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LIUNA Celebrates Its Centennial, Makes Plans for the Next 100 Years

This article is from "The Laborer" - Fall/Winter 2003

(On this page are excerpts of LIUNA General President Terry O'Sullivan's keynote address at the Centennial celebration in Las Vegas, Nevada, April 13, 2003).

Celebrating our 100th anniversary is indeed a milestone; it is a testament to the resiliency of our organization, to its ability to adapt to changing times and political and economic conditions. It speaks volumes about the courageous leaders and members who define our organization, and about the principles of justice, honor and strength which have guided us over the past century.

Over the course of the last 100 years this Union has not only survived the test of time, it has grown and prospered. And much of that credit goes to the individuals who have guided our organization through good times and bad. Thanks to their tenacity, their courage and wisdom, LIUNA stands today as one of the most aggressive, progressive, and respected unions in all of North America.

But, what we are really celebrating is the valor, the vision, the fearlessness, and the determination of a group of immigrants who joined together to form the Laborers' International Union of North America.  Our forefathers were individuals from different countries, speaking different languages and with different backgrounds. They were people who wanted a better way of life. They were workers no other union wanted - Italian and Irish, Black and Latino, Portuguese, Polish and German.

They banded together with one goal in mind:  to make a better life for themselves and their families, building a strong foundation for a brighter future. They stood up to employers who mistreated them.

Employers who didn't give a damn about them, not as workers, not even as human beings. Like us here today, they were united by their shared experiences and beliefs. They were driven by the common goal of securing a better way of life for all working men and women. 

We, the Laborers of today, are the generation of men and women, chosen by destiny, to continue the legacy they started. It falls upon us to fulfill the promise they made to all future generations. It is our challenge, our sacred duty, to remain dedicated to the same cause, the same purpose, the same mission, that they were. 

Today we are fighting the same fight, in our own way, striving to make life better for Laborers and their families. The last 100 years demanded the very best our union had to give, and, by the grace of God and with the loyalty and dedication of a strong membership, we have grown and prospered. 

As I think about the founding of our Union a century ago, I can't help but feel a tremendous sense of pride in our predecessors who came together so long ago. At the same time, I also feel an awesome sense of responsibility and a solemn obligation to those who will come after us. 

We must take the bull by the horns-we must come together as never before and turn this Union upside down, and inside out, to get it right side up for the future. 

What we have to do is this: we must take what we have and reshape it, retool it, and restructure it.

We must commit ourselves to a strategic five-point plan, a plan that will serve as the foundation for our next 100 years. A plan that will demand all of our energy, all of our time and resources, all of our determination, and all of our passion to achieve. Because our legacy, our very survival as an organization depends on how aggressively we move forward into the 21st century.

The first point of our five-point plan is strategic organizing. While we have accomplished a great deal in our organizing efforts, what we now need is a renewed call to arms-a call that challenges us to organize the unorganized.  

There are more than 10 million construction workers in the U.S. and Canada. We should have millions, not hundreds of thousands, of members in that industry alone. We must increase our organizing activity not 5 times, not 10 times, but 20 times or more. We must commit not $20 million a year, not $30 million a year, but $50 million or more per year on organizing.

We need to organize at least 100,000 new members each and every year to ensure the viability and strength of our organization. We must hire more organizers-organizers who look like us, who think like us, who understand the language, the culture, and the concerns of the workers we are trying to organize. 

We need to do whatever it takes, spend whatever it costs, find whatever resources are need, to get the job done. We must embrace our renewed commitment to strategic organizing-because we organize, or we die!

The next step in our plan is implementing mandatory apprenticeship and mandatory training. At our first convention in 1903, our fledgling Union was challenged to do everything possible to help members of the craft secure gainful employment. Today, we look to mandatory apprenticeship and mandatory training to do exactly that.

What a proud day it was for all of us in 1994 when the work of a "Construction Craft Laborer" was recognized by the Department of Labor as an apprenticeable craft.  This was indeed a defining moment for our Union-when Laborers finally achieved the recognition we so justly deserved.

As an organization, we must be totally committed to apprenticeship. I realize it isn't easy to implement, but it's what we have to do to stay strong in the new century, to rebuild our core membership, and to ensure a workforce that will have the diverse skills and abilities it takes to be a productive construction craft laborer.

We realize it's not fair to the members we represent to take someone off the street, someone with no skills or experience and pay them the same rate you'd pay a member who has worked in the field for years.  And it's not fair to the contractors we work with to offer them anything less than the most productive and qualified worker that we can provide. Mandatory apprenticeship may not be the only answer, but to ignore it, it to ignore the future. 

At the same time we must implement mandatory training. We must never lose sight of the fact that training defines us as an organization. Laborers today are expected to perform some of the most divers, difficult, and demanding jobs on a work site.

Laborers have to be multi-skilled, highly-trained, productive, and prepared.

Today, we are providing training to approximately 25% of our construction membership. In order to increase that percentage we must expand our mobile training efforts.  We must provide training via the internet, and offer more evening and weekend classes.  We must translate our courses into Spanish and other languages. And lastly, we must demand that a resolution is passed at our next convention that requires mandatory training for all LIUNA members-because it is imperative for our continued success as a Union.

The next step in our strategic plan is increased political action. Consider for a moment all that labor has achieved through the political process:  the abolishment of child labor; the establishment of the eight hour work day and the 40-hour work week, the implementation of the Davis-Bacon Act and the Service Contract Act, the creation of OSHA, and the countless injuries prevented and lives saved through our efforts.

We are going to do whatever it takes, spend whatever it costs, to move our agenda with the powers-that-be.  Throughout our history, we've given politicians a lot of money; we've turned out a lot of votes.  Yet we must always be aware of the fight we are in.  For all the good we have done and continue to do, our efforts haven't saved Davis-Bacon from constant attacks.  They haven't advanced needed labor law reform and they haven't ensured postal reform.  They haven't curtailed right-to-work initiatives form springing up; they haven't freed up enough infrastructure spending, and it damn sure hasn't created enough jobs for our members. 

To be heard, we have to be out in front. We have to be number one. Today, we are facing real enemies of working people. We've got to turn the Congress, the White House, and the Parliament around. We are a bi-partisan organization.  We will work with any individual who will accept, respect, and embrace the agenda of this International Union. We must become more involved in local, state, national and provincial politics. Once and for all, laborers are going to be the player in the political process, ahead of every other union within organized labor.

As we implement our renewed political program, we must remind all politicians that we will work tirelessly to elect our friends and to defeat our enemies.  So they know as we know when Laborers vote. . . Laborers win.

One of the most important legislative issues facing us as Laborers, facing all of organized labor, is immigration reform. Like our founders before us, these immigrant workers are being exploited by unscrupulous employers.  As Laborers, as Union leaders, as human beings, we must fight for the effectuation of far-reaching and effective immigration reform. As Laborers, we stand up and fight for all immigrant workers whose voices have been silenced, whose time is now to come out of the shadows, and to be recognized for the contributions they make to our countries. 

It will be our Union that steps up to the plate and champions their cause. We will fight for these workers who need our help so desperately, and we will live up to our own principals and our own ideals as trade unionists, and most of all as Laborers.

The next point in our five-point plan is membership activism. I believe that the key to achieving our goals within our Union is through the active participation of the most valuable asset we have as an organization -our members

One hundred years ago, brave immigrants founded this Union with a sense of pride, commitment, and determination.  They proved that when they stood together, and fought together, they won together-no matter the challenges, no matter the obstacles.

It is incumbent upon us to insist, to demand, that every one of our members actively participates in every facet, in every initiative, in every aspect of our Union.  Let us sand shoulder to shoulder with 880,000 proud men and women of LIUNA to change our neighborhoods, to change our communities, to change our union, and to change our world.

The last step in our strategic plan is the most important step of all. As you remember at the 2001 Convention, we mandated that every Local of this International Union increase their market share by 20% or more by 2006.  Increasing our market share is simply the most important thing we must do to preserve and protect our future.

Market share is crucial because without solid market share we can't control the industries in which we represent workers. Without significant market share, we can't bargain from a position of power for better wages, better benefits, and better working conditions for our members.

Market share is what defines us as a Union, and determines our future success, determines our very existence.  If we don't increase our market share, we run the risk of becoming insignificant, even obsolete.  If we are to survive as an effective labor organization we must ensure that never happens.

What we must do in the months and years ahead will not be easy, because progress is achieved through nothing less than hard work and sacrifice.  But Laborers have always accepted this reality.  We have always responded to the challenge.  We have always done whatever it takes to get the job done.

We must work together to ensure that 100 years from now, when the Laborers of the 22nd century gather to celebrate our 200th anniversary, that they are as proud of us as we are of the brave men and women of the Laborers' first 100 years.

I know that together we will rise to the challenge. As the Laborers of today, descendants of warriors whose battleground was the job sit and picket line, covered in dirt, sweat and blood, we will carry on the fight, with enthusiasm and devotion.  But most importantly we must carry on their cause, for what is good, what is right, and what is just.

Let us never forget where we came from.  Let us never forget where we are going.  And let us never forget where we go...we go together.

Copyright 2012 LIUNA Local 183
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