Labor Day is not a day off. It is a day on. A day to focus our collective efforts on the American dream of a safe place to live, work and raise a family in dignity. The democratic dream of fair opportunity is the promise of America I dreamed of when I fled from oppression in Ethiopia. I believe the first immigrants who came to this land also had that vision in mind.
On this Labor Day, I reflect on the meaning of democracy to America’s immigrant communities. Immigrants such as Madeleine Albright, Albert Einstein, Patrick Ewing, Steve Chen, Isabel Allende and more have given their talent, intellect and skill to build this nation’s great democracy. In politics, literature, sports, science and business, people who began life in other parts of the world make America strong. Immigrant workers are an economic force and bring the power of their labor to this country.
We have a history of unity in the tradition of the civil rights and labor movements, in which Americans joined together in a fight to build a better society for working people. In my first Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, I spoke the promise of “One nation under God, indivisible.” I am part of that indivisible America.
I was 14 years old when I realized a path to the American dream. But I had to walk to get there. I walked for 93 days in the desert from Ethiopia to Sudan, where I landed in a refugee camp. Four friends joined me on the perilous journey. We used what money we had earned doing odd jobs, sold any valuables we had, and collected donations from family and friends to hire a guide to help us reach Sudan.
Sadly, we were robbed and abandoned by our guide. With hundreds of miles ahead, we walked even though we were lost, hungry and thirsty. Along the way, we were exploited by farmers who offered us work. I arrived in Sudan weighing 67 pounds. I never saw my father again. I never got to attend his funeral and honor his life.
I imagined the things he would say to me and his hopes for the kind of man I would be. I believe he is proud of me. I took that perilous journey because I dreamed of a better life in a better place. I believed that with hard work, I could do better, if given the chance. Without parents or a family, I made America home, became a student and got a job. My first job as a union worker opened my eyes to the world of labor and the trailblazers who organized for fair wages and safe environments for workers.
Real democracy does not privilege the rights of corporations over the coal miner or teacher, or hospital worker, truck driver or electrician. As executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, I fight so workers aren’t exploited. I join my brothers and sisters in the labor movement to give every worker a fair chance.
This summer, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton accepted their party nominations to run for president of the United States, I saw our country fractured between two ideologies of what it means to be American. Trump has lodged insults at immigrants to this country.
As an Ethiopian refugee who immigrated to the United States and worked for a better life, I consider these attacks personal. The immigrants who come to this nation are hardworking people filled with determination and spirit. This nation is better than the rhetoric we hear from the Trump campaign. The demonization of immigrants is unfair, wrong and anti-democratic. It ignores the fact that immigrant workers are a vital part of the nation’s economy.
Working people are a force in this election year, and our activism is poised to move America forward. We realize the promise of the historic civil rights movement and the labor movement with its commitment to empowering voters. We know that when working people are actively inspired, there is no political force in America more powerful. We saw that when millions of us raised our voices to stop the TPP—because it is a corporate trade deal that would be bad for democracy and bad for working people.
This year, America’s labor movement is unleashing its power to get out the vote for candidates who do not penalize workers because of the color of their skin, the language they speak or the distance they traveled to make America their home. With 12 million members strong and in every state of the nation, the AFL-CIO is a voice in America’s democracy. By mobilizing all workers and voters, we can battle issues of income inequality and ensure that workers have benefits and wages to provide for their families with dignity. Labor Day is a day to build our strength by broadening our coalitions, clarifying our terms, asserting our values, and including immigrant workers in our efforts to mobilize voters and elect candidates who support our positions.
Recognizing the important contributions of immigrant workers, we are ready to fight to ensure that the rights of working people who immigrated to America are also protected. Immigrant rights are worker rights. Worker rights are civil rights. Together, we should remember Labor Day’s promise of democracy for all workers.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Tefere Gebre is the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.