A November 17 rally that had been planned as a last defense against the Trans Pacific Partnership turned instead into a defiant throng ready to take on and defeat the Republicans who now stand astride the national government. Kurt Stand elaborates on the stakes and the ways to lead from our strengths.
The Washington Socialist <> December 2016
By Kurt Stand
Troubled times are ahead of us; all the more reason why any victory should be celebrated. This message resonated loud and clear at the Rally for Social and Economic Justice and Equality celebrating the defeat of the TPP -- the Trans Pacific Partnership -- held November 17 at the Capitol Building with hundreds in attendance. Originally scheduled before the elections in the expectation that a major defining issue in the year ahead would be keeping Obama (and a presumed President Clinton) from supporting passage of a trade deal that would strengthen corporations at the expense of working people, the environment and public rights -- the outcome of the election changed the equation. Obama announced that he would not attempt to oversee passage during Congress’ lame duck session and, given the promises made during the campaign and the composition of the new House and Senate, there is no way that Trump would revive the bill in its present form.
DSA stalwarts at the Nov. 17 rally
But the speakers -- who included, among others, former Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach, US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, speakers from the Nurses Union (NNU), Postal Workers (APWU), Transit Workers (ATU) and Communications Workers (CWA) as well as Senator Bernie Sanders -- emphasized that the defeat of the trade deal was not due to Trump. Rather it was due to years’-long activism that kept the struggle alive no matter how much corporate power was pushing its passage and how much “realistic” media commentators said that fighting it was like tilting at windmills. Trump did not campaign, talk or argue against the trade deal until during the presidential campaign when he recognized that opposing TPP was a popular political position,
The fact that corporate unity around “free trade” has begun to crack is due to the ongoing work of organizing even when the goal seemed hopeless. Ultimately, what matters is changing the equation on the ground -- organizing on behalf of social justice, relying on working people and popular support, is the only way to bring progressive change in this country. A message all the more important in light of Trump’s election victory, in light of a Republican dominated House and Senate. None of the speakers underestimated how daunting a challenge we face, but all pointed to the anti-TPP fight as a reminder that victory is possible, if not today then tomorrow, if not tomorrow then the day after. Possible, however, only so long as labor and community groups remain unified, remain engaged, and focus on building forward.
Two days prior, on November 15, more than 80 local unionists and community activists gathered at Busboys and Poets in Takoma to discuss the impact of Trump’s election -- why he won, what can be done moving forward. Part of the ongoing labor council sponsored Bread & Roses series, the much larger than expected number in attendance reflected the sense of fear and uncertainty -- as well as determination and resistance -- that people are feeling throughout our communities. The discussion was led off and moderated by Metro Washington Labor Council Executive Director Carlos Jimenez who talked about his work in the field campaigning for Hillary Clinton, the sense of expectation that she would win and the realization on November 8 that working people would face the dire combination of a Trump presidency and a Republican controlled Congress.
A combination which poses a direct threat to unionists in our region. Jimenez emphasized that it is more important than ever for local unionists to draw on their strength and resources not only to protect the rights and benefits of members on the job, but the rights of all communities whose civil rights are threatened by the Trump Administration. Labor’s defense can only be successful as part of a broader defense of democracy, he concluded.
Harold Myerson, executive editor of the American Prospect and a well-known political journalist, next provided a sober analysis of the election results. He noted that, as in the past, labor does better on referendum issues such as on raising the minimum wage than it does in general elections where people often vote against their own interests. Meyerson added that the decades-long assault on unions has taken its toll, for it is the loss of jobs and loss in union membership which has enabled Republicans to gain strength in former Democratic strongholds like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
There is no doubt now that unions will face more legislative attacks designed not only to undermine labor bargaining strength but also undermining social rights unions have been at the forefront in defending. The connection is seen in defeat, Hillary Clinton’s loss ultimately was due to her failure to address the fears of white workers whose jobs have disappeared and whose standard of living has declined due to neo-liberal trade and financial policies implemented by both Democratic and Republican leaderships -- for this enabled a demagogue posing as an outsider to garner support.
Dyanna Forester, UFCW Local 400 political and community representative, looked at what happened from a different angle, by taking a personal approach. Forester described the ways she -- as a woman, as a mother of a daughter, as a person of mixed African American and Mexican heritage -- feels threatened by Trump’s victory. And, more to the point, she talked about the ways solidarity has been undermined by those union members who disregarded Trump’s racism and sexism when choosing to vote for him. This feeling is one shared by many members -- Local 400 represents workers from throughout the Metropolitan region and on into Southern Virginia, Western Maryland and West Virginia and the political views of those it represents clash at many points, not least along the line of race and gender. Resistance to Trump and the forces of reaction will not be possible without addressing that reality.
At the same time, the fact that people with comparable needs of workplace and social protection are in one organization despite facing different realities elsewhere in life, despite having sharply conflicting views, is a source of strength for that resistance. Unions require self-reliance as Forester noted -- they cannot rely on protection from government or political leaders. She and other Local 400 officers will continue to represent and fight for the needs and interests of all their members, no matter their point of view. But that representation will also mean defending members who are immigrants, those who are gay, Muslims and others subjected to bigotry. There is truth in the union motto of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” for it means zero tolerance for racism, zero tolerance for the attitude toward women displayed in all its ugliness by Trump during the campaign. In this way alone, can a grassroots basis be created that will allow labor to survive the attacks that are coming, and move forward to build a democratic society that functions in the interests of all, not just a few.
The need to focus on winnable local struggles was stressed by Joanna Blottner of Jews United for Justice, who serves as the DC Paid Family and Medical Leave Program Campaign Manager. She outlined the status of the fight to get the DC City Council to live up to past promises to pass a measure for paid medical leave, absent which workers have to choose whether to tend to the needs of a sick child or a full paycheck, the need to tend to an ailing elderly parent or a paycheck, the need for time off to recover from a medical procedure or holding onto a job. Lack of real choice when it comes to medical needs disproportionately affects women workers as they tend to be family caregivers, and has a particularly harmful impact on low-wage workers as they have fewer resources with which to weather life’s storms. A focus on these battles can mean continuing to defend workers even when the federal government is in such unfriendly hands. And that point was stressed by Blottner who pointed out that not only can the Paid Medical Leave battle be won, but that overall this and other similar struggles on matters closest to home are the last line of defense for working people and so have assumed even greater importance post-November 8.
A lively and at time impassioned discussion followed that sometimes reinforced and other times challenged perspectives put forward by the panelists in a healthy atmosphere of mutual respect in a shared search for answers. Speakers from the floor talked about their experiences in campaign work during the elections and the need to combat the false information disseminated by right-wing media that reinforce the prejudices that can come to the fore in hard times. Some talked of the need to develop forms of independent political action so that labor’s distinct voice can be heard posing positive answers to workers’ problems. If implemented, this could enable them to see their common interests, though others stressed as more critical the need for unions to be proactive in defending immigrants and all targets of prejudice. Although not in contradiction to each other, those different emphases spoke to differing evaluations of the Obama Administration and of the Democratic Party. A further perspective was voiced by those who saw in Sanders’s campaign a direction that needs to be furthered in DC and Maryland.
But nobody pretended that labor and all progressive forces are not under threat, that difficult days are not ahead -- a fact emphasized by a comment from the floor about the upcoming attack on federal employees and their unions. A national issue that strongly impacts our local communities, the potential fate of federal workers was also a reminder of the importance of local work; there was consensus on the need to organize at our workplaces, in our communities, around legislative and collective bargaining concerns to defend what we have in order to advance.
As the meeting ended, Forester received word that Local 400 had reached a tentative agreement (one since ratified) with Giant after long, contentious negotiations. This was a solid victory and a reminder that -- like stopping the TPP -- victories can be won even when times are bleakest. The key is unity based on equality for all. This shared sense by panelists and participants at the Bread & Roses discussion was the same as the message of the Rally for Social and Economic Justice.
The unions represented at the Nov. 17 rally were mainly those that had supported Sanders. Larry Cohen, former CWA president, spoke for Our Revolution -- the successor organization of the Sanders campaign -- on the need to continue to work to make the Democratic Party into a vehicle for working people. A step in that direction would be the election of Rep. Keith Ellison as chair of the Democratic National Committee. But the practical program this entails is the combination of economic and social justice. Speakers repeatedly said that they would support Trump’s programs on building infrastructure -- if he in fact is sincere on that. But they would not compromise on opposing his plans to deport immigrants, build a wall, or register Muslims.
So too, speakers emphasized the need to defend women’s rights to reproductive health services, the need for health care to be a right for all people and to oppose any attempt by Trump to roll back what has been gained. Finally, they spoke of the need for labor unity based on shared needs -- and so called for renewed action to fight the fossil fuel industry, to resist those who deny the reality of climate change, and to stand in solidarity with Native Americans opposed to the North Dakota pipeline being built upon their land.
Unity, perhaps, built upon the spirit captured by Langston Hughes:
O, let America be America again --
The land that never has been yet --
And yet must be -- the land where every man is free
The land that’s mine -- the poor man’s, Indian's,
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again . . .
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath --
America will be!
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