Finding Common Ground Across Our Differences

This article was originally published for The Retiree Advocate at psara.org in April 2016.

My post-retirement career has taken me around the state and country speaking to a wide range of organizations. My consistent themes have been finding common ground across our differences as we work toward a country with greater economic, racial, and social justice.

I often speak to unions that have a significant number of socially conservative members or are in areas of the country that are more socially conservative. The issues of God, guns, gays, and abortion emerge as challenges in convincing many members and their families and friends to not vote against their economic self-interest, which is rooted in greater fairness and equity. In response I have started to experiment with putting more emphasis on reframing how I discuss these “social” issues. Here is an example of how I reframe the discussion around reproductive rights.

The challenge is to begin to find more common ground while respecting that people of conscience may disagree from a principled, values-based perspective. It would be easy to write them off, but I have never found that this attitude is helpful in promoting dialogue and deeper understanding.

Let me be clear. I am a lifelong supporter of a woman’s right to choose an abortion and the broader issue of reproductive rights. I am also a lifelong supporter of a worker’s right to a safe and healthy workplace. This is a personal issue as I have a 30 percent permanent disability in my left arm from an industrial accident which could have been prevented if my employer had provided a safer workplace. I was also generally aware of the decades-long wave of violence against workers who provide reproductive health services to their patients.

I asked the National Abortion Rights Action League – Washington (NARAL) for information on this wave of violence. I thought I was reasonably well informed, but I was truly stunned. In the past 37 years, workers providing legal and constitutionally protected reproductive health services across the country have experienced the following:

  • 8 murders
  • 17 attempted murders
  • 42 bombings
  • 182 arsons
  • 6,900+ acts of violence
  • 19,000+ threats and acts of intimidation
  • Many more failed bombings and arsons

I assume you and probably the vast majority of people you know would agree that this wave of terrorist violence violates a broadly shared principle that all workers should have a right to a healthy and safe workplace.

We can tie these issues together. I ask people: “Do you support the right of all workers who are engaged in legal work activities to a safe and healthy workplace?” I have yet to meet people who oppose this concept. Then I read them the statistics listed above. The follow-up questions are: “If you agreed that all workers should have a right to a safe and healthy workplace, do you agree that reproductive health care service workers across the country should have the same right?” “Will you stand in support of these tens of thousands of workers to a safe and healthy workplace?” “If yes, how do we show our support?” “If not, why not?”

The same approach can be used for the rights of patients to a safe and healthy place to receive their health care. I certainly haven’t met anyone who opposes this right. No health care worker or their patients should ever have to fear violence from political extremists.

I firmly believe we can use approaches like these to change the hearts and minds of many people and isolate the violent extremists and their allies. Advocating, tolerating, or excusing violence or intimidation toward people who are exercising their legal rights is intolerable.

I don’t pretend to know the best ways to be bolder about this issue. This is my way. What is yours? Our sisters and brothers are under attack. Regardless of the issues that we care passionately about, I hope all of us can agree that all workers providing reproductive health care services have a right to a safe workplace. Too many of us, including me, have been too quiet on this issue for too long. It is time to be loud and strong in our support.

I would love feedback about this article. You can email me at markmmcdermott1@msn.com

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