Chris Silvera on the Need for Independent Action

[Chris Silvera is president of Teamsters Local 808 in Long Island City, New York. He is the past president of the Teamsters National Black Caucus.]

Something is happening in this country. Working people are rising up. We’ve seen the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bernie Sanders, the mass protests against Trump at the time of the inauguration. This is a moment of opportunity, whether we see it or not. The question is: Where is the organized labor movement?

It’s gotten lost in the corporate board rooms, the smoky rooms, hob-nobbing with the Democrats and the corporate elites. The Democrats are not talking to the working class and their issues.  The workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, who chose Trump over Hillary were pissed. They were pissed at a union and at a party that didn’t even remember who they were.

Donald Trump is the reaction to the labor movement not addressing the needs of the working class and collaborating with the Democrats to their own detriment.

I’m with the Teamsters’ union. We used to be a strong organization. Brother Clarence Thomas of ILWU Local 10 was with us at our local union meeting in New York City recently, and he talked to us about the struggle of the Teamsters in 1934 in Minneapolis and how powerful that was.

The cops beat up workers, killed workers in Minneapolis – and none of them were Black. They were all white. Cops are cops. They’re an extension of the State. Their job is repressing working people when they stand up for their rights.

What we enjoy in the labor movement today did not come because we were Democrats or Republicans. It came because we acted independently, we mobilized our membership, we got out in the streets not only for our members but for the working class as a whole.

Today we are in the process of losing everything that was gained in Minneapolis and San Francisco in 1934, that was gained in the strikes of 1937, that was gained throughout the hard-fought battles over the years. And if we don’t do something different, we are going to lose it all.

There is a global assault on the working class, country by country by country. If we don’t stand with FLOC in their battle for union rights and collective bargaining for farmworkers in North Carolina; if we don’t stand with the farmworkers in San Quintin, Mexico; if we don’t stand with the women street cleaners or the Maruti autoworkers in India, and the list is long, we’re going to lose it all.

This is not a time to hob-nob with the Democrats. It is a time for Teamsters, longshore workers, educators, and postal workers to go back to the streets. It is time to go back to our workplaces and reconnect with our members and discuss what it means to have a living wage, single-payer healthcare, and a pension (as opposed to a 401K).

The union officials have become disconnected from their members as they rely on the Democrats. That is why our members are losing their pensions and their jobs. That is why they are taking regressive contracts.

Capitalism – we have to tell it like it is – is only interested in exploiting labor and making mega-profits. Today the bosses — with the support of Democrats and Republicans — are shifting our jobs to the countries with the lowest wages: Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico, you name it.

But jobs are also being shifted from Seattle to South Carolina, as was the case with Boeing. The job was worth $30 an hour in Seattle, but workers in South Carolina, out of desperation, took the same job for $15 an hour — and they felt lucky, even though there’s no benefits, or pensions, or job protection.

It’s time to resist. We can turn things around. Free quality public education is possible. It existed before. You just have to tax the people who control 90% of the wealth.

We can’t allow the cops to keep killing Black people in our streets. This has to stop.

But it all comes back to this: What are we as a labor movement willing to do if we intend to turn this country around? Can we just win for ourselves, for the 7% of the workforce that is organized, or do we not have to win for the class as a whole? We have to reconnect with our members and with the class, and do something different than we’ve been doing all along – in the workplace, in the streets, in the political arena.

This is a time for action. We have to get out of those corporate board rooms and take the battle to the streets. We can get the 1% to pay their fair share of taxes. We can take back our schools and preserve our pensions. We have the power if we are willing to do the work. We can change America, and if we change America, we can help change the world.

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