We’ve entered the home stretch of one of our nation’s most consequential political contests. Nov. 6 is a referendum on the regressive policies of the 45th president and his congressional accomplices.
Resistance to such policies exploded even before the 2017 Inauguration Day. But that resistance will ring hollow if it doesn’t translate into Election Day victories. That means our progressive movements, while fighting for broad social and economic justice, must also develop a political and electoral strategy able to punish the guardians of the corporate class, elect progressive candidates and gain enough power to help progressives succeed.
Our democracy has always been flawed. Former President Barack Obama frequently reminded us that a central task of each generation is to help form a more perfect union, that is, to narrow the gap between our founders’ stated ideals and the nation’s serious shortcomings.
The Civil War, followed by the 13th, 14th and 15th Reconstruction amendments moved us closer to our goals by outlawing slavery and nominally granting citizenship and voting rights to all. Further gains were won during the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century and throughout the left and labor’s upsurge in the 1930s, and during our Civil Rights Movement. That opened the door to victories for women and the LGBTQ communities. Today, many of those victories have either been eroded or are under attack.
The fight to defend and extend those reforms must continue on all levels—within our organizations, communities and workplaces. But that alone is not sufficient. Our fight must be taken to the electoral arena—on the local, state and federal levels.
The challenge is great. State legislatures led by conservative Republicans throughout the nation have systematically blocked African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and many young voters from the polls. The 2016 election, in which the Black vote dropped by 7 percent nationwide, was the first in more than half a century that was conducted without the protections of the Voting Rights Act. The White House, the congressional leadership and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court have worsened the problem.
The special elections and primaries since then tell us loud and clear that these voter suppression efforts, rather than discourage, have inspired us to step up our electoral activity. Nowhere was that more evident than in Democrat Doug Jones’ defeat of Republican Roy Moore in December’s special Senate election in Alabama. Higher African-American turnout, particularly among women, made the difference in that traditionally Republican state.
And that can be replicated. A recent survey conducted for the NAACP and other civil rights organizations found that African-Americans stand to play a key role in 21 of the nation’s 61 most competitive midterm races. In 31 of these races, voters of color represent from 20 to 78 percent of the voting age population. Add to that the historic upsurge of women and youth.
A growing number of white workers are also dissatisfied with the status quo. The current administration has contributed to our nation’s already obscene economic inequality. Last year’s much-heralded tax cuts, the GOP promised, would boost our economy by increasing spending on equipment and factories, and raising wages. On the contrary, the cuts have done little to lift wages. Instead, they have fattened the coffers of CEOs while increasing the federal deficit and the national debt.
We are answering the call. Together with our allies, 1199ers in New York have stepped up our ground game by knocking on doors, calling voters and recruiting canvassers in our communities, workplaces and houses of worship. In New York, we will help re-elect Gov. Andrew Cuomo and help elect our state’s first African-American attorney general, Letitia James. We are confident that our work can help flip a number of congressional seats. And we are duplicating our efforts to flip seats across the river in New Jersey. Members in Maryland are on the front lines of the campaign to elect the state’s first African-American governor, former NAACP president Ben Jealous. And our Florida members have hit the campaign trail for progressive African-American Andrew Gillum, who would become his state’s first Black governor.
We are also expending considerable resources to assist the many progressive women who have chosen to run for office, working with grassroots organizations that are essential to ensure the success of our candidates. To be successful, we must build and nurture a broad political movement with labor at its center in which power flows from the bottom up. Only then will we be able to loosen the grip of the far-right extremists and get back on the long road to a more perfect union.
Election Day 2018 must serve as a critical milestone on the road to the next general election. As activists are proclaiming, we must act today with 2020 vision.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest healthcare union in the nation.