The justices said states and parts of states that historically discriminated must get voting changes cleared in advance by the U.S. government. But the justices then said which states and jurisdictions the law covers is unconstitutionally out of date - and unions and their allies said that part of the ruling leaves millions of voters vulnerable.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it "a huge blow to working people."
The justices decided, 5-4, on June 25 to uphold the discrimination ban in Section 5 of the 1965 law. But the majority said Section 4, which says nine Southern states and parts of six other states with history of discrimination, must pre-clear their voting plans, is unconstitutional. So the states and other governments don't have to "pre-clear."
Texas Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott promptly declared the court set states loose from the Voting Rights Act. He said he would immediately re-impose the Texas voter ID law, the nation's strictest. That law would dump millions of Latinos and African Americans from voting rolls. Texas is one state the act's Section 4 covers.
The federal government, last year, said the Texas voter ID law flunked pre-clearance.
Union leaders and civil rights leaders said the court's ruling would yank protections from millions of minority-group voters. "We will mobilize" to restore the protections, one civil rights leader said. Another said the August 24th 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous March on Washington would be a focus of the effort.
Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union was the most outspoken. He said the court's ruling could take the nation "back to Jim Crow era," when racist laws barred minorities from voting in the Old South.
The court "damages the Voting Rights Act and is a step backward for the right to vote in this country and for democracy," Communications Workers Communications Director Candice Johnson said.
"By declaring the process used to determine which state and local governments must comply to be unconstitutional, the court for now eliminated protections of the Voting Rights Act for millions," she added.
"It wasn't in 1956 that the community of Calera, Ala., attempted to restrict the vote and the voice of its African American citizens. It was just seven years ago, in 2006. This example, and too many more like it, clearly demonstrates the Voting Rights Act is needed today more than ever.
"Attempts to cut voting hours and polling places, limit early voting and restrict
registration, especially targeting students, the elderly, people of color and the poor are all too pervasive in our nation today," the union added.
CWA said it would work with civil rights groups to "protect the right to vote for all citizens. Voter suppression in any form harms our democracy."
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said his union is "dismayed" because the court "credence to the myth that our nation achieved racial parity. Our biggest fear is not only that we will stop achieving equality, but more importantly, that we will lose ground."
"The Supreme Court set back civil rights 50 years," Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said. "More Americans than ever are now at risk of being disenfranchised as a result of this gross injustice and our democracy is immediately weakened." USW Vice President Fred Redmond predicted states will "enact expensive, unnecessary voter identification laws and redistricting maps to marginalize minority votes."
"Today's Supreme Court decision imperils the most sacred right in our democracy -- the right to vote," Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry stated.
Her union also joined the brief before the court heard the Voting Rights Act case.
"Conditions have not changed in many parts of our country where voters suffered from a long history of racial discrimination in voting and new forms of voter suppression continue to threaten our democracy. In many states and localities, we saw efforts to disenfranchise African American and Latino voters during the 2012 election.
"Whether in the form of onerous voter ID laws or citizenship check boxes meant to confuse voters, state and local governments are already changing their election laws and procedures in ways that will disenfranchise millions of eligible voters, including the elderly, the disabled and young people.
"With this decision, state and local governments in areas with a proven history of racial discrimination in voting will have no effective check on their power to change election laws as they please, potentially opening the floodgates to even more discriminatory practices that will prevent eligible citizens from voting. Congress should move swiftly to remedy the harm the court has done," Henry added.
Hanley predicted more states will pass voter ID laws and other measures to deny voting rights. "It will directly hurt transit riders, who are vulnerable to disenfranchisement efforts," he said. The court "virtually legalizes voter suppression," he added.
Photo: Labor union leaders and members march down Highway-80 East during the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March re-enactment, on March 7, 2012, near White Hall, Ala. Demonstrators marched to protest Alabama's voter ID and immigration laws. Julie Bennett/AP