together we are a powerful force. Labor and community under attack! What are we going to do? Stand up, fight back!

Power to the People!