June 5, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Preparing his speech for LaborPress’s Leadership Awards June 1, New York State Ironworkers President James Mahoney found a 113-year-old quote he liked by Eugene V. Debs on the Internet.
“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders,” Mahoney recited. “But, notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thralldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as the setting of the sun.”
“It could have been written last week,” Mahoney told the about 200 people attending the awards ceremony at the New York City District Council of Carpenters headquarters. Debs, a socialist labor leader and five-time Presidential candidate, wrote it in 1904, in an article called “The Ideal Labor Press,” in which he said “Labor must have a press as formidable as the great movement of the working class requires, to worthily represent its dignity and fearlessly and uncompromisingly advocate its principles.”
“Unions are the only people who fight for all working people in this country,” Mahoney said. The election of Donald Trump is “going to have to make us work harder,” he continued, “and we are going to work harder because our cause is just.”
“I think they’re going to wake us up,” he concluded, “I think they’re going to poke the tiger.”
Mahoney, introduced by Ironworkers Local 580 business manager Peter Myers, received an award along with Communications Workers of America Vice President Dennis Trainor and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The fourth honoree, Boston Properties executive Thomas Hill, was unable to attend due to a medical issue.
Trainor, the CWA’s regional leader for New York, New Jersey, and New England, was introduced by longtime Local 1180 President Arthur Cheliotes, who said last year’s Verizon strike showed that unions can succeed “when we educate our members so they understand the issues and can educate the public.” Trainor said the “real honor” should go to the 40,000 strikers, members who “took a stand against the 15th-largest corporation in America” and protected their pensions, stopped the company from expanding outsourcing, brought back 1,300 jobs, and won a first contract for Verizon retail-store workers.
Workers can’t win without allies in both the labor movement and the public, he added—so labor media are important “so the public knows the issues.”
Weingarten, introduced by Sterling Roberson, the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for career and technical education, made a similar call for solidarity. “These are not tough times for labor. These are tough times for Americans,” she said in a speech that modulated from exhortation to a near-whisper. Trump “didn’t fool people in New York City,” she explained, but he did fool a lot of people in the rest of the country who thought he would help them.
Now, she said, the question is whether the labor movement will have “enough density” to defend the values of good jobs, health care, no bigotry, and public education, because “you are not going to have a democracy” without good public schools.
“We have to have that solidarity, and we need to have it in increasingly large concentric circles,” she concluded.
Ironworkers Local 46 business manager Terrence Moore noted that earlier that day, a notice the union posted on its Web site to recruit apprentices got over a million hits “within the first 10 seconds”—which he believes was a cyberattack on “a basic simple membership recruitment.”
“Every local union in this town is under attack,” he said. “The next generation is the most important thing. It’s not us any more.”