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Saying Goodbye to a Visionary Leader: Long-time CWA President retires

When I first met CWA President Larry Cohen, I was struck by how charismatic he was. Great leaders often are – intelligent, articulate, driven. A man at the top of his game yet still compassionate and like Saskatchewan’s great statesman, Tommy Douglas, never lost sight of his long goal: elevating the quality of life for working people.

Through the ups and recently mostly disappointing swings in the labour movement, Larry realized early on that unions alone fighting for fairness and better pay in board rooms will never be powerful enough to change the world, and save the middle class. It will only happen if we can inspire families, communities, voters to fight for the same quality of life, and make fairness a political issue.

Larry was among the first and most vocal to preach an open, community based, kind labour commitment, that means we all work to help each other for a goal greater than each of us, and greater than just my own paycheck.

I hope his powerful message inspires you, as it does me, to keep up the good work he is dedicated to.

And to never lose faith in the belief positive change can and will happen.


A message from CWA President Larry Cohen


Dear Sisters and Brothers:

After much thought, I have decided not to seek reelection next June as President of our union.

I informed the Executive Board at our meeting September 18. I am confident that our Executive Board can support a strong candidate but this is not a campaign note and that decision is up to you.

I appreciate those of you who take the time to read this note, it could and maybe should have ended here, but I want to share some thinking and feelings on what is, for me, a difficult moment. Too often in labor we make everything seem or sound simple, robbing ourselves of our ability to move each other in much deeper ways.

I am hoping my decision can be as much a signal of what we must do and the state of our movement as it is a notice about my own personal journey. This is the tenth year I have been honored every day to serve as President of our union. I am proud to work with an Executive Board that understands the critical times that face so many of our members. I am proud to work with amazing staff in Washington and across our union.

But mostly, I am proud of all of you and the work we have done together for decades. Obviously, all that we do rests with active members, shop stewards who stand up and fight back, and local officers, mostly volunteers, who defend our values and past accomplishments and in these brutal days of domination by financial capital, still dream and work for real change.

At the end of the day, we each have responsibility for only our own journeys. Just as the earth orbits the sun at 65,000 miles per hour, each of us, as one of 7 billion, finds our way on this earth for our lifetime, living, loving, seeking meaningful work, having fun when possible, but most of all, making a difference. It has long seemed to me that my own journey has meaning for me for the same reasons we all share—faith in basic values, love between family and friends, and shared commitments.

Jumping to our beloved CWA, we do amazing work together in these times. We push out of the shrinking box of traditional unionism, while cherishing the rights on the job we still enjoy. We realize that our traditional and historic union role by itself is much like a death march as our numbers across the USA and even Canada shrink under brutal attacks by the financial elite whose greed has reached historic proportions and whose power is nearly complete.

After Wisconsin, and so many other attacks, public and private sector, together, we developed our movement building strategy and our focus on linking economic justice and democracy. We realized that waiting for labor to unite around a common strategy would lead us to the dustbin of history. Unions have different strategies—some at least for now are faring better, some avoid the grasp of Wall Street greed. Some unions, whether local or national, have a different view based on a simpler agenda or a more traditional collective bargaining approach. This is true within CWA as well, differences are part of democracy as long as we stay tolerant and are not frozen by a lack of unanimity.

So we work with those who are willing, starting in our workplace, our local, our district or sector, then in labor councils or unions in our communities. But we don’t stop there. Our strategy is rooted in the need for national change, even if our own goals are local or just at our own employers. More than ever in our history we must build deeper partnerships beyond labor with groups that are willing to develop a common strategy for economic justice. With six percent of the private sector organized, unions must be ready to partner and not just expect to lead.

Collective bargaining and organizing rights are falling in the private sector and half the states in the public sector, and are far below the rest of the world’s democracies, and we can’t change that one employer at a time. That kind of national change, as we learned after the elections of 2009, is blocked by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, the right wing, yes, a giant national conspiracy of wealth and privilege, linked to a conservative social agenda that blocks us even when we demonstrate strong majority support.

So after decades of organizing, bargaining and movement building work, it seems time for me to pass the torch as CWA President next June, but I will double down on building the mass movement for democracy and economic justice. Our union has more activists and a better commitment to what must be done than ever. As we battle for fair trade or to get big money out of politics, we demonstrate that we can build amazing new alliances and deeper than ever. And by your convention action over the last ten years, we have millions of dollars each year to commit to those fights, as well as the best activists in the movement and the resources to train thousands more.

I am not leaving for another job or personal benefit. I am not leaving because of the growing anger I feel from the attacks on our members every day. Using last week as an example, first GE announced the sale of its Appliance Division to Electrolux with thousands of our members’ jobs on the line. Then at Cablevision, two weeks after firing one of our best leaders, the billionaire CEO compels the 300 techs to attend a captive meeting where he makes all kinds of promises, and tells them that he is paying for a private election the next day so they can vote out the union. Illegal, yes, but it is already six months since the trial ended on earlier equally outrageous NLRB charges.

It’s true that we also have great days like this past Monday, receiving an NLRB decision that CNN must rehire more than 100 technicians and bargain with our union 11 years after they were fired. Or Tuesday, winning the representation election at American Airlines where so many have struggled 18 years through election defeats and vicious attacks and now 15,000 have a union.

In the Grapes of Wrath, the main character Tom Joad is asked near the end by his mother, “Where will you go?” I am not Tom Joad and my journey is just my journey. But as Tom said, “wherever there’s a fight…I’ll be there.”

For the next nine months, I’ll be right here. Working harder than ever, every chance I get to support our bargaining, our organizing and our movement building work. Fighting the TPP, the worst trade deal in a 20-year string. Fighting to change the Senate rules so they actually debate the issues of the day. Fighting for organizing rights at T-Mobile and Cablevision so one day the sacrifices of so many will make a difference.

After that I’ll be working just as hard to build the movement of 50 million, knowing that CWA will keep leading and I can work with others to help convince them that our work together cannot just be about the next election. Economic change in America will not happen without a broad movement that includes bargaining and organizing rights as a key part of that change. More than ever, I am committed to that effort.

One day longer, each day stronger!

Solidarity forever!


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