Lesson from a rookie fire fighter: Help is you and I

By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president

Congratulations to all of you who responded to the alarm, calling your Congressional delegations to beat back an attack on America’s safety net. Make no mistake, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs to help the disabled and poor were in the cross-hairs of the December lame-duck session.

Thanks to you, our Democratic Congressional members drew a line in the sand and just said “no.”

Understand that special interests were counting on Americans to be off enjoying the holiday break.  They didn’t anticipate the rapid response of America’s unions and our allies. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates, independent unions, and others  worked together to implement a strategy that motivated tens of thousands of members to e-mail and phone members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. Local union leaders were in Washington, D.C., the Monday after Thanksgiving holding face-to-face meetings with our elected leaders to remind them that it is high time that the rich and powerful pay their fair share and that continuing a practice that cuts spending at the expense of the middle class and poor is unacceptable.

The entire union movement has successes to celebrate from our massive efforts in the 2012 election.  Workers proved that people-power trumps an onslaught of cash from the 1 percent. But to turn around a week later and marshal an army of activists who were tired — and  looking forward to a holiday break, reveals the true power of the American union movement and the dedication and perseverance of union members, their families, and union leaders.

I believe this is the template for the future of our movement at the national, state, and local levels.

It begins with union leaders being willing to develop strategies that push our members to get involved — including members who haven’t always been active. Then it takes early education to make sure our co-workers and fellow union members understand how these issues affect our daily lives, and our economy as a whole. Then we have to be ready for rapid mobilizations that allow us to respond to issues as they break — no matter how busy we are or what time of year it is.

The December 2012 strategy worked because we worked it. We worked it in spite of election burnout. We worked it in spite of a much needed rest during the holiday break. We worked it because Americans had too much to lose if we didn’t.

I remember my first emergency as a rookie firefighter.  I was 22, and a man close to my age had fallen into a machine and his leg was wrapped around an auger. It was horrific. I remember thinking for a split second: Who is coming to help this guy. Immediately, it dawned on me it was my responsibility. I had to be ready to do my job.

The lesson of the election and lame-duck Congress is the same one I learned over three decades ago: Help isn’t on the way, help is you and I. It is our responsibility to act, to respond to the emergency, time and time again. We are the only advocates for the middle class and the working poor. We are up against massive wealth and power whose vision for America is the opposite of yours and mine.

Together we have proven that massive mobilization of people beats wealth and power. We must continue to prove that the power to win is on our side.

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