Tom Paine Cronin's retirement speech

A few summers ago, I did an internship with AFSCME DC 47. It was a little different from the average internship, but I guess that's to be expected-- DC 47 is different from your average union. Tom Cronin, longtime leader of DC 47 and also a supporter of various progressive struggles, recently retired. I thought readers of YPP might be interested to read the speech he gave at a retirement dinner in his honor.

First off, I want to thank everyone here for organizing this august occasion and of course for allowing me to lead D.C 47 as its president for this many years.

It’s been an honor to serve.

You have to have a kind of dual personality to be a union leader.

There are times to be flexible.

And there are times to tell the powers that be to take a walk.

And you can be too flexible. Too pliant.

At which point you may find yourself in the habit of yielding. This is what those on the other side of the bargaining table want.

Grouch Marx once said:
‘I have my principles.
And if you don’t like them, I have others.’

Those in power assume that only one principle counts and that’s the principle of self-interest.

In Rendell’s first term ABC was about to film wheel of fortune in the civic center.
And we were set to go out on strike.

The network executives decided that having picket lines all over the city wouldn’t look good so they called and asked us to come out and discuss it with them.

If we’d agree to delay the picketing till after they’d filmed, they’d give the membership free tickets to wheel of fortune.

And maybe even a date with Vane White.

See what you missed?

We told them no. Thanks, but no.

The last thing an employer wants to deal with is militancy.

First they’re baffled. Then, infuriated.

When he was head of city council, John Street refused to meet with me.

I was so visible he decided he’d render me invisible.

He did a Reagan: if I don’t believe it’s real, it isn’t.

I’d walk in a room and John Street would turn his chair around so as to shield his eyes from the extreme displeasure my presence caused him.

Power regards deference as its due.

Employers and their minions warm to the sycophant. They feed on weakness. They want you to think you’re part of their crowd. That you’re a player.

When in fact they’re out to bust you down.

Cause that’s what they do, what they’re paid for.

And when you won’t be ‘a player,’ when you come back at them yelling and waving a picket sign and issuing demands, they’ll call you every name in the book.

They’ll say you’re a pain in the ass—and a troublemaker.

‘Tom Pain,’ was what how John Street referred to me. Without the ‘e.’

But if you’re worth anything at all as a union leader, you better be a troublemaker.

And you better be a very good pain-in-the-ass.

They’ll pass laws limiting and restricting your every tactic and activity.

They’ll go to court and get injunctions.

They’ll try to divide your movement and smear your public image.

Sick and twisted little souls will call, hissing death threats in the night.

They’ve got the money, the media and the police.

They are the power.

That’s why you have to know how to make trouble.

And never stop making trouble.

But you also have to know how to reach out.

Reach out to like-minded organizations, institutions, groups and movements.

Help them strengthen their hand, achieve their goals and win their demands.

One thing that’s made this union different from its very beginning is this:

We don’t just want a better contract. We want a better society.

We want a society where health care and higher education are a right, not a privilege.
Where no one’s discriminated against for any reason.

And where not one tax dollar is handed over to weapons manufacturers or to fund imperialist war.

We want a society where young people are excited about their future, not cynical about it.

I’m sure there are many people in this room who feel that we are, in fact, further from that kind of society than we’ve ever been.

But I don’t believe it.

It’s too easy to be blinded by the political expediencies of the present.

It’s easy to be demoralized or overwhelmed when so much of our information comes through a filter of reaction.

I’ve been hearing for 30 years about how the labor movement is shrinking.

But they don’t tell us that it’s shrinking because laws passed by corporate attorneys stack the deck and prevent organizing.

They only tell us that our reduced portion of the workforce renders labor impotent or irrelevant.

Guess what? 30 years ago this union came out of nothing.

And in the last 20 years D.C. 47 more than doubled in size.

We’ve extended our influence far beyond mere numbers.

We became a force.

Two reasons.

The first is, we got good at making trouble.

Ed Rendell never dreamed we’d set up picket lines outside his hotel at the democratic national convention in New York City in 1992.

But you know what? He needed that. He put in an order for it.

The other reason is this: we took the lead in building coalitions that were far more powerful than anything we could do on our own.

We found allies in working class communities around issues like the minimum wage, fair and adequate housing and gun control.

We found allies within the labor movement by being there for those who needed our help.
We got an anti-war resolution passed at the national AFL-CIO convention.

We launched fact-finding missions to Honduras, El Salvador, Columbia and the
Occupied west bank where labor’s right to organize, to exist, was under dire threat.
We showed that solidarity didn’t end at City Line Avenue or America’s borders.

We set an example.

My friends, labor can, has been and will be a huge force for change.

And really, when you think about it, have you ever imagined somewhere more in need of change than America today?

People don’t have the time to read or the will to think.

Crony capitalism has debauched our political culture just as surely as the slaughter in Iraq has bankrupted our treasury.

And so, while this is the end of my service with district council 47, my involvement in the labor movement and various progressive causes is far from concluded.

Bird houses are not my line of work.

In fact, I look forward to making more trouble.

You’ll see me out there, marching.

Eugene debs said: ‘if there is a criminal class, I am of it, if there’s a soul in jail, I am not free.’

Well, if there’s a bullhorn around, I want it in my hand.

And the next time you charter a bus to go to Washington to protest this monstrous war, or budget cuts that deny health care to children or for any of the many reasons you will go…

…save me a seat.

Cause I’ll be on it.

Thank you very much.

Michael Nutter at Tom Cronin's retirement party

Thanks for posting this. I was at Tom Cronin's retirement dinner but had to leave early and didn’t hear Tom’s speech. (Too many papers to grade.)

On another note, I spoke to a lot of DC 47 folks at the dinner who were very happy that Michael Nutter stopped by at the reception. Given DC 47’s position in the last election, they were impressed that Nutter was not holding any grudges and reaching out to them.

One of the Great Retirement Speeches of All Time

I was there to listen to Tom Cronin's retirement speech. It was one of the great retirement speeches of all time.

Tom is not going away. I look forward to his presence in movements for a better city and a better country for decades to come. Tom was a social activist long before he was a labor leader, and he will be a social activist long after he stops being a labor leader.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Syndicate content