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Democracy and the labor movement are one and the same

Our democratic republic is safe so long as people are ready to defend it. Working people always have and always will. 

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, meets with hotel workers in Chicago on March 12, 2018.

Our Constitution says that after a presidential election, Congress shall meet on Jan. 6 to count the electoral votes cast for the president and vice president. It is a solemn ritual of democracy.

But it is only that — a ritual. This ceremonial custom is not how our president and vice president are chosen. They are chosen by us, the people.

Of course, President Donald Trump and senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz know this. But it did not stop them from inciting an insurrection. Acting out of nothing but unprincipled ambition, they put democracy in danger.

They used the outdated and undemocratic Electoral College process to try to stop the counting of the ballots. Arcane political systems like this one can be used to subvert the will of the people and put the integrity of a free and fair election in jeopardy. It’s past time to replace what clearly diminishes democracy.

Yet even with the Electoral College, our democratic republic is safe so long as people are ready to defend it. Working people always have and always will.

Our democracy, like our labor movement, is not a building. It’s not a piece of paper like our Constitution. Our democratic republic lives in us.

In the days before and after the election, I made it clear that the survival of our democracy depends on the determination of working people to defend it. That’s because democracy and the labor movement are one and the same. Without the labor movement, there would be no democracy. And democracy defines what the labor movement is. Our unions run, like our country, by voting. All members get to vote, and each vote counts the same.

When a mob attacked our Capitol, they were attacking working people. Whether they knew it or not, Trump was using them to try to create an America where only the rich and powerful have any say in what happens. That is what happens without democracy. Working people go from being citizens to subjects.

But if our democracy is to be safe, we must understand the role racism played in last week’s attack on the Capitol. Every aspect of the attack on our Capitol on Wednesday was shot through with racism. The mob brought Confederate flags. They wore Nazi symbols and sweatshirts celebrating death camps. It’s clear their real problem was never voter fraud. Rather, it was that people of color, in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, had been allowed to vote — and their votes had been counted.

These domestic terrorists were treated with kid gloves. Had the protesters been Black Lives Matter activists or workers on strike, the Capitol would have been filled with officers in tactical gear. And had people of color tried to break into the Capitol, the response would have been a massacre.

In the wake of this attack, America must ask itself some tough questions. Are we a democratic republic or are we a racial dictatorship? Are we a country where the rule of law governs, or are those rules different for white people and people of color?

The labor movement’s answers to those questions are simple. White supremacy and democracy cannot coexist. White supremacy and the solidarity of workers cannot coexist. And we choose democracy and solidarity. The better angels of our movement always have.

Last week’s events show us that white supremacy — as an idea and as a way of running our country — is a deadly threat. It must be rooted out of our society everywhere we find it.

The people who tried to illegally overturn the election results — both in the mob and in the halls of Congress — must be held fully accountable. Accountability starts with Trump, who should be removed from office immediately, but it cannot end there. There must be consequences for Hawley, who egged on the mob, and for his seven fellow senators and the more than 100 House members who voted to disenfranchise millions of voters.

Simply put, both the domestic terrorists themselves and the powerful people who manipulated them for their own personal gain must be held accountable and face the legal consequences of their actions.

In the days to come, as we repair the damage done to our republic, we must build an America that serves and empowers working people through fair and just economic and political systems. It’s time to increase union density and unleash the transformational solidarity of a strong and mobilized working class.

On Jan. 20, that work begins. The incoming Biden-Harris administration is already working on an ambitious agenda. That includes the unfinished work of the HEROES Act and the PRO Act, real labor law reform and a real jobs and investment program.

The labor movement has never been more important than we are today. And we have never been more ready for what we must do.

In the coming years, when we look back on these days, we must be able to say we were there when our democracy was attacked, we were there when fascism raised its ugly head at the heart of our republic, and we helped bring America out of the darkness and into the light of a new and better day.

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.

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