Keeping our eyes on the prize

George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU | 2/10/2017, 3:53 p.m.
During African-American History Month, it is customary to review our progress on the long road to freedom.
George Gresham Contributed

During African-American History Month, it is customary to review our progress on the long road to freedom. Reasonable people can debate the extent of our progress during President Barack Obama’s presidency, but few would question our former president’s wisdom, integrity and clear understanding and articulation of the connection between African-American equality and the advancement of our nation as a whole.

His presidency was characterized by a commitment to heal our nation’s wounds and to form a more perfect union in which citizens of every color, creed, gender and sexual orientation are welcomed and respected—despite an obstructionist Congress.

Sadly, we closed the pages of that chapter Jan. 20. And even before Inauguration Day, the people of our nation began writing a new chapter of resistance. The first days of the new administration have been marked by a wave of coast-to-coast protests, capped by the unprecedented and inspiring women’s marches. Now we must press on in our communities, workplaces and wherever we can to transform these mobilizations into progressive policies.

It won’t be easy. President Donald Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp,” has handed the reins of government to the very corporate elite that candidate Trump constantly railed against. In fact, the Trump administration represents a corporate coup d’état headed by billionaires, multimillionaire investment bankers and venture capitalists.

In addition to his cabinet of mostly super-rich white males, Trump will be able to call on a willing Republican-led Congress to push through corporate tax cuts, deregulation, privatization and the shredding of the social safety net. And the policies of this corporate elite, as usual, will harm the most vulnerable communities.

That’s if we let them. As Dr. Martin Luther King explained, the struggles for equality and economic justice are inextricably connected. The fight against runaway inequality, for health care, housing, education, women’s rights and environmental justice are our issues. But they cannot be fought for effectively without confronting the racism and bigotry that divides us.

Use of the race card, among others, played a significant role in Trump’s victory. It’s important, however, to understand how it’s used. With the president—a master of political distraction—it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. His illegal and immoral and unconstitutional Muslim ban, for example, has far more to do with division than his stated purpose of keeping America safe from terrorists.

This distraction is the case with his widely debunked claim that between 3 and 5 million votes were fraudulently cast for Hillary Clinton in November’s election. This claim is linked to his attack on perhaps the most respected member of the House, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Trump’s choice for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, is a longtime foe of civil rights.

When we clear the fog, we see the president’s real motive: a further assault on our already weakened voting rights. No friend of the Constitution, Trump, as well as many extremists in Congress, recognize that an aroused electorate could derail the administration’s pro-corporate agenda.

The attack on Lewis seeks to discredit our nation’s foremost fighter for voting rights. The person who Trump accuses of being “all talk and no action” was beaten within inches of his life in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama fighting for the right of African-Americans to vote. More recently, during the last session of Congress, Lewis led a sit-in on the House floor to press for badly needed gun control legislation.

Sessions was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 for his attempt to prosecute Alabama civil rights workers and for referring to African-American attorneys as boys. He is a fierce opponent of the Voting Rights Act as well as immigrant rights.

The administration understands that crippling the fight for racial justice is key to advancing its corporate agenda. The civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is sung by the movements of women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities because they all have been advanced by the victories of African-Americans.

The trade union movement, the largest organization of working people, must also share the lead in forging a progressive path. That is why we must reject the notion that we cannot build a mass sustainable movement against the Trump administration that highlights the demands of people of color as well as white working people.

We believe that we can find common ground, but that common ground can only be reached through organization and education. Those who are willing to work together today for a $15 minimum or affordable health care can come to understand why they should march tomorrow for issues such as police brutality, immigrant rights and a women’s right to control her body.

We in the labor movement all know workers and union leaders who have been transformed through involvement and struggle. If we organize as well as continue to mobilize, we can defeat Trumpism. Our sisters at the historic women’s march in Washington have challenged us with the words of the late civil rights leader Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest healthcare union in the nation.