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A SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM AFL-CIO PRESIDENT RICHARD TRUMKA ABOUT DEMOCRACY AND THE LABOR MOVEMENT

On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress gathered, with Vice President Mike Pence presiding. The Constitution of the United States says that on Jan. 6, after a presidential election, Congress shall meet to count the electoral votes cast for the president and vice president of the United States. It is a solemn ritual of democracy — conducted in the grand halls of our Capitol, with the ballots in hand-tooled leather boxes. But it is only that — a ritual.

This ceremonial custom is not how our president and vice president are chosen. They are chosen by the people — voting state by state on the first Tuesday in November. And that custom, and the people who conduct it, good people though they may be, are not our democratic republic, and they are not our country.  

So when a mob of a few thousand rioters — encouraged by President Donald Trump, U.S. senators like Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), representatives like Mo Brooks (Ala.), and a slew of state-elected officials, including some who participated in the act itself — attacked our Capitol, attacked our Constitution, killed a police officer, and vandalized and looted the citadel of democracy — many things in our country were in danger. The lives of our elected officials and their staff were in danger, the lives of the U.S. Capitol Police who tried to do their job and protect our country were in danger, our beautiful Capitol building itself was in danger, and America’s reputation in the world was in danger.  

But while that mob and its organizers and enablers were intent on destroying our democracy — they were trying to put democracy in play — the truth is that the democratic republic that is the United States of America is safe so long as working people are ready to defend it — so long as it lives in the hearts of our people — and so long as the labor movement defends it.

Because had that mob accomplished its task — murdered or kidnapped our nation’s democratically elected leaders, used the outdated and undemocratic Electoral College process to stop the counting of the ballots in those leather boxes, even burnt the Capitol itself to the ground — we know what would have happened next. Working people would have stood up, as we always have, to defend the democracy we make possible. The mob had no chance of succeeding in what it was trying to do.

BECAUSE OUR DEMOCRACY WAS NOT IN DANGER. Our democracy, like our labor movement, is not a building, nor is it the politicians we elect, nor is it even a piece of paper, even a grand and noble piece of paper like our Constitution.  

Our democratic republic — our precious freedom — lives not in a building, or a piece of paper, or in a ritual or in the individuals we elect to lead us. It lives in us. In the hearts and minds of working people, in the loyalty and courage of our armed forces who have sworn to defend it, in the conviction of our election officials in every state and county of this country that the votes must be counted fairly and honestly. And as we said in the days before and after the November election, our democracy’s survival depends ultimately on the determination of working people to defend it.

Democracy and the labor movement are one and the same. Without the labor movement, there would be no democracy — in every country on this Earth, working people only have the vote because we organized as working people and fought for it. And democracy defines what the labor movement is — a union is run, like our country, by voting, and all members get to vote, and each vote counts the same.  

And so when a mob attacked our Capitol, the seat of our democracy — that mob was attacking us, the labor movement. When the mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” they were really chanting “Kill the labor movement.” Whether they knew it or not, and clearly many did not, Donald Trump was using them to try to create an America where only the rich and powerful have any say in what happens. Because without democracy, that is what happens. And working people go from being citizens to being subjects.

Let’s be clear. Every aspect of the attack on our Capitol on Wednesday was shot through with racism. The mob brought Confederate flags and Nazi symbols and wore sweatshirts celebrating Nazi death camps. The mob had been organized by a right-wing faction, which extended all the way to the White House, whose real problem with the election was that American citizens of color, in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, had been allowed to vote and their votes had been counted.  

The mob was treated with kid gloves. We don’t yet know why that happened. But we do know that had the protesters been Black Lives Matter activists or workers on strike, the Capitol would have been ringed with officers in tactical gear. And had people of color tried to break into the Capitol as Trump’s mob did, the response would have been a massacre.  

The issue here is — are we a democratic republic or are we a racial dictatorship? Are we a country where we count every vote, until Black and Brown people start voting? Where the rule of law governs, unless White people decide to break it?

The labor movement’s answer to those questions, and they have been on the table since the founding of our country, is 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.

But this week’s events show that white supremacy as an idea and a way of running our country is an immediate, deadly threat to the United States, and it must be rooted out of our society everywhere we find it.

Now our work as a labor movement has never been more important. We must be vigilant in the coming days. If necessary, we must be ready to defend our democracy through our solidarity and our ability to act nonviolently to defuse and prevent violence and intimidation, as we did in Detroit during the vote count in November. And we must make sure that the people who tried to illegally overturn the 2020 election results, both in the mob and in the halls of Congress — are held fully accountable.  

Accountability must start with President Donald Trump, who should be removed from office immediately, but it cannot end there. There must be consequences for Sen. Josh Hawley, who egged on the mob, and for his seven fellow senators who voted to disenfranchise millions of American voters. And for the more than 100 House members who did the same, and the elected leaders who led them down that path. We cannot have a handful of visible and now powerless rioters punished, while those who manipulated them into it for their own personal gain walk away clean.

But most importantly, we must build an America that serves and empowers working people, through a fair and just economic and political system, so we increase union density and unleash the transformational solidarity of a strong and mobilized working class.

On Jan. 20, eight days from now, Joe Biden will be the president of the United States and Kamala Harris will be the vice president. Their team is already working on an ambitious agenda — the unfinished work of the HEROES Act and the PRO Act — real labor law reform — what we have been fighting for for so many years — and a real jobs and investment program — trillions of dollars to make America’s economy and our workforce the most productive in the world.

But at the same time, we have to build our solidarity as a movement, and our commitment to democracy, and our understanding that the politics of racism are a lie — a cruel trick that leads to violence, hate and poverty for working people. In the days and months to come, this is a conversation we need to have with each other — all of us — no matter who we voted for or which political party we support.  

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 years to come, when we look back on these days, we will 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.  

Thank you.

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