‘Give Us Back Our God-Given Right to Join a Union’

Cecil Roberts

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.

The following are excerpts from the Paducah, Ky., Labor Day address by Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Upon being commissioned a Duke of Paducah: “I have been called a lot of things in my life, but I have never been called a duke.”

Recognizing Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council officers and Western Kentucky Labor Day Committee volunteers: “It takes a tremendous amount of work to have a Labor Day celebration like this. People are out here early in the morning and they stay late at night…What I am doing is relatively easy compared to what they’ve done. Let’s bring them all up….These people are the blood of your blood, the flesh of your flesh and the soul of your soul. ”

Recognizing veterans in the crowd: “I want to do something I do everywhere I go and that is to pay tribute to the people who allowed us all to be here today. I’m exercising my right of freedom of speech today, and no one does that more often than I do. You’re exercising your right to a freedom of assembly here today. None of us could have these rights without our veterans. Our veterans allow us to come here today. They allow us to vote. They allow us to live in the greatest country on the earth. And I would like all the veterans just to walk up front here a second, and let’s give them the proper recognition that they deserve…I am a proud veteran myself, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, served in Vietnam 1967 to 1968.”

berry-x2Patriotism: Across this country a lot of people try to take patriotism away from working class people. I suggest to you that working class people fight most of the wars. Working class people, when called upon, they answer the call, whether it’s World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam, the Mideast.”

On his faith: “I couldn’t speak. You couldn’t march. We couldn’t rally without God’s blessing, and let’s not leave here today without giving God the praise He deserves.”

On his union: “We have over 300 UMWA members here today, mostly retirees and their wives and/or their kids and grandkids. Many people give me pats on the back, and I’ve been asked to sign autographs and sign shirts since I’ve been here. But I don’t deserve any of that because John L. Lewis was the greatest labor leader of all time, and John L. Lewis was asked one time when he was in a confrontation with the United States Congress and the president of the United States – ‘Mr. Lewis, Mr. Lewis – where do you derive your power from?’ And he said, ‘I derive my power and my strength from the membership of the United Mine Workers of America. And let me tell all of you something, when John L. was president, the United Mine Workers’ membership was known as the ‘shock troops of the American labor movement.’ We may not be the biggest union any more, but we are absolutely the best union in the United States of America.”

berry-x3The labor movement: “This is a day set aside for working folks, mainly those in the labor movement, and those of you who work for a living and may not belong to a union, you should thank a union member before you go to bed tonight, because this movement brought you the eight-hour-day. This movement brought you health care. This movement brought you pensions. This movement brought you vacations. This movement brought you time-and-a half. This movement brought you the middle class, so, members of the labor movement, get on your feet and thank yourself for what you have done for the United States of America.”

The people: “….America is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. But who are the people? Most of the time, we look at the millionaires, the CEOs and the billionaires. But we’ve already established that those who fight the wars and defend this country are the workers. Now let me tell you something. Who are the people? Well, they’re the Auto Workers that move the people. We’re the farmers that feed the nation. We’re the electrical workers that wire the nation. We’re the nurses that heal the nation. We’re the firefighters that save the nation. We’re the teachers that teach the nation. We’re the Steelworkers and the construction workers that build the nation. We’re the police officers who protect the nation. We’re the communication workers that connect the nation. We’re the public employees who serve the nation. And yes, we’re the coal miners that energize the nation. We are America.”

berry-x4The struggle: “We’re in struggle in the United Mine Workers. We have a company called Peabody and another called Arch; therefore go the shirts that you see here today: ‘Peabody promised and Peabody lied. Arch promised and Arch lied.’ What’s that all about? – 90 percent of the 22,000 beneficiaries that have seen their health care and their pensions put at risk never worked a day for Patriot Coal, who filed bankruptcy. Peabody promised these people health care. They gave them their lives. They gave them their limbs. They gave their health. They made Peabody and Arch billions of dollars, and then Peabody dumped all of those responsibilities into a company called Patriot, which then went bankrupt. I submit to you, brothers and sisters, that is not the way we should do things in America. We’re better than that, and we stand on the proposition today that these promises will be kept, that when somebody promises workers something in the coal fields, we expect him to keep those promises. These people were promised health care. We stand today. We stand tomorrow. We will stand next week and next year for the promise to be kept.”

Union solidarity and beyond: “We have rallied all across this country….This nation has not seen something like this since the civil rights demonstrations, since the CIO days. We have called on our brothers and sisters in the American labor movement and they have answered the call. We have called on our brothers and sisters from the NAACP and they have answered the call. We have called on the religious community — we have ministers and priests getting arrested with coal miners and Steelworkers and people from all across this country. People of good will and people of faith are saying that…when you give your life to a corporation, and you get into your elderly years…no one should be able to pull a rug out from under you. Two hundred of us have been to jail. I have been to jail eight times, and I am prepared as we stand here today to go to jail and go to jail and go jail because this is nonviolent, and we are standing on the principles of God Almighty.”

The essence of the movement: “If you want to find where this movement has its essence, take the Bible. Don’t wave it. Don’t point it. Don’t pander. Read it…Jesus of Nazareth would be walking with us and standing with the poor, standing with the sick, standing with the afflicted, if he comes back tomorrow.”

Getting the country back on track: “There are a lot of people debating in this country right now: how do you get the country back on track? Since this is a government of the people and by the people and for the people, how about listening to the people for a change? We’ve got a plan, and it’s a simple plan to get America back on track: Give us back our God-given right to join a union in the United States of America again. And I submit to you, if you’re working non-union and you want higher wages, join a union. If you want better pensions, join a union. If you want to protect Social Security, join a union. If you want more time off, join a union. If you want a healthier workplace, join a union. If you want a safer workplace, join a union. If you want a voice at work, join a union. If you want more equality in the workplace, join a union. If you want a better health care plan, join a union. If you want justice in the workplace, join a union. If you want more democracy in America, join a union. If you want to grow the middle class, join a union. And if you just want to tell the boss to kiss your ass, join a union.”

Berry CraigGetting back to labor’s roots: “Brothers and sisters in organized labor, hear me now. We’ve got to get back to where we were – when we were in the streets, when we were forming the CIO, when we were marching with Dr. King for civil rights and equal rights, when we were demanding justice at the workplace and our fair share. We’ve got to be like our forefathers – and I want to remind you that Jesus marched. Gandhi marched. Dr. King marched. John L. Lewis marched, and Moses marched. And let me tell you, Moses never called pharaoh. Moses never sent pharaoh an email. Moses never tweeted pharaoh. Moses had to go see pharaoh, and our challenge today is, do not be afraid. It’s time to stand up, brothers and sisters, and fight for health care, fight for pensions, fight for the middle class.”

Berry Craig

Monday, 2 September 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on September 2, 2013
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.

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