Honors For Three Fighters For Economic And Social Justice

Isaiah J. Poole

A theme that seemed to run through the three acceptance speeches of the award recipients at the America’s Future Now! gala dinner Tuesday night was that people who have been left out or left behind in the move toward the American Dream are due their chance for prosperity, and now is the time for the progressive movement to take the lead in making that happen.

All three Gala Award recipients—John J. Sweeney, outgoing president of the AFL-CIO; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change—know a lot from first-hand experience about the left out and left behind. Sweeney, before leading the nation’s largest labor federation, grew up in a working-class family in New York City, where his father was a bus driver and transit union member. Lee was a single mother on public assistance when she went to Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and began getting active in the area’s left-wing political scene. Bhargava has for more than nine years made organizing low-income people, people of color and immigrants his life’s passion.

All three used their gala speeches to challenge progressives to ensure that the movement works to have a substantive impact on the daily lives of working families.

One of the worst aspects of the conservative era is that “poverty and racial justice were not only not addressed, but were actively taken off the table,” said Bhargava, the winner of the Paul Wellstone Leadership Award.

Now that we are at the beginning of a new political era, progressives have to move beyond merely pressing for legislation and ensure that low-income people and people of color have a voice and are empowered, “This is the moral test of progressive politics,” he said.

Lee, in accepting her Progressive Champion Award, spoke of “the progressive promise,” which she said includes a
commitment to economic justice, peace, empowerment of the disenfranchised and “equal justice for all.” She added that wherever there are disparities between the well-being of the society as a whole and hat of people of color, “progressives and people of color must come together to eliminate those gaps.”

“Serving working people is the biggest honor I could have,” said Sweeney, the recipient of the Lifetime Leadership Award. During his remarks, he recalled a recent visit to the White House in which he was able to reflect on how he, a son of Irish immigrants, found himself in the presence of two other children of immigrants: President Barack Obama and his Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. It is a positive sign, he suggested, of how far this nation has come.

Sweney, who will soon retire from the AFL-CIO to become “a labor activist at large,” quickly pointed out the struggles ahead for the movement to better the lives of workers—specifically singling out “health care for everyone and the ability of every worker to join a union”—but he did it with a note of optimism. “We will turn around our economy and make it work for everyone,” he said.

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