The tragic violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left three dead this past weekend, shed a light on the sickness of racism that has existed in this country since before slavery. The only difference now is that we have a White House led by a man who only denounced white supremacy by its name when forced into it. This type of complicity and silence empowers those who believe it to live it out loud and in the light of day.
As much as many of us in the labor movement like to think we are made up of activists who will stand in solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters in all of their times of need, we have to admit a few things. First, in the deep rust belt state of Ohio, where union membership is among the highest of all states regardless of an overall massive shrinkage nationwide, Clinton lost among union households by 9 points.
And although Trump supporters turned to the reality show candidate for many reasons—economic anxiety, a desire for someone new, a hatred of the Clinton camp—what we all must realize is that his voters saw his true racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant colors and ignored them anyway. They were willing to throw our country’s most vulnerable under the bus for false promises of making America a manufacturing nation again.
They were taken advantage of. They were lied to. They were played. And we didn’t do enough to warn them and to protect our black, brown, Muslim, female, queer, and immigrant brothers and sisters from the political and physical violence they’ve been experiencing for decades and from the terrors like the tragedy in Virginia.
Many workers represented by “traditional” labor unions don’t understand why their leadership would get involved in social justice issues. But the fact of the matter is, if racial and social justice don’t underlie your movement, you’re doing something wrong.
Because the systems and practices we as labor petition and rally against—Wall Street, unfair trade, pharmaceutical companies—are the same systems that hold people of color, women, and immigrants down the most.
We have to engage our members in this vital work. We have to listen to them and meet them where they are. We have to make them understand that we all have a common enemy and we must stand up to that enemy every single time they hurt one of our own.
It’s not enough to denounce white supremacy, racism, and violence on paper or on Twitter. It’s not enough to tout our civil rights departments on our websites and on our brochures. It’s not enough to use the term “solidarity” only during strikes and lockouts. We must work every day to educate our members, our friends, and our family about how this country’s shameful history and appalling policies have emboldened this type of hatred on the streets and in the halls of Congress.
We must work to make the fundamental values we claim represent our great country a reality for all Americans. We must work to restore full voting rights for all. We must work to increase wages for workers in every industry to actual living wages. We must work to create a health care system that is affordable and equitable. We must work to end environmental destruction, which affects communities of color at disproportionately high rates.
We must show up at trade rallies and at Black Lives Matter rallies. We must fight for a new NAFTA and fight to end mass incarceration. We must realize that our members’ lives don’t stop when they clock out at the end of their shift.
Leveling this playing field and lifting up our most vulnerable will only improve every American’s life. Because we know we all do better when we all do better.
We say this isn’t who we are. So let’s prove it. Let’s join up unapologetically with those who have been in this fight for decades.
Because silence is violence.
*Views stated in this article are my own and do not reflect those of my labor union.