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Rev. Dr. William J. Barber is the co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival, a social justice advocacy group in the United States. Rev. Barber recently spoke out in Bessemer, Alabama, to support 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers in their unionization campaign. He and I conducted the interview below via email.
Seth Sandronsky: Now that President Biden has signed a COVID-19 relief bill into law without a $15 minimum wage hike, I request your thoughts on political tactics to win this pay increase for poor and working Americans.
Reverend William Barber: We encouraged the president to support Vice President Harris overriding the parliamentarian decision during the debate about COVID relief because reconciliation offered a way for Democrats to use the power they have to keep the promise they ran on—a $15 minimum wage. Can Biden find 10 Republicans to override the filibuster? Not in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) caucus. But they still have the power to change the rules in the Senate, and they must do whatever they have to pass $15 minimum wage, voting rights protections, universal access to healthcare, infrastructure for a green economy, immigration reform, and so much more that’s needed to lift this nation from the bottom so that everybody rises.
SS: What are your thoughts on forming a third political party in the U.S. to represent poor and working people?
RWB: Third parties can shift the consensus within our two-party system during primaries, but the system isn’t currently set up in such a way that they can wield real power in general elections. That could change, but one of the two parties would have to use their power to change how the system works. Until then, third parties reduce the power of the coalition that’s needed to win elections.
SS: What surprised you the most about the failure of the recent fight for a $15 minimum wage?
RWB: When I went to West Virginia to stand with Black and white workers, I saw the potential for a radically new electorate in places that have been written off as “red states.” The so-called moderate compromise of someone like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) doesn’t surprise me, but it’s becoming clearer how politically irrelevant a position like his is. By capitulating to right wing extremists on something that 2/3rds of Americans support, Democrats are almost guaranteeing that the fake populism of someone like former President Trump will continue to fool people in West Virginia. If they would stand together and take bold action to lift poor and low-wealth people, Black, white and brown workers would turn out to support Democrats and fundamentally shift the political calculus in this nation.
SS: How do you view Washington’s anti-China rhetoric and domestic hate crimes against Asian Americans, LGBTQ folk and women?
RVB: To criticize a government and its policies is not to hate a people. Whether that government is in the U.S. or China, we call on it to establish justice out of love for the vulnerable people who are impacted by policies.
Here in the US, the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat is white supremacy. We’ve seen the threat rise as anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and anti-LGBTQ attacks have been used to rally a shrinking white base. I was with the Asian American community in Atlanta this past weekend, and they were very clear that the same lies that are used to try to justify voter suppression there are also stirring up hatred against their community.
SS: What is next, legislatively and otherwise, for the PPC in 2021?
RWB: We have been clear from the very beginning of our organizing that we are building power for moral public policy that can bring about a Third Reconstruction in America. That means living wages, healthcare, high quality education, affordable housing, green infrastructure, voting rights and equal protection under the law for everybody in this nation. We’re encouraged by every step in that direction, but we have a long way to go. So we will continue building power for poor and low-income people, bringing the voices of directly impacted people into every policy conversation.