May 15, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
In an event marked by the AFL-CIO’s Tefere Gebre calling on labor to “dream bigger,” to fight for immigrants’ rights and organize the South, the Workers Defense League gave its annual awards to Gebre, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators president Ernest Logan, and Christopher Shelton, vice president of District 1 of the Communications Workers of America.
The three honorees represent a good mix of contributions to the labor movement, said league executive director Jon Bloom. Shelton, who started as a shop steward in 1970 and now heads one of the Northeast’s largest unions; Logan, someone who’s doing good work in a union that hasn’t always gotten recognition; and Gebre, an Ethiopian immigrant who discovered unions while working for UPS in college and became executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO last September.
Logan, said Diann Woodard of the American Federation of School Administrators, has been busy defending against “all-out attacks on the viability of our public schools,” but helped win a “reasonable” evaluation plan and joined with the United Federation of Teachers in a lawsuit that thwarted the Bloomberg administration’s scheme to get around restrictions on hiring and firing teachers by closing schools and then “reopening” them.
Bloomberg, said Logan, “disrespected the workforce. He forgot we’ve been educating children in this city for more than 100 years.” He’s not against charter schools, he added, but he is against using public money for them without oversight—and their forcing nonunion teachers to work 12 hours a day.
State AFL-CIO head Mario Cilento praised Shelton for keeping his members united during a year and a half of negotiations at Verizon. CWA members “would go through a brick wall for him, but Chris usually goes through first.”
Shelton devoted his speech to praising the Workers Defense League, which was founded in 1936 and now represents more than 300 people a year who feel they were unjustly denied unemployment benefits—for free. When Cablevision fired 22 workers in January 2013, he said, “the first thing our lawyers did was call the Workers Defense League.”
Introducing Gebre, Fred Redmond of the United Steelworkers said the first time he met him, “I felt his passion… This guy’s the real deal.”
Gebre told the crowd of about 175 people how he had spent 93 days walking through the desert to get to a refugee camp in the Sudan before coming to the U.S.—but the country where members of the Walton family make $91 million a day “is not the America I risked my life for.” The America he dreamed of had a culture of “bringing respect to workers.”
“I don’t know why we’re fighting for $10.10 an hour,” he said. “Who can live on $10.10?” He criticized President Obama for doing a photo opportunity at a Walmart, and said labor should not support politicians who talk about economic inequality but are “too timid” to say that collective bargaining brings up wages.
The immigrants being deported at the rate of one every 78 seconds are the workers who want unions, Gebre added, urging the audience to “open up our union halls and make them a sanctuary for green-card workers.”
“Let’s go organize the South,” he concluded.