In this season of protest against the fascist politics of Donald Trump, we have seen a great deal of cross-pollination among progressive groups with different focuses. Pro-immigrant groups at the women’s march, women in pink hats at rallies in support of public schools, school teachers at the airports to fight the Muslim ban.
All of which makes the relative silence surrounding the March on Mississippi noteworthy. In case you missed it, which is likely unless you were actively looking, pro-union progressives have joined auto workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi in support of their campaign to unionize a Nissan assembly plant. Nissan has over 40 assembly plants globally, all of which are unionized, except for three located in the American South (of course). Last Saturday’s rally saw Senator Bernie Sanders, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, actor Danny Glover, NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks, and Sierra Club President Aaron Mair join forces with local leaders such as the Mississippi NAACP chapter, Representative Bennie Thompson (the areas’s representative in Congress), and organizers from the plant to support the civil rights of Nissan’s employee, including their right to collective bargaining.
Yet where were the national Democrats? They weren’t in Mississippi, that’s for sure. They weren’t even on their Twitter accounts offering their support for the marchers – an odd omission, given how eager they are to lend their support to so many other marches. What is it about unionization and class issues that made this march so overlooked?
In the aftermath of the Democrats’ loss in the 2016 election, two schools of thought emerged about the party’s future. One side, loudly advocated by Senator Sanders and his supporters, argued for a strong economic populist message, and criticized the Clinton campaign for lacking one. The party’s losses of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, produced by defections of white working class voters to Trump, demonstrated a need to reconnect with working people. The other side responded (hold onto your hats!) by denouncing a call for a greater emphasis on economic populism as racist and sexist and an abandonment of the issues of women, racial/ethnic minorities, and gender minorities. They claimed than any effort to solidify the party’s standing among white working class voters would necessarily mean abandoning other aspects of social justice progressivism, and even pandering to the racist impulses of the median Trump voter. The Sanders faction, you see, was abandoning traditionally-oppressed groups. The Sanders faction, unsurprisingly, rejected this interpretation, insisted on our commitment to anti-racist and anti-sexist politics, and questioned whether the opposition to a greater emphasis on class issues was actually the result of…well…opposition to economic populism and class issues.
You don’t hear that smear from Clintonistas very often anymore, because the argument was always bunk, and events have proven it to be bunk. The Berniacs whose desire to connect with all working-class voters was supposedly going to make them pander to white racists became passionate supporters of making an African-American Muslim who had once been a supporter of Louis Farrakhan the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. (Because, you see, we’re so determined not offend racists). Last Saturday, the most prominent members of the Sanders faction joined with the NAACP to support a majority-black unionization movement, everyone arguing strenuously about the connection between the civil rights of minorities and the economic standing of workers.
So why weren’t the national Democrats with the workers in Mississippi? Why is it only the Sanders wing that went to Canton?
There is a wing of the Democratic Party that believes that race gets you into heaven; that gender gets you into heaven; that ethnicity and religion and LGBT get you into heaven; but being poor? Being under the boot of the bosses? That’s just not the sort of thing they worry their heads about. When pressed, such as when faced with the possibility of a strong populist becoming DNC Chair, they are willing to back a carefully-vetted labor supporter like Tom Perez. That is a good thing, btw, that they feel the need to do that when pressed.
So…we need to keep pressing. If Bernie Sanders had actually supported muting the party’s message of racial and gender equality in order to appeal to white racists, he would have deserved all the criticism he received this winter. The same principle needs to apply to those Democrats who go silent on issues of class and union organizing in order to avoid offending the Wall Street/Silicon Valley donors. They need to hear that their silence is not acceptable.
The whole party ought to be behind, loudly behind, the workers in Canton. They’re not, and we should remember who was, and who wasn’t.