Where We Stand: Trump Chooses Chaos, We Choose Community

The AFT has weathered many storms—and many existential threats, natural and ideological. From the Janus Supreme Court decision to COVID-19 to divisive politicians like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New York’s Rudy Giuliani, we have fought back against those who would rather starve public services, strip away healthcare, eliminate unions, and polarize the people than help fulfill the promise of America.

The AFT is built for this. We don’t back down. We care, fight, show up, and vote. Despite crisis after crisis, we have thrived because of your work and your activism. And even with everything that has been thrown at us, our union is growing.

As a union of professionals, one of the ways we engage is by supporting our members and our communities in developing and sharing expertise. That’s why we’re excited to bring you AFT Health Care, a new journal focused not only on the practice of healthcare but also on the social, economic, and environmental factors that powerfully affect our health and the well-being of our communities.

AFT Health Care Fall 2020

The AFT is honored to represent more than 200,000 health professionals and to stand by you and your communities during this challenging time. You have been on the frontlines of this pandemic from day one—nurses, EMTs, doctors, orderlies, and respiratory techs—putting your lives at risk. I welcome our nation’s newfound respect for your extraordinary work (and I hope you enjoy the tribute to the work of caring for others in “Finding Light in the Darkness”).

This journal is designed to support our shared work of rethinking what healthcare systems should be and how we can provide universal coverage, put patients above profits, and cultivate health. (For a great place to start, see “COVID-19: From Public Health Crisis to Healthcare Evolution.”) And this union is designed for you. Whatever is needed to keep you, your patients, and your loved ones safe, the AFT has your back.

But make no mistake: the threats before us today are unprecedented.

It is not just the three crises—the pandemic, the worsening economic inequality, and the long overdue reckoning with systemic racism; now we also face very real threats to our democracy and to the ability of every eligible American to safely and freely vote. These crises are all made worse by one person: Donald J. Trump.

These crises have exposed longstanding inequities that our union is committed to challenging. The AFT has a long history of fighting for economic, health, and racial justice. Everyone should feel safe and able to thrive in our communities; together, we will fight for and build a better, healthier, more equitable society for all. Healthcare is a foundational part of that—ensuring not only that people have a right to healthcare but also that those who work in healthcare have the necessary conditions to keep them safe, as well as the pay and benefits that befit the importance of this work.

American Educator, Fall 2020

As I prepared for the anniversary of the March on Washington—a march that was peaceful in 2020, as it was in 1963—I thought about the last book and some of the final words Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left us. He presented a choice: chaos or community. The evening before the march, President Trump was using the White House as a prop as he sowed the seeds of division. Just like he used St. John’s Church as a prop in June, after having peaceful protestors tear-gassed, so he could hold up a Bible for a photo op.

Let’s be clear: we must all take a stand against violence—just as we must all take a stand against systemic racism. Racial bias is built into virtually every system in the United States. It’s evident in voter suppression, low wages, high unemployment, discriminatory policing, mass incarceration, and substandard housing, healthcare, schools, and transportation. We see it in racial health disparities that existed long before COVID-19 started disproportionately taking Black and brown lives: Higher maternal and infant mortality. More premature deaths. Greater exposure to unsafe water, unhealthy air, and the environmental conditions that cause asthma (as explored in “Healing a Poisoned World”).

American Educator, Fall 2020
How does the president of the United States not say the names that are on so many of our lips—Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—yet call violent white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people”? Why has the president cheered on caravans of white supremacists in Portland and refused to condemn the killings of two protesters in Kenosha by a 17-year-old white teenager?

This is not the way any president should act.

Rather than calming a tense nation, he is courting violence. Savvy political scientists believe he is not merely energizing his base; he is cultivating chaos to distract the nation from his inept handling of the pandemic. By early September, when the United States had over 6 million cases and 190,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, it was clear that many other countries had been far more successful in containing the virus. The US had 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Think about what could have happened if Trump had decided to fight, not deny or downplay, the virus.

The AFT sounded the alarm about the novel coronavirus back in February. I called on the Trump administration to coordinate, to inform and protect the public, and to act quickly to prevent the virus’s spread. Instead, the president denied the virus was even a threat and refused to marshal the necessary resources. Even when our hospitals started becoming overwhelmed and nurses and health professionals were crying out for lifesaving equipment, Trump refused to act and even accused nurses of stealing PPE.

Just imagine how different our situation would be if our nation’s dedicated health professionals, world-renowned medical researchers, and esteemed infectious-disease scientists had been leading a well-coordinated federal response.

President Trump claims that he has created the best economy ever. Before the pandemic, 40 percent of Americans couldn’t cover a $400 emergency, yet the rich were getting far richer. By the end of August, 25 million Americans had lost work—and economic inequality in America was on par with the Gilded Age.

President Trump has obliterated nearly every norm of our democracy, including running roughshod over the laws intended to prevent him from using his office for political or personal gain. It’s no wonder that historians are sounding the alarm about the threat he poses to democracy (including in this issue—see “Saving Our Democracy”).

The choice is chaos or community, as Dr. King wrote.

Trump wants chaos. In addition to trying to turn peaceful protests into violent confrontations, he fomented turmoil in the reopening of schools and colleges. While the AFT created guides for safely reopening (aft.org/coronavirus), Trump made baseless claims that children are “practically immune” to COVID-19, ignored the risks to staff and families, and disregarded the burden on healthcare providers as COVID-19 cases surged. How much more evidence do we need to see that in this election, we must vote like our lives depend on it?  

Donald Trump isn’t up to the task of handling this public health crisis. He’s desperate to distract us from the fact that most Americans are decidedly not better off than they were four years ago.

Donald Trump’s economic policies have helped the fortunate few: millionaires and billionaires, not average Americans. Millions of people are still unemployed, and his administration is still trying to take health insurance away from millions of people during a pandemic. As COVID-19 has swept through Native communities, his administration’s leadership of the Indian Health Service has been so catastrophic that one request for PPE resulted in a shipment of body bags (as detailed in “Cultivating Our Health in a Time of COVID-19”). In the face of these failures, Trump’s hobbling of the US Postal Service is an attempt to hamper voting by mail and to sow doubt about the election in the event he loses.  

Imagine a different future.

Imagine universal health coverage; a social safety net that includes paid leave and affordable childcare; environmental strategies focused on improving health; and a public health infrastructure that values human lives and protects frontline workers. This vision of a better America is straight from the Democratic Party platform, drawn from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, on which I was honored to serve.

With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—and a US Senate no longer led by Mitch McConnell—we won’t have to imagine these things; we will be creating them.

Biden and Harris have bold, comprehensive plans to

  • beat COVID-19, starting with ramped-up PPE production;
  • address the climate crisis;
  • protect and expand retirement security;
  • make college affordable and help borrowers who are buried in student debt;
  • give every American access to affordable health insurance;
  • have a humane approach to immigration and affirm that Dreamers’ homes are here;
  • uphold the rights of every American—regardless of gender, race, or religion; and
  • create true economic fairness and opportunity.

AFT HEalth Care Fall 2020

It’s not just that they have these plans. It’s that they understand we must contain the pandemic before we can fully and safely reopen the economy and society. Biden and Harris will make sure state and local governments, hospitals, and healthcare institutions have the resources they need.

That is what a caring, competent, effective administration would do. But none of this will happen if we don’t elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Go to AFTvotes.org to find out how you can get involved. Make your own voting plan, and help your family and friends make their plans.

Amid all this chaos, you have been the calm. You have been the glue that has nurtured, supported, taught, fed, and cared for our communities.

Our nurses and health professionals who have faced down the pandemic with bravery, compassion, and expert care. Our public employees who have persisted on the frontlines, even though too many have not had the protections afforded other frontline workers. Our professors and teachers who have used ingenuity and expertise to keep students learning under such difficult and unprecedented circumstances. Our food service personnel, custodians, secretaries, counselors, contact tracers, and others who have leapt into action to help feed families, visit homes, clean classrooms and ICU rooms, and do things no one else will ever know about, because they had to get done. You are the light—because of you, in the darkest days, hope has never been extinguished.

American Educator, Fall 2020
That’s who we are as a union. We care, we fight, we show up, and we vote. Thank you for all you do. And thank you for all you will do to make sure that on November 3, we elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, along with allies up and down the ballot who will help us move forward to create a better life and a better future for all Americans.

As the civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis often said, let’s “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.” Let’s keep doing that. Together. Because we know that, together, we can accomplish things that would be impossible on our own.

AFT Health Care, Fall 2020