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African-American history and the 2012 elections

1199Seiu | , George Gresham President | 3/16/2012, 1:05 p.m.
I cannot discuss African-American History Month without focusing on the person who has been central...
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

I cannot discuss African-American History Month without focusing on the person who has been central to my life and that of my union: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King's teachings and example have lit the path that 1199SEIU has traveled. And though he was gunned down nearly 44 years ago while helping to win union rights for poor Black sanitation workers, his teachings never lose their relevance.

Many forget that King was every bit as committed to labor rights and economic justice as he was to battling racial segregation. He saw the labor and civil rights movements as twin pillars for social reform and advancement.

King, a descendant of slaves, called the labor movement the "first anti-poverty program," one that "transforms misery and despair into hope and progress."

King understood that few organizations did as much to raise the status of African-Americans and working people as a whole as the labor movement. Unions remain the major counterweight to corporate domination. Destroy unions and you cripple the ability of working people to resist the political power of organized money. That is exactly why big corporate interests have placed labor in its crosshairs.

And doing the bidding of the corporate captains as never before are the Republican presidential candidates and a Republican Party that has been captured by extremists. Across the nation, statehouses led by right-wing Republicans are waging a vicious union-bashing campaign.

This has not always been the case. Throughout 1199SEIU's history, we have worked with many Republican elected officials, but moderate Republicans appear to be a dying species.

All the major Republican candidates for president have jumped on the union-busting bandwagon. They would love to cripple the National Labor Relations Board and institute anti-union "right-to-work" laws throughout the nation.

Indicative of the Republican leadership's extreme hostility to labor was its choice of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to deliver the party's response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last month. Daniels, after eliminating collective bargaining for public workers in the state, is now racing to enact a state right-to-work law.

Among the Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney has essentially disavowed every positive policy and position he took during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. He believes corporations are people and that they should have the same rights as citizens. Romney has been called the job cremator because, in his corporate life, he earned tens of millions by snatching up companies, closing factories and laying off workers.

While Romney would like to increase the retirement age, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would like to turn the clock back 100 years by reinstituting child labor in the nation. His campaign arsenal includes thinly veiled appeals to racism, including calling Obama the food stamp president and claiming that African-Americans are lazy and addicted to handouts.

For working people and anyone concerned about justice and fairness, the choice is clear. On health care reform, jobs, education, civil rights, progressive taxation and a fair economy, Obama wins hands down. The president, who inherited the nation's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and has had to battle an obstructionist Congress, is light-years ahead of the Republican candidates on every issue of concern to working and poor people.

However, the first three years of the Obama presidency has taught us that good policies aren't enough. Those policies come to life only through the force of an informed and organized movement. The Occupy movement has played that role. It has changed our national conversation by focusing on economic inequality.

Our president has taken note. He, too, has shifted his focus and become more combative. For example, in his State of the Union address, he announced the creation of a special federal unit, co-chaired by our own New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to investigate the abuses of Wall Street. "This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans," Obama said.

The 1 percent most likely will attempt to thwart the investigations. It is up to us to prevent this from happening, as it is up to us to block the extreme right and its policies of division and destruction. I believe that is what King would do.