fresh voices from the front lines of change







The issue of race in this presidential campaign is one we talk around, or whisper about, or don’t discuss publicly at all. Or, as with some McCain supporters, the issue of race is used as an ugly bludgeon in the spirit of Jim Crow.

But AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka is taking the issue head on. Beginning with a recent speech to the United Steelworkers and continuing in other union venues, Trumka directly addresses how working people can, and must, combat the racism of those who say they will not vote for a black man as president. In addressing union leaders, Trumka also speaks to all of America’s workers:

There’s not a single good reason for any worker–especially any union member–to vote against Barack Obama. There’s only one really bad reason to vote against him: because he’s not white.

A lot of good union people just can’t get past the idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man. Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to look the other way.

[There’s] no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism–and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge.

Trumka urges union leaders, and all of us with a stake in the economic policies of the next president, to confront, head on, our inchoate and irrational fear of black Americans.

When you hear someone say America isn’t ready for a black president, you have to get in their face and say: “You may not be ready for Barack Obama, but I sure as hell am!”

His initial speech was greeted by surprise–surprise that someone of his rank took on the issue–and praised as the opening of a long-needed dialogue. And, yes, his words were not universally welcomed, a reaction he addresses in an open letter to union members here.

Yet, in experiencing firsthand how divisions of race and ethnicity have been used by employers to undermine worker solidarity on the job, many union members have a visceral understanding of how and why Obama opponents are subtly and not so subtly seeking to attack him. And having already fought these battles, union members are well prepared to do so again. As Trumka puts it:

We’ve seen how companies set worker against worker–how they throw whites a few extra crumbs off the table and how it’s black and Latino workers who get the dirtiest, most-dangerous jobs. But we’ve seen something else, too. We’ve seen that when we cross that color line and stand together, no one–and I mean no one–can keep us down. That’s why, imperfect as we are, the labor movement today is the most integrated institution in American life.

When he headed up the Mine Workers union, Trumka led two major strikes against the Pittston Coal Co. and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. The actions resulted in significant advances in employee-employer cooperation and the enhancement of mine workers’ job security, pensions and benefits. Such victories of workers over hard-bitten and often brutal employers will be far fewer going forward unless we dramatically change the anti-worker culture that has been created in this country over the past eight years.

The bottom line, says Trumka, is nothing less than the future of our nation.

I don’t think we should be out there pointing fingers in peoples’ faces and calling them racist. Instead we need to educate them that if they care about holding onto their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes.

If they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers, there’s only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who’s on our side, only one candidate who’s going to stand up for our families, only one candidate who’s earned our votes…and his name is Barack Obama!

Do you think John McCain will do these things for America?

I don’t.

(Trumka’s full speech to the Steelworkers is here.)

(This is a cross-post from Firedoglake.)

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