Ever since the earth-shaking election of Donald Trump, there have been innumerable articles arguing that Democrats brought this upon themselves by losing white, working-class voters in the Midwest. These articles have been met with a torrent of essays urging Democrats to focus on becoming the party of diversity. And, coming back from the dead like a bloated zombie corpse is Mark Penn and Andrew Stein’sNew York Timespiececallingfor a return to Clintonian centrism.
All of these discussions imply that progressives can either fight for voters from the working class or communities of color—but not both at once. This line of thinking demonstrates a profound lack of faith in democracy and the electorate’s ability to smell bullshit.
As a seasoned union organizer, I often ask myself whether the pundits offering the aforementioned opinions have ever actually spent time talking to working-class people. By this, I meanallworking-class people. Contrary to the narrative put forth in the mainstream—and even some left—media, some of the most significant work confronting homophobia, sexism and racism has been done by working-class people of all ethnicities through collective struggle in the labor movement.
My first substantive labor movement work was as a union organizer with California’s SEIU Local 250—a healthcare workers’ industrial union, theoretically representing all non-management personnel in hospitals and nursing homes. In practice, the union mostly represented those classifications except registered nurses, who were generally represented by the widely-respected California Nurses Association. Local 250’s membership was racially diverse, with strong representation from African-American, Latino, Filipino and white workers. Standards were generally good for a union workplace: free healthcare, pensions, time off and competitive wages. […]
My job was to explicitly talk about racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia and religious intolerance as specific barriers to a strong union. A good union member can’t complain about Mexicans ‘taking jobs’ while also asking Latino colleagues to make common cause with him. […]
One story stands out. In preparing for the strike, a number of the African-American kitchen workers kept telling me that the Filipino nursing assistants “were weak” and would not stand up to management. Fortunately, one wonderful African-American female shop steward, Phyllis, pulled them all aside and said that such ethnocentric discussion had no place in our union. When the strike finally happened, not a single Filipino scabbed. In fact, Filipinos were the most dedicated picketers, earning them accolades from everyone in the union.