It’s an honor to receive an award along with Bob Madore, Clark King and Rosa DeLauro. It’s a particular honor to receive the first Merrilee Milstein Award. I want to thank the Working Families party for tonight and for all of their fine work, thank my family and friends for joining us tonight, especially my son Ethan, who is representing his brother Kyle and my significant other Jennifer, and my colleagues at the world’s longest named law firm, Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn and Kelly.
Many of you know that my Dad was a long time union president, who as a result had contact with lots of people with high titles – politicians, corporate leaders, judges, international union officials. He always told me that the highest title you could give anyone was organizer, and the highest compliment was “great organizer.” A great organizer is someone who no matter what other title is added to their name is a leader who brings people together in ways that help them change the world. Merrilee Milstein was a great organizer. She had a lot of very important jobs and titles throughout her lifetime, but in each of those jobs it was her skills and dedication as organizer that allowed her to make such a difference. She died on June 9th, the same day as my other comrade and law partner for 1/4 of a century Ruth Pulda, also a tremendous activist leader and organizer. So if there is an afterlife, at least three things have changed since June 9th: Heaven is now a worker-run commune, the women are now in charge, and there’s free Starbucks coffee. Ruth and Merrilee had a lot in common…..
Turning to what’s not exactly heaven on earth, I want to talk a little about the response of all of us to today’s economic crisis and what it means to our short-term and long term futures. You all know that state workers recently ratified an agreement that provides big savings to the state budget, and job security for state employees. I appreciate being given credit for my work on that agreement, but the real credit goes to the union leaders and union members who stuck together in their common interest, and who fought for, supported and voted for the agreement. What is fascinating about that agreement is that it passed more than 4 to 1 in bargaining units that had unit contracts, meaning that many many senior workers voted for it who were at no risk of layoff. They voted for it in solidarity with their more junior brothers and sisters who were at risk, but they also voted for it because it was the right thing to do as part of a broader struggle for a fairer budget -- one based on raising revenue from the rich and big corporations, and on preserving public services. In other words, they wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And the fact that such a diverse group of working people saw it this way, I think points to the opportunities for change that are presented by the combination of the current economic crisis and the political changes in Washington and throughout the country.
I believe that nearly 4 decades of wage stagnation, combined with the terrible pain of the current economic crisis, and the election of an African-American president who ran on a platform of change has recreated a demand for real change not seen since the 60’s and before that the 30’s.
Looks what’s on the national agenda: National health care -- the recognition that health care is a human right, not a privilege; the Employee Free Choice Act – the recognition that a democratic society must provide a real voice for working families; a national energy and environmental policy premised on green jobs and sustainable growth rather than simply pollution and profits. A foreign policy not based on lies and preemptive strikes. Even on our state side, it’s only the obstinacy of our current governor and the hesitancy of a few legislators which has slowed us from passing the first comprehensive universal healthcare plan in the nation.
However, all of these changes, while necessary, are not sufficient for the long-term triumph of the free and just society we all envision. To triumph over the pain of the current crisis and the downward trend of 40 years requires us to organize on a scale not seen since the 30s and to make changes broader, deeper, and much more inclusive – including real equality for groups still far behind in the 30’s, like women, African-Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and so many others . That triumph requires three more things: Courage – a commodity that is seldom lacking on the left; humility, a commodity that can be in much shorter supply; and faith.
Courage, because we need to be willing to say what Merrilee would have said, and what thousands of progressive leaders have said before us. A just society must be organized in a way to put people and their democratic rights first, and markets and their economic needs second. If we get called socialists, or communists, or dirty pinko freaks for saying that, then so be it. The economy, the market, is the creation and should be the tool of human beings, not the other way around. We need the courage to speak up and fight for real lasting change.
Humility, because we must admit that the precise road to and the details of the just society is something we must learn, not something we can preach. I’ve had the privilege of working with the staff and Board of the Universal Healthcare Foundation on Sustinet, our state’s universal health care plan, and I know how hard it is to carry out the vision of healthcare as a universal right and not a privilege, and to overcome entrenched market forces just around that issue. How much harder to apply that vision to all the other necessities of life, housing, and education, a safe, nurturing, and truly non-discriminatory community, and to think in terms that go not just state wide, but national and international. All of us learned on picket lines “No justice, no peace.” This is just as true, but much more ominous in the international context. Together we need to have the humility to help figure it out, what a just and civilized 21st century really looks like, how we can play our small part in making it real.
And faith. The fanatical faith of the right in the market as the solution for all ills has been exposed as the lunacy it is. We need to replace it with the faith that underlies all true democratic systems -- a faith that human beings can be organized and empowered in ways that allow them to make good and just decisions about their own lives and the lives of their communities. If we allow ourselves to share the right’s cynicism about the abilities and motivations of everyday people, we will never make lasting democratic change.
I do know this. If Merrilee were here, her excitement and energy at the possibilities of our new world would be unbounded. She would help us all envision a just future, and find the real life paths that would take us there. Thank you for the honor of accepting this award in her name. Now let’s do what she would ask us to do: go, fight, and win.