Jesse Jackson at TWU Convention: It's About Character
Source News for Social Justice Action
Date 05/09/30/00:49

TWU 22nd Constitutional Convention

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
Following is the complete text of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's speech to the Transport Workers Union of Americabs 22nd Constitutional Convention on Tuesday, September 20, 2005. He was introduced by J.W. Johnson, International Representative and Director of the TWU Civil and Human Rights Department.

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON (President, Rainbow Coalition):

Let me hear you scream! (Applause and cheers)

Let me thank you for such a kind and generous introduction.

It is a delight to be with you today as we meet at this very challenging hour in the history of our country and of your union and of the union movement. Hurricanes are knocking down the poor. Windfalls are lifting up the rich. I just left New Orleans and Houston yesterday to get here to be with you today, and then I go back south tomorrow. So for those victims of that hurricane and the hurricanes that are on the way, let us bow our heads in prayer.

Dear God, accept our petition and let the lessons taught not be lost on us. For those who have ears to hear, listen and learn, and for those who have eyes to see, see. Forgive us our sins and the foolishness of our ways. Make us better and stronger. Incline us to turn to each other, not on each other, that we may rise above the storm and be the better for it.

We know if we have the faith that you have the power to see us through every situation. Bless this union as these workers drive and direct the nation. Amen.

In the days when we had inner-tubes in tires, when we had to change tires we would take the inner-tubes out and use them for many purposes. But to fill the inner-tube up with air, you obviously could not see where the air was coming out. You just knew it kept going down. You would put the inner-tube in the water, and wherever the bubbles would come up, you knew that's where the hole was.

In some sense, what Katrina has done is show us where the holes are in the inner-tube, where the bubbles are. And when the wind blows with great ferociousness, the lion and the lamb are both hit by the wind. When the wind truly blows at the hurricane level, it is no respecter of persons where the wind is blowing.

While we are now facing the impact of Katrina and Rita on the way, what does that have to do with transportation workers? When we attack the earth, the earth to protect itself fights back. It has its own sense of survival as a kind of cosmic organism. So with our greed we unleash these carbons and carcinogens in the air, and we attack the shield, the ozone layer. And the sun comes in more directly and melts the glaciers. When they are melted, the water table rises, the water temperature rises, then there's evaporation, then there's condensation and then wind. It ain't that complicated. It's called global warming.

So we attack the earth, and the earth fights back. It makes so much more sense to invest in massive public transportation than private greed. Amtrak makes more sense than Hummers to move the American public. (Applause and cheers)

Why a Hummer between Chicago and St. Louis or Chicago and Milwaukee? Why a Hummer between Greenville, South Carolina, and Atlanta and/or Charlotte when you could have first class, safe, energy efficient public transportation. In some sense, you not only get us there safer and quicker, but you also protect us from a struggle with the earth, a struggle that we cannot win.

When we heard of 9/11 we said, "It's bin Laden; it's the Taliban." So we have security guards at every gate. They'll make you undress in the airport. They have security guards at the door of every major building. We are going to stop the terrorists. But adding more security guards will not help you when Katrina and Rita are coming this way. This is a different kind of fight than fighting political threats or terrorists.

So the first lesson to be learned in this struggle, this environmental struggle, which has public transportation implications, we can no longer say, "Look, I'm a bus driver" or "I'm a train driver. I can't get into all that environmental stuff because I'm just driving." Oh, no. You are breathing in this environment. You are affected by the air you breathe, the water you drink, the impact of hurricanes, the impact of storms.

So high on our agenda must be fighting for public transportation that's energy efficient. It certainly makes more sense than having a road full of Hummers. We are 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its polluters. So I agree. Turn back the Hummers. Every time I see a debate about should we have Amtrak or not, we should have Amtrak coast to coast. We should be connected by train, connected by rail. (Applause) Put America back to work.

Maybe one of the biggest mistakes made in the last century, Mr. President, was that we had the train system before there were airplanes, and those who owned the trains only saw ways of making more luxurious trains and more private rail cars for the rich. They didn't see transportation; they just saw trains. In reality, those who own the train companies really should have owned the airlines. But the big issue is our national interest and security-- making steel, laying the beds, fast and energy efficient transportation.

The first attack in New Orleans in the Gulf Coast was an environmental reaction or feedback called global warming. The second issue to be dealt with was that we had advanced warning but no preparation. We put a man in charge of federal emergencies who was an Arabian horse trader. (Applause) It took some effort to be that unqualified. (Laughter)

Bush riding bicycles and dodging Cindy Sheehan in his front yard, and the storm kept coming. So unlike 9/11 where there was no advance warning-- to our knowledge-- or the tsunami, we had Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We had warning. When the storm hit, and it was not just New Orleans, it was not just Pascagoula or Mobile, it was the Gulf Coast. It was a federal hit, a hit that affected our southeast region.

I got there on Tuesday. There was no Mississippi plan, there was no Louisiana plan or Alabama plan. There was no sense of a federal emergency that was coming at our coast. There was no federal coordination. So we simply watched as mayors and governors stumbled over each other.

When the storm hit New Orleans, Mr. Bush never got down there. He never went to New Orleans until after it was over. Mr. Brown never went to Ground Zero. The Red Cross never went to Ground Zero. They said it was too dangerous to go down there. But they went to Iraq. (Applause and cheers)

That does not make sense to me. The media says, "Well, these are refugees." No, no, no. These are citizens-- not refugees but citizens, American citizens. (Applause and cheers) We are not refugees. We are citizens. (Applause)

We protect refugees because we care. The sign on the Statue of Liberty says, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe free." These are refugees we're reaching out to who are escaping some form of political persecution or famine or starvation. We receive refugees and then they become citizens. Refugees exist on privilege. Citizen exist on rights. We have a right to be protected. We are lucky. We are Americans. (Applause and cheers)

There was no preparedness for our infrastructure because of misplaced priorities. The reason why I challenge us to work together across lines of race and region, religion and gender, to unlearn lessons of racial intolerance, unlearn these race games we've been taught to play, and learn to live together as brothers and sisters and not die apart as fools, is because we are bound together.

When they close the plants and take your jobs to a cheap labor market, when they close the plants they cut the lights out. When the lights go out, you can't use color for a crutch. We all look amazingly similar in the dark. So let's turn the lights on! (Applause and cheers and whistles) Turn the lights on and let the light shine in.

There was no preparedness. So the reality is that Mississippi got hit harder than New Orleans. If New Orleans had been hit frontally by a Category 5, then the whole Superdome would have been under water, nine feet below sea level. So we were looking for a week at people on top of rooftops, starving and begging for bread and water. Whether you call it race, class or poverty, the whole world was watching.

I remember in 1968 at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the police began to beat the demonstrators who were protesting the war. And at some point the police were hitting them across the head and they started to chant, "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" And the whole world was watching who got left in that hole.

Somehow we dropped bread and water on Indonesia after the tsunami in two days. After we were hit on 9/11, Mr. Bush went to Ground Zero, held arms with police and firemen in New York. But in two days he never quite got to New Orleans. And the whole world was watching.

Was it incompetence? Some of that. Ineptness? Some of that. Race, class? Probably some of that. None of that is acceptable. We all deserve to be protected when under attack. (Applause)

So there was no mass plan for rescue. I went in on Tuesday with ten buses. FEMA started the buses rolling and said that it was too dangerous to go in. We went in. Without bodyguards we went in. It seemed to me that if there were some shots being fired, you send the National Guard in. But when they're being fired upon, you stop the shooters; you don't stop the buses and leave folks to die and parch in the sun. (Applause) Overreaction.

We went in and got the students, 40 or 50 of them from Xavier, and we brought them out. The most painful part about it was that people had been up on the highway for two days, three days at that time, and when they saw the buses coming, they saw me coming, they had a sense of joy and I was glad to see them. But then we didn't have enough room for them. We began to load the bus with students and they formed a human chain around the bus and said, "You can't leave us." That's when the tears began to flow. We had to leave them on the promise that we would come back the next day. And we did. But how painful it was to leave them in the dark for a fourth day.

We came back the next day and 12,000 cars were on I-10 with 10,000 people. I saw a baby dying in its mother's arms. Folks in wheelchairs keeled over dead. Chavez from Venezuela, our trading partner with whom we have diplomatic relations, offered us two mobile hospital units, 2 electric generators, 18 water purifiers, 20 tons of water and 50 tons of food, and we turned it away. I know because I put the letter in the Governor's hands.

There were people dying on the highway. Across the highway were 500 buses empty. They would not pick them up. Why? Was it the bus driver's fault? No. The bus drivers came to pick them up but had no place to take them. They could not ride around with 50 people on a bus angry, upset and sick, with no place to take them. So now we're caught with rescue but no plan for relief, even in an emergency.

Last Monday I went to Memphis, Tennessee where 40 truck drivers revolted. They'd been there for a week with semi tractors full of ice, water and food, but no place to drop it. They'd been sitting there for a week making $1,000 a day and $2,000 a week on gas alone, angry because there was no plan for massive relief, no plan for massive rescue, no plan for relocation.

Wouldn't you think that living in the lowlands of Louisiana and you're a Louisiana taxpaying citizen, when warnings come in you could go north within your own state for rescue? Would not the first resort of southern Louisiana be to go to north Louisiana? Wouldn't the first option be for citizens from the south to go north in their own state? Why didn't they go north? Why couldn't they use unused military bases? England Air Force Base is 3,000 acres! (Applause)

Electricity, water, schools, commissaries, health facilities. Belle Chasse in New Orleans, other military bases, state parks, federal lands, why couldn't they go to safety in their own state? There was no plan to receive their own. Even today, 150,000 are living in rescue centers today. Babies sleeping on floors of kitchens. Today 150,000. With 1,000 children misplaced even now.

No plan for massive rescue. And it could have been your state. No plan for massive relief, no plan for relocation. So now there are more in Texas than there are in Louisiana. What's the politics of that? No plan for massive relocation or reunification.

As I was pulling people out, they said, "But Reverend, I'm here but my wife is there, my baby's there."

I said, "Show me." I said, "Take the whole family." They took them out men here, women here. They took them out dividing families. No mothers cannot find fathers. Children cannot find parents. No planning for massive rescue, relief, relocation or family reunification.

But we've got the plan now. We've put on our Bush face now and we've got a plan. We've got a plan for reconstruction. "There will be a new New Orleans. We'll hear jazz again. We'll eat gumbo again. We'll do the second line one more time. I'm here now with a plan."

But watch this, y'all. Watch this, union. Watch this. We have a $200 billion bailout plan for the Gulf Coast. $200 billion. Whenever Bush sticks his hand out, there's always something up his sleeve. (Laughter and applause)

What was missed in the big news coverage, in the big press conference in New Orleans-- with the Andrew Jackson Building in the background, by the way-- "We must suspend Davis-Bacon." Some people think that's Davis eating bacon, but that ain't what it is, you understand? That really ain't about grits and bacon. That's the workers' Bacon. To rebuild New Orleans, to rebuild the Coast, we must suspend prevailing wages, a deal covering right-to-work states, the red states.

Their very first act, we're going to give you money but we won't give you wages, a federal bill on states rights terms. If we had prevailing wages, it would mean they'd have to lift minimum wages across the whole red-state region. So we're going to have a Gulf State bill, but we're going to suspend prevailing wages.

Now, we know that those who could get out did get out. Those who could not get out were left behind, Bush says, because of "intractable problems" of race and class and poverty. And we must get over that. Of course, that's true. But his very first act to condemn them to more poverty.

In a state where they've already got a minimum wage that's below poverty-- a subminimum wage now is the law, below poverty-- his very first act was to sign an executive order to suspend prevailing wages. You're coming back to $6 an hour. You still can't afford a car. You can't get out of the next flood. (Applause)

I was there yesterday while people from New Orleans are now in 41 states around the country looking for a new home, looking for survival. Some of the Gulf State workers trying to get back home, they were locked out. While Halliburton and Bechtel brings in immigrant workers to do the job for less than $6 an hour. Using immigrant labor in order to cut workers who are already at subminimum wages.

Most people who are poor are not on welfare. Fifty million Americans have no health insurance. Most poor folks work every day. They catch the early bus. (Applause) They clean up other people's houses. They raise their children and cut their grass. They work every day. Most poor folks are not on welfare; they work every day. And when they get to work, they still don't have health insurance.

But they work every day. Most of them are not black; they are white, they are female and they are young. But whether white, black or brown, we are all God's children. And when they work, get off that bus and go to the hospital as orderlies and aides to nurses, when you're sick they wipe your body down, they cool your scorching fever, they clean your diseased sheets, they take your temperature, they mop the floors. They're not old enough to be called misters or misses. Yet when they get sick, they cannot afford to lie in the bed they make up every day.

It is time for a change. We all need health insurance. Every American needs health insurance. (Applause) Every American. Every American needs health insurance. (Applause and cheers) Every American deserves health insurance.

The very first act-- here's Mr. President in New Orleans, and the very first act was to suspend Davis-Bacon, a direct attack on labor. We should be in the south now fighting for the right to organize, not supporting right-to-work laws.

So why must black and white find common ground? Some people get sidetracked arguing about same sex and skin color supremacy. Why must we get beyond these diversions?

Watch this. When slavery was over-- there could not be organized labor in slavery times because organized labor couldn't compete with slave labor. Organized labor and slave labor couldn't coexist. So in many ways, when slavery ended, that's when organized labor began. Because slave labor and organized labor couldn't coexist. So we began to organize labor unions to protect the workers' interests and have collective bargaining, collective strength.

The south cut a deal. And it lasted until this day. "We're sorry. We're coming back into the union. We lost the war. We really didn't lose, we just stopped fighting. We're coming back in. But on the condition that the federal government"-- watch this-- "the federal government will build roads, bridges, sewers, levies, dams, you will build the infrastructure, but we'll control labor." That was the deal.

"So while you will have federal investment in roads, bridges and dams and levies, we will maintain right-to-work laws. We'll segregate black from white workers. We'll segregate men from women workers. That was the deal they cut. Separate black from white, separate men from women. And you're going to have cheap labor down here. Come on down here, y'all. Come on down here. We control labor." That's the deal we cut.

And they cut the same deal last Friday. "We're going to bring in $200 billion, but we must suspend Davis-Bacon, we must reinforce right-to-work laws, we must undercut organized labor." That was the first deal cut. The next deal cut was, "Because we're in a hurry, we'll have time for local businesses."

You would think that displaced victims would have first priority on the right to return home. That victims would have the first right of job training, jobs and contracts. Am I right about that? (Applause)

Say it with me:
... The delegates joined in and repeated in unison ...
Should have
The first right
To return home.
The victims
Should have the first right
On job training,
And contracts.
The Victims
Should have the first right
To return home,
Job training,
And contracts.

They suspended that law, too. So Halliburton and Bechtel got five $100 million no-bid contracts to clean up what? Dirt and limbs. So on one extreme-- are y'all with me so far? On one extreme you undercut labor, you create cheaper labor, those who come back still cannot survive again; and on the other hand you take away all the laws. You would think that Gulf States businesses would be thriving.

But in comes FEMA with Bechtel and Fleur, the same people who cleaned up Iraq with the biggest multimillion dollar cost overrun and we can't find the money? That same crowd? (Laughter) To clean up a yard of debris on a truck is $26 a yard for Halliburton, but for local people it's $6 a yard on a truck.

So here you have all this fundraising and "We love the victims, bring me one home, bring victims to our house as a little trophy from New Orleans. We've got some new trophies, got two or three starving Negroes from New Orleans." The hell with that, y'all. We need jobs and wages and health care and contracts.

... The delegates arose and applauded ...

When you put an inner-tube in the water, what do you find? Where the bubbles are. Some say, "Where are we gonna find the money?" Well, if you give a permanent tax cut to the top ten percent, you subsidize the wealthy, and you invest $5 billion a month in Iraq-- no weapons of mass destruction, no Al Qaeda connection, no imminent threat-- we are losing lives, money and honor. So now we've got to protect Baghdad, but we can't protect New Orleans. (Applause)

We have now seen the holes in the inner-tube. It's time for a new tire, a new change and a new President. It's time for a change. (Applause and cheers and whistles)

It's time for a change. The beauty of America is protecting the common good. We didn't say, "Give me your rich, your elite, your aristocrats." We said, "Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses." The common defense. We need public education for all, public transportation for all. Public health care for all. We must fight for the common good and rise above the foolishness of our own separation and fears.

A white coal miner dies in Appalachia every six hours from black lung disease. But whether you are in Appalachia, Alabama, we are all still God's children. We are all still Americans. A sense of the common good, a sense of sacrifice.

Our highest form of praise is helping somebody besides ourselves. The genius of the "Good Samaritan" parable is: A man was walking down the street tending to his business. And two thieves jumped out from behind the bushes and robbed him. The fact is, they could have removed that curb and those bushes so other folks wouldn't get robbed. But Jesus said that the man was walking down the street, two thieves jumped him and robbed him and beat him. How we measure character, the beaten man is no hero. He's just a victim. I want us to measure character by how you treat a beaten man-- not by your race, not by your sex, not by your religion. How you treat the least of these is a measure of your character. That's who you are.

You don't know who you are because you're white or black. You didn't make that decision. You can't brag about something you had nothing to do with. (Applause) You did not choose your race or gender, so that has no value in character measurement. It's about loyalty and trust and duty, values that you choose because of your character-- or lack of it.

Watch this. Jesus said: One man saw him lying there bleeding. And this guy looked up bleeding and saw a pastor, a minister, a man of God of his own religion. He felt relief because he knew there would be help. The pastor, the Bible says, went to the other side of the street and kept walking. One of these prodigies of the gospel, slick preachers, Bible in one hand and prayer book in the other, kept walking.

Jesus asked him, "Is that your neighbor? I mean, he's your preacher, but is that your neighbor when you're in trouble?"

Another man came walking down the street, somebody from his own ethnic group, his own race. He knew he had help them because his ethnic bubble was coming down the street. (Laughter)

The Bible says he went to the other side and kept on walking.

Another man, the Samaritan, came walking down the street. A man from another country, another race, another religion, spoke another language, didn't even have a green card. (Laughter) A Samaritan. He went beyond color, beyond culture, and up to character. And he picked him up. He put him on his own horse and said, "Now let's go and get well."

His own pastor, his own religious order neglected him. His own ethnic kin neglected him. And then here was a Samaritan beyond color and culture with something called "character." It makes us strong. It makes us able to survive strikes, able to organize and BUILD, BUILD, BUILD! (Applause)

Today what's missing in New Orleans and Baton Rouge labor movement is-- and Bush came with us last Friday and attacked Davis-Bacon, attacked prevailing wages, attacked workers' rights to organize. And so far we ain't done nothin' about it.

Our silence is betrayal! We should be marching in Baton Rouge today. We should be marching and demanding, "How can you be parading and profiling in Port Arthur and Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana, and then fight to condemn workers to poverty wages?" There's a labor movement in town, and we ain't gonna take it! There is a labor movement in town! (Applause)

We are not going to take prevailing wages being cut. We are not going to accept right-to-work. We want the right to organize. There's a labor movement in town. (Applause and cheers and whistles)

Lastly, why can't we afford public transportation? Why can't we afford Amtrak, buses? Why can't we afford to subsidize public education? I was in Venezuela two weeks ago, and gas was 15 cents a gallon. Fifteen cents a gallon. Because they subsidize public education, public transportation, and health care. We can't afford that because we subsidize the top five percent. We subsidize a war in Iraq. (Applause) So when we get through giving give-backs to the wealthy and fighting a war of choice, we don't have any money left because our priorities are off.

We need public education. We don't need a war in Iraq; we need public education. We need public transportation. We need public health care. We need new priorities. (Applause)

Mr. President, I am not pleased with the Democrats, and I am not scared of Republicans. It's time to fight back in an independent kind of way. (Applause and cheers) It's time to fight back. We need a labor political movement. We need a Workers' Party. We must fight for workers' rights,
health care,

This land is our land. (Applause) I am not pleased with the Democrats, and I ain't scared of the Republicans. I've come to fight today. Can I get a witness? Let me hear you scream.

... The delegates arose and shouted and applauded and whistled ...

There are Republicans who want right-to-work laws. There are Democrats who are not fighting against them. Then there's us. (Applause) Us needs our own political movement to protect us's interests.

Character-- and I will close on this, character, because it's what will make you strong. I was out in L.A. where there was a transportation strike three years ago. For 30 days, the whole city was stopped. 500,000 people couldn't move. Public transportation stopped and doctors couldn't leave the homes because the nannies couldn't get to work. (Applause) There was nobody to take care of their children. Judges couldn't get to work. When you stop, the town stops. When you roll, the town rolls. You've got power. (Applause and cheers) When you roll, the nation rolls. (Applause) When you roll, everybody rolls.

All the glitz and lights and Emi's and Jimmy's and all that stuff in L.A., when the drivers stop the town stops. You've got power. You're the ones who make the cookie crumble. You are the point.

That's what we found out after 30 days and got that matter resolved. We came down to having the capacity to survive the 30 days. We missed a couple paychecks. We had to have the courage to fight. Had to have the all-out power to achieve victory. And that's what they did.

Some years ago in L.A., there was Rodney King, a black motorist driving down the highway. Four racist white policemen tried to beat him to death. But don't assume all white are racists on that basis. That's not a fair conclusion. Because while he was there getting beaten, crying out-- I mean, you could hear the thumps-- a white photographer named George Halliday, when he heard it he looked out the window and saw the lights, he saw the beating taking place. And he could have said, "It's not my business." He could have said, "That Negro shouldn't be in my neighborhood. They caught him doing something." He could have said, "All them police couldn't be wrong."

But some mother's or father's lesson, some minister's sermon said to the white photographer, "It's not right. They shouldn't beat that man. He's alone and they're beating him and laughing." George Halliday was a hero; Rodney King was the victim. Rodney King was not a hero; he was a victim. The hero was a white photographer who went beyond color and culture to something called character.

A few days later, when those four policemen were set free and blacks and browns went berserk with anger and pain, there was a rebellion in Watts. A white truck driver named Reginald Denny got lost. He ended up in Watts, so he knew he was lost. (Laughter)

Four young blacks snatched him out of the truck and began to beat him. It was live on television on CNN. Four young blacks who did not know each other, but had a sense of values, a sense of what was right. Not black and white, but wrong and right. They left-- now they didn't even know each other-- and they snatched him away from them. They rushed him to the hospital where one of the doctors performed surgery and saved his life. Beyond color and culture to something called character, something called courage.

Workers, it is time to fight back. They're dealing down your wages. It's time to fight back. You want Amtrak? It's time to fight back. The greedy are attacking our earth, and it's time to fight back. First class jails and second class schools? It's time to fight back. They want to invest in our levies and people are drowning? It's time to fight back.

We've come too far. We've marched too much. We've died too young. This land is our land. Don't let them take it. It's time to fight back.

Keep hope alive.

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