The Kentucky state AFL-CIO held their biennial convention in Lexington this week, and the first day featured three speeches by well-known national union leaders.
The speeches were a study in contrasts, with the first being an old-fashioned barn-burner, part stump speech and part revival sermon. The second was much less fiery, but just as determined and important. And the third was a combination of the two earlier speeches, alternating between calm recitation and fiery rhetoric.
Here are some of the highlights.
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)
Cecil Roberts has been part of the labor movement since beginning work as a miner in 1971. He was elected vice president of UMWA in 1982, and assumed the presidency in 1995. During his tenure, he has repeatedly led contract negotiations that have yielded significant pay and benefit increases to the union’s members.
The UMWA site describes Roberts as “one of the labor movement’s most stirring and sought-after orators,” and this reporter can certainly attest to that. Robert’s speech on Monday afternoon was a boisterous tour-de-force of the history of the labor movement, and the fight for workers to get what they deserve. It ended with a call-and-answer session between Roberts and the room full of loudly vocal union members:
“If you want higher wages ...”
“Join a union!”
“If you want better benefits ...”
“Join a union!”
“If you want safety on the job ...”
“Join a UNION!”
“If you want to get your lives back ...”
“JOIN A UNION!”
Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers
n contrast to Roberts, the dinner speech from Shawn Fain was relatively low-key. It was, however, fact-driven, and delivered with an intensity and sense of determination that belied the quieter tone. It was obvious that Fain was serious about his mission, and was not one to let powerful people stand in his way.
He noted that he has roots in Kentucky, as his family is from Nicholasville. He told of his grandfather, a union member, keeping everyone of his paystubs throughout his working life, and Fain getting that collection of paystubs when his grandfather died. He said that he laminated some of those paystubs, and carried them with him to remind him of the role the union played in his family’s life. He then held up a pair of worn laminated paystubs to loud applause from the audience.
Fain noted that he became president of the union only eight months ago, and said that his first task was to change the culture within the union. That included taking a certain word out of the vocabulary of the union: “Don’t tell me I can’t. We have to eliminate the word ‘Can’t.”
The union was asked to endorse Joe Biden’s re-election bid, but the union refused. As Fain said, “Our endorsements have to be earned.”
He also noted that one of the key tasks of not only his union, but all unions, was to get the facts out into the public and into the discussions. “We have the facts on our side.”
He said he was proud of the recent win in the contract negotiations with the Big Three, but that he was most proud of the unity in the union now.
Not content to sit on his or the union’s laurels, Fain noted that the fights for workers are just getting started, including openly talking about shorter work week, even more profit sharing, and more humane scheduling and approach to work in general. As he said in closing, “We want our lives back. That’s what this fight is about.”
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants
As noted above, Sara Nelson’s evening speech, which followed Fain’s, was a combination of Roberts’s stump speaking and Fain’s use of facts and determination. (Fain said, in introducing her, “I didn’t like having to follow Cecil ... but I’m sure glad I don’t have to follow Sara.”)
Nelson shared a moving story about her first experience with the union. As a new flight attendant, she attended unpaid training for a number of weeks, then was assigned to live in Boston as her home base. Since Boston is one of the most expensive places to live, she knew it was going to be very tight budget-wise.
But, her first paycheck did not show up on the date is was supposed to. She went to the local office to ask about it, and was told “Oh, your first paycheck will arrive soon. They’re not necessarily on a set schedule.”
She spent the next few weeks using her airline pass to ride jump-seat on some flights, just so she could get something to eat. On her next payday, with only $12 in her checking account, her paycheck didn’t come again. When she went to the office to ask about it, they seemed unconcerned and told her it would come “some time.”
As she stood there in tears, wondering what she was going to do, she felt a top on her shoulder. Turning around, she saw another woman in the same uniform, except this woman had the AFA pin on her uniform above her flight wings.
The woman pulled out a checkbook and asked Nelson how to spell her name. She then wrote out a check and gave it to Sara, saying “Here’s $800. Go get your needs taken care of today, and tomorrow, call our union office.” And that was Sara’s introduction to the support of union members for each other.
She went on to tell of negotiating with airline executives during the pandemic downturn, when the federal government was giving money to the airlines to keep them afloat. Representing the flight attendants, she told the executives that the AFA would go along with the plan, but with these conditions:
The money had to go to the paychecks of the workers and not to the executives.
There had to be a cap on executive pay.
And no cuts to the current jobs.
And the airlines agreed.
Three other Sara Nelson quotes from Monday night:
“There is nothing more powerful than speaking the truth.”
A quote from a worker on a picket line: “They stole our wages, they stole our time, they stole our lives.”
Reflecting on the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats,” she first noted that many of those boats had turned into yachts. “But forget about the boats,” she continued. “We’re not the boats. We are the tide.”
And a farewell to Bill Londrigan
Bill Londrigan, the long-time president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, stepped down at the end of this convention. He was honored multiple times throughout the convention, and deservedly so. Multiple people, including leaders of many of the unions present, spoke up to say how Londrigan had always been there for them, and had stood with them in both negotiations and strikes over the years.
At the end of Monday night, after all the regular awards and special awards were handed out, the convention surprised Londrigan with a new annual award named in his honor. It was obvious how touched he was by having an award named after him – and by the long standing ovation he received, it was obvious how much he is respected and loved by all his union brothers and sisters.