Our weapon is our vote

I get to talk a little bit about the connection between activism 50 years ago and today. I am especially proud to be here today, to be introduced by Mei-Ling [Ho-Shing]. You saw why. Mei-Ling, like so many our students, represents our generation’s hopes and dreams, and their willingness to fight for their lives and their liberties. Her voice cannot be stifled by the National Rifle Association or anyone else.

After unimaginable horror — which we know many in this room have been fighting against on the streets of Chicago and other places — she took action. But that is not new. She follows in the steps of the brave sanitation workers here in Memphis 50 years ago. She embodies everything the I Am movement stands for. The young people across this nation, whether they are in Black Lives Matter or the new movement against gun violence, are showing us all what a movement looks like — what democracy itself looks like. They are showing us that the era of passive resignation is over.

The difference, brothers and sisters, is that in red states and in suburbs like Parkland, Fla., a new generation of activists is taking a page from the civil rights movement, from the sanitation workers who went on strike 50 years ago, and from the Freedom Riders who stood up against injustice. Today’s warriors against injustice have the same passion and righteous indignation. They’re borrowing ideas and building blocks, and drawing inspiration from, the infrastructure of those who came before them, and they’re building their own new structure.

As we watch these students, and frankly, their teachers — I was just in Oklahoma last week and was in West Virginia last month — we need to remind ourselves that we are seeing the precise results of public education’s promise and potential that frighten the billionaires so much: an active, vocal, courageous, intellectually sophisticated and morally powerful citizenry. They are living testimony, every one of them, to the connection between public education and American democracy.

Inside this union president is a high school civics teacher who is bursting with pride because these students are showing us the true meaning of civics: to engage the entire political system with grit and heart and emotion and power.

This is what Dr. King understood — that to gain opportunity, to gain freedom, one must have power. His examples came from two different intertwined movements. Here’s how he put it in 1965:

“The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous. We have not used a fraction of it for our own good or for the needs of society as a whole.”

Two intertwined movements: the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Dr. King understood how to create and maintain power for the people, at the bargaining table and at the ballot box.

He understood that both movements shared the same goals and faced the same enemies. Here he is in 1961:

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

Does this sound familiar? Did this American prophet understand what we would be facing today? From that same year:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

His words, not mine: “Our weapon is our vote.”

Like Frederick Douglass and every other African-American leader, Dr. King understood the fundamental importance of public education for all. As he said in 1964, accepting the John Dewey Award from my own union, the United Federation of Teachers, “It is precisely because education is the road to equality and citizenship that it has been made more elusive for Negroes than many other rights.”

I think about what I heard in West Virginia, in Oklahoma, and these words echo in all of these fights: labor rights, voting rights, civil rights.

As a prophet, Dr. King helps us see exactly what is happening today. The antidemocratic forces underwritten by the Koch brothers and the rest of the right-wing dark-money crowd have taken aim at everything King was talking about. It’s the same people — the Kochs, the DeVoses, and their corporate allies — going after public education, the right to vote and labor unions.


Because these are the vehicles through which working people gain the opportunity and freedom to thrive. They see what we do as a threat to their power, and they are right.

They’re underwriting so-called education reform, a no-holds-barred attack on public education, now led from the Department of Education itself. Remember, privatizing “school choice” was born as a strategy to undermine the Brown v. Board of Education decision throughout the segregated South. They’ve all but purchased a Supreme Court seat, and they funded the Janus v. AFSCME case, for exactly one reason, in their own words: to “defund and defang” unions. As King saw, the so-called right to work has always been a fraud — an attack on working people — especially when they organize into unions. The so-called right to work is nothing more than the legal right to oppress. They’ve bankrolled the greatest state-by-state attack on voting rights since the 1960s. From Wisconsin to North Carolina, Pennsylvania to Florida to Kansas, they’re using unconstitutional tactics to make sure just enough of us don’t vote so they can win close elections.

What is our tool? The right to vote. What is our mission? The 2018 elections.

We fight for a strong and vibrant democracy and against bigotry and hate, because jobs, justice and democracy go hand in hand.

They’ve got the power of the purse, but we have the power of our convictions — from Mei-Ling to Parkland students to Dreamers to fast-food workers to teachers to sanitation workers; from generation to generation. Fifty years ago it was the civil rights movement and the labor movement; now we must use this moment to grow our tent, to rise again, for jobs and justice.

Randi Weingarten delivered this speech at the I Am 2018 conference in Memphis, Tennessee. Weingarten was introduced by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and Parkland shooting survivor, Mei-Ling Ho-Shing.

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