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Fighting racism and fighting for $15

Alia Karim and Peter Hogarth

December 14, 2016

What was true before the US election, and is even truer today, is that if we want to win we need to unite the working class through collective struggle.

There have been numerous debates on the motivations of US voters in support of Donald Trump; many arguing that white voters were motivated by Islamophobia, misogyny, and homophobia, and in defence of white nationalism. Articles by liberal commentators declaring “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter”, and “stop asking me to empathize with the white working class,” miss the point as much as the pundits asking people to “give Trump a chance.” The election revealed a sharp divide between the living conditions and aspirations of the majority of people in the US and liberalism’s inability to give them any solutions beyond more of the same.

Austerity and racism

The election of Trump and the apparent growth of the “alt-right” movement, that has claimed him as their hero, has had serious consequences. This is evidenced by a dramatic upsurge in hate-crimes and open racist sentiment across the continent. For many, especially those facing the brunt of the alt-right’s hate, Trump’s election is a chilling reminder of deep-rooted racism in the US. Many are calling it a “whitelash” based on white fears of losing privilege in a country thought to be theirs. Forty-two per cent of eligible US voters didn’t vote at all, many finding the vitriol of a sexist billionaire as off-putting as the insincere platitudes of the Clintons’ long history of ‘pay-for-play’ dealings.

At the same time, many have pointed out that Trump’s win was a result of the desperation of working class people who have experienced layoffs, underemployment, precarious work, and the flight of industrial jobs. This narrative played out in a few key “rust-belt” states, many that previously elected Obama, but in 2016 swung the balance in favour of Trump.

Labour-activist Buzz Malone recently argued: “People who have had little or no interest in voting before came out and voted because their health care premiums have skyrocketed (they blame Obamacare), or they remember losing their factory jobs when Bill Clinton’s NAFTA took effect. Many of them were Democrats once (or still are). They voted in overwhelming numbers, not for Trump, so much as against what they perceive to be the preordained establishment candidate being crammed down their throats.”

He claimed that American voters did not necessarily support Trump’s character, particularly his racist and sexist sentiment, but they did want to see some kind of economic change. This was a hope and change that Barack Obama offered but never delivered. 

Let’s be clear, Trump will not deliver this change either. He has played on people’s fears and desperation against a candidate that simply offered the status quo. A quick look at his own business history (bankruptcy of his Atlantic casinos, consistent failure to pay employees and contractors, shifting personal debts to the casinos while collecting millions of dollars in salary and bonuses) and his cabinet selections of Goldman Sachs and Fast Food executives show he has no interest in creating policies that favour the working class. 

So while many working class voters may have cast their ballots in the hope of Trump’s empty promises of a return of well-paying coal mining or manufacturing jobs, he also mobilized racist and sexist fears to stoke division and identify some “other” as the reason for America not being “great again.” Crucially, the point here is not to say that working class interest is more of a significant factor than racial identity. Rather, it is to state that it is in the interest of the ruling class to divide workers based on their race, gender, sex, (dis)ability, location, and status. When workers are pitted against each other it is much easier for the ruling class to dominate and exploit them. there’s no doubt that Trump will try to reinforce these divisions so that oppressed and exploited groups don’t organize together against him. 

It is also worthwhile, amidst all the post-election “hot takes” and “think pieces” to look at some of the bright spots in the 2016 elections; numbers that reveal a great deal about the potential for working class people, of all races and genders, to unite, fight and win something much better than was on offer between the two presidential candidates. 

Fight for $15

Despite Trump’s victory, there were several notable minimum wage victories that labour and community groups have won. On election night, the following measures were passed:

- Arizona, Colorado, and Maine workers will see their minimum wage rise to $12.00/hour by 2020—all gains of more than $3.75/hour

- Washington’s minimum wage will increase to $13.50/hour by 2020—an increase of $4.03/hour

- Arizona also passed mandated sick-leave measures

In total, at least 2 million Americans will get raises after ballot measures passed. These are significant increases that add to the momentum of the $15 minimum wage legislation passed in New York State, Los Angeles, Seattle, SeaTac, and San Francisco. These were also clear working class demands that motivated people to come out and vote (many who voted for these ballot measures left their choice for president blank). These were also fights largely led by immigrant and racialized women workers. 

What this shows is that when people are motivated by clear class demands, collective struggle can unite people across racial boundaries. This is why the Fight for $15 is so important. It has the potential to overcome sexist and racist divisions through a shared fightback that brings together union and non-union workers while pointing to the real division in America between the 1% and the 99%. 

Undeterred by the election results, The Fight for $15 continued to bring the heat to employers through their National Day of Action on November 29. Hundreds of activists were arrested in non-violent demonstrations in over 340 municipalities while they rallied in front of fast food chains and airports. Actions took place in Detroit, New York, Newark, Oakland, Chicago (including hundreds of workers at O'Hare International Airport), San Diego, Cleveland, and Miami. 

“We will take our first steps together to fight back for our families and communities," Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told members in a call to join Tuesday's events. "Together we will keep fighting for $15, a union, racial, immigrant, and environmental justice."

The coordinated effort of Fight for $15 presents a unique moment for Canadian workers to act upon. Together we can build on the momentum of Fight for $15 and fight the intimidation and fear presented by Trump’s win, the alt-right movement, and racist movements around the world. But to do that we must organize on the ground—in our workplaces, community and faith centres, unions, schools, and more. 

This kind of organizing is an opportunity to build a coalition that unites racial, labour, and community groups across urban and rural divides. Workers across North America face increased unemployment and underemployment, low wages, the drastic increase of contract and temporary work, and constant attacks on workers’ protections. These sad realities can be mobilized by the right or the left; those anxieties can be organized for hate or hope. It is our job to make sure that we can create the kind of movement and political organizations that can point that anger where it belongs: against the racism, sexism and scape-goating of the 1% and their defenders. 

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