Poor People’s Campaign: ‘We are the swing votes in this election’
Thomas Reed | People's World / Mundo Popular

WASHINGTON—Declaring “we are the swing votes” to decide this fall’s election, thousands of people from all over the U.S. massed in Washington on June 29 to mobilize millions of poor and low-wealth people to cast ballots by or on November 5—and to warn politicians they risk their own power if they don’t heed that call.

The campaign drew huge support from progressive organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees 1199 Health Care Workers, the Machinists, the Communications Workers, the Government Employees, the Postal Workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union and AFSCME. Jewish, progressive Protestant and Muslim faith groups also marched.

Campaigners emphasized the number of poor and low-wealth people in the U.S., 140 million—before the coronavirus pandemic—is enough to swing the swing states and change political outcomes up and down the ballot if they vote. The campaign has set a goal of registering and mobilizing 15 million new poor and low-wealth voters for this fall’s balloting.

All the organizations, including the CPUSA, which had at least two dozen members marching—along with two large banners—are also part of a large coalition massed to defeat the incipient fascism of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and his white nationalist legions. Other signs read “Organize For Peace!” and “Say No To War!”

But whether the politicians hear the demands of the poor, including the campaign’s 17-point platform, will require much more mobilization and struggle. Their plight certainly is not the main topic in media discussion of the first presidential debate.

“We don’t care what kind of debate you have if you don’t have a debate that asks candidates where they stand on living wages and labor and healthcare, that’s the failure,” campaign co-chair the Rev. William Barber II said.

Instead, the chattering class of media pundits, abetted by the right-wing echo machine, focused on Biden’s occasionally halting debate performance and ignored Trump’s bluster, bragging, and outright lies. Stories in the mainstream media said big donors want Biden to leave the race and let the Democratic Convention in late August in Chicago choose a replacement.

For the campaigners, the plight of the poor overrode everything, especially since, Barber pointed out, poverty is the fourth-leading annual cause of death in the U.S.

Go without medical care

Millions more go without medical care because they can’t afford it, global warming is an existential threat, and the poor suffer from substandard housing and are often jammed into “cancer alleys” especially in the South. And most U.S. workers lack fundamental rights on the job.

Meanwhile, the military budget is now $1 trillion a year and right-wing preachers link the GOP with god and white nationalism.  “We have to combat this heresy of Christian nationalism,” Barber said.

The campaigners demand the reversal of all those trends, and make the point, as Barber and co-chair the Rev. Liz Theoharis said, that Jewish and Christian Biblical prophets denounce economic and political repression of the poor. “The prophets declared that criminalizing poor people while protecting the rich is evil,” Theoharis said.

Added young campaigner Bennett Shoop in an interview: “Part of the reason the Poor People’s Campaign is important is because, historically, progressive religious communities played an important role” in mass movements. “But right now, the right wing controls the religious narrative.”

“It’s always important for poor and working-class people to come together to address these pressing issues,” CPUSA co-chair Joe Sims said in an interview as the three-hour campaign was winding down. Sims and party co-chair Rossana Cambron led their delegation.

“They have a very important statement here, ‘We are the swing vote,’ and that’s really true.

“The people who are dismissed, disowned, and demeaned are forced out of the political process. They have come together to express their values, and that will make a difference. And we walk the walk” for them.

Like the Poor People’s Campaign, Sims elaborated, the party’s role between now and November is to stress issues, not any particular candidates. Those issues—which the Poor People’s Campaign also pushes—include affordable universal health care, decent housing at affordable prices, education that meets student needs and is well-funded, and an end to U.S. imperialism and the war machine.

The Poor People’s campaign, for example, wants to cut the U.S. military budget by at least 10% and the party wants an even larger cut. Both demand a ceasefire and negotiated peace in Israel’s war on Gaza, which has already wrecked the area, killed 40,000 people, wounded double that number, and created two million refugees.

“Let us not be influenced by the colonialism and capitalism that put us in this mess,” one Native American speaker from the stage said.

“Those most impacted by injustice, organizing together, mobilizing together, and voting together can force the changes that we know we need that will be good for everybody,” Barber added.

Barber stressed the campaigners’ potential political clout if they can get 15 million more poor and low-wealth registered voters to head to the polls this fall.

Key block in key states

“Every state where the margin of victory was within 3%, poor and low-wage voters make up over 43% of the electorate,” he reiterated. “The #1 reason they did not vote is they said nobody talked to them. Well, there comes a time when people don’t talk to you, you’ve got to make them talk to you.”

“Bottom-up struggles are the only force that can deliver what we need,” said Campaign Co-Chair Theoharis. “We say: Poverty no more, we demand justice for the poor! Because everybody has got the right to live!”

Olivia DiNucci, a D.C.-based anti-militarism activist, told People’s World that “when we come together, and center workers’ demands and fight against poverty, we can build a powerful and popular movement that puts people and the planet before profits.”

“We keep sending billions of our tax dollars to pay for weapons of mass destruction that are being used to prop up the Israeli war machine,” DiNucci said. The movement of low-wage workers and the poor, she said, can fight to turn “money used to fund a genocide into public spending on healthcare, housing, good jobs, and the environment.”

Paki Wieland, a peace activist in Codepink from Massachusetts said the event serves as a reminder that “when poor and low-wage earners, who are disenfranchised, can organize around a set of demands and assert our collective power, we can change the direction of this country.”

“More weapons don’t make us safer but actually put us in more danger,” Wieland said. “Real safety is a good-paying union job, good schools, affordable housing, and mass transit.”

“This isn’t only about the top of the ballot. Crucially, local races such as school boards and city councils are where we can build our power to make change,” she said.

Crystal Zvon, also of Codepink, added “If the money used to invest in war was actually invested in the people here at the Poor People’s Campaign rally…we’d have a whole new world.”

Thomas Reed | People’s World / Mundo Popular

Union leaders also embraced the campaign’s cause but added a political twist.

“We are supporting the campaign’s calls for workers’ rights and make sure we will get out the vote,” Postal Workers Vice President Debbie Szeredy said in an interview. Unlike Barber, the unions are forthright in linking a campaign on issues to a drive to re-elect Biden.

“We got to continue to push to make sure we don’t get Trump,” said Szeredy, referring to his anti-worker, anti-union record.

“We know how much is at stake in this election,” said SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Rocio Saenz, one of the many speakers from the podium. “This election is about our democracy, our economy, our future. We won’t be distracted and we won’t be divided. When we organize, we win.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

Cameron Harrison
Cameron Harrison

Cameron Harrison is a Labor Education Coordinator for the People Before Profits Education Fund. Based in Detroit, he was a grocery worker and a proud member of UFCW Local 876, where he was a shop steward. He writes about the labor and people’s movements and is a die-hard Detroit Lions fan.