The path ahead
George Gresham | 12/8/2016, 9:04 a.m.
One month after Election Day, many of us are still fighting through our shock and grief while trying to better understand the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. There is general agreement that the Democratic Party seriously underestimated the pain, anger and insecurity of working people, particularly rural and white workers in the Rust Belt.
Although many of us saw in the Republican nominee for president a highly unqualified blustering bigot, others saw a change agent who would take on the elites and crony capitalism—the cozy relations between Washington and Wall Street. Our nation’s rigged economy has meant that the benefits of economic growth have gone to those, including the president-elect, at the very top of the income ladder.
Many working people, victims of globalization, deindustrialization and technological changes that have left them behind, voted to change course. Unfortunately, they saw Trump, not Clinton, as the change agent.
But the election results amounted to far less than the mandate Trump continues to boast about. At last count, Hillary Clinton has outpolled the president-elect by more than 2 million votes. In fact, more votes were cast against Trump than were cast against Mitt Romney in 2012. These numbers remind us of the desperate need to reform our broken electoral system, including eliminating its gerrymandering and mass disenfranchisement.
We witnessed some positive results on Election Day. In Arizona, Colorado and Maine, voters approved raising their states’ minimum hourly wages to $12 by 2020. Washington voted to raise its minimum to $13.50 by 2020. California and Nevada passed ballot measures on gun control. Several cities voted to tax sugary soft drinks. And women of color were elected to Congress in Washington, California, Illinois and Florida. But these victories must be viewed in the harsh light of the losses of Clinton and candidates of both houses of Congress.
If personnel are policy, it’s clear from Trump’s announced appointments that many of our hard-fought gains already are under attack. The president-elect has turned to the super-wealthy and super-conservative for most of his appointments. Michigan billionaire Betsy De Vos, Trump’s choice for educational secretary, is notorious for her work to destroy the public school system.
Two Wall Street billionaires who made obscene profits from the failed mortgage crisis have been selected to join the Trump administration. Steve Mnuchin has been tabbed for treasury secretary. And Wilbur Ross, who specializes in flipping bankrupt companies for profit, has been selected as Trump’s commerce secretary. Ross’ firm was in charge of the Sago Mine in West Virginia when it blew up in 2004, killing 12 workers.
Congress members are sharpening their knives as they prepare to put the Affordable Care Act on the chopping block. They expect to have plenty of help when Trump nominee, Rep. Tom Price, a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act, becomes the next Health and Human Services secretary. Most of Trump’s other appointees are cut from the same cloth.
Thus, the challenge is great, but challenge also presents opportunity. We must seize this opportunity to recognize that this new day calls for the forging of a new, more radical path. To begin with, our labor movement must recognize that its present size and strength requires broader and deeper alliances. We must acknowledge that too many working people and those who should be our natural allies do not view unions as their advocate.
We cannot overemphasize the role of racism in our body politic. Yes, many voted for Donald Trump to strike a blow against economic inequality, but too many of those were willing to view their status through Donald Trump’s bigoted lens. They bought the lie that people of color—Latino immigrants, Muslims, Black activists—are somehow responsible for widening inequality and insecurity.
Our labor movement has failed to convince too many of these workers that only by joining hands with their sisters and brothers of color can they hope to build the power needed to address the worst effects of globalization and corporate capitalism. It is time for labor to advance and fight for a bold program with a clean energy economy, training and education and a living wage at its center.
Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, “All men (and women) are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And we should never tire of declaring that injury to one is an injury to all. If the forces of oppression come in the morning for immigrants, Muslims, women who demand their reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community and our youth, they will come in the evening for the rest of us. Today we stand with our sisters and brothers at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in their fight to protect the environment for all.
So don’t mourn. Organize.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.