by Tefere Gebre, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We’re coming off of an election that reminded us we still have considerable work ahead in the struggle for freedom and civil rights, and on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. remembrance day, Dr. King’s quote is deeply relevant.
I believe if Dr. King were alive today, he would say:
“Be there for people of color, for immigrants, be there for the Muslims because they are scared right now.”
I came to America when I was 15 years old, escaping an authoritarian regime in Ethiopia as a political refugee. I walked for 93 days through the Sudanese desert to find freedom. There are many other immigrants and refugees like me who come to this country because it is a beacon of hope for those brave people who want to be free. But now, things are uncertain.
There’s no doubt that for people who talk like me, who look like me, for people of color, for Muslims in this country, for immigrants across the country, this is a very, very frightening time. It’s not a promising time, it’s not a time where people are hopeful or joyful, it’s a time where all of us are very worried about where our country is going.
This is exactly the time that will require all of us to stand up in solidarity.
I work at the AFL-CIO and come from the labor movement, so solidarity is a verb, it’s an action.
The preamble of the AFL-CIO constitution states:
“We resolve to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms; and to join with all persons, of whatever nationality or faith, who cherish the cause of democracy and the call of solidarity, to grace the planet with these achievements.”
Even though times are uncertain, there actually is reason to be hopeful about the future. The progressive movement in this country doesn’t need to run scared, we have muscle.
Just look at Arizona, where labor and the community came together to defeat the anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Or Nevada, where members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, many of them immigrant women, went to work on an impressive ground campaign to elect the country’s first Latina U.S. senator, Catherine Cortez Masto.
Despite the losses of this election, the national results are hardly a mandate. They are not a message to us to change course. It’s a message for us to organize harder, more and concentrate more on our communities and rebuild this country that we all love.
The labor movement’s job is to fight for ALL people who get up every day and go to work, not just those who have a union voice on the job. And there are forces right now trying to divide us by our differences by saying rural america versus urban america, white working class versus the rest of the working class. We can’t fall for that.
Within our movement, we experience attacks on our economic freedom and bodies in different ways. And part of solidarity is acknowledging that some of our sisters and brothers face unique barriers and challenges to economic prosperity and safety. Solidarity can’t exist if it is rooted in a single understanding of what it means to be a part of the working class. For black and brown folks, immigrants, women, members of the LGBTQ community and those who are all or some of the above, we experience these same issues in different ways. And instead of allowing outside forces to divide us in our differences, we need to link arms in solidarity and come together on the many things that unite us.
We’re going to be tested. How the labor movement leads on uniting working people — no matter the color of our skin, the languages we speak, where we worship or who we love — is crucial for the future of our country.
I have a stern warning not only for the labor movement, but for the broader progressive movement: America did not reject the work we have been doing to strengthen labor and community relationships. America did not reject standing with our sisters and brothers of color in the fight for their lives in the Black Lives Matter movement. America did not reject the immigrant workers in this country.
The future of this country lies in workers of all colors, so we have to be careful in how we move forward from the election. If we retreat and lean into the false notion that this election was just about white working-class people, we could lose generations and generations of the emerging majority from actually ever considering the labor movement as a mechanism for them to achieve a better life.
The labor movement has a responsibility, not a choice, to bring all working people together and get them to join us in fighting for social and economic justice.