Rev. Barber: Voting rights fight is do or die for labor

RALEIGH, N.C. – Speaking here to a group of labor communicators and unionists from across the U.S., Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Forward Together movement, said: “The labor rights movement and the voting rights movement are interconnected. We must be smart enough to hook up. If we do, we can change this nation.”

Barber was the keynote speaker at the 60th convention of the International Labor Communications Association, an organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and the nation’s Central Labor Councils. Members work for unions as journalists, social media experts, spokespersons, and creators of membership communications.

“The powers-that-be have always tried to split the labor movement from the civil rights movement, but in North Carolina we are going forward together and not taking one step back,” Barber said.

He explained that his NAACP branch and its Forward Together movement have brought together “white, black and brown people, native Americans, labor organizers, civil rights advocates, environmentalists, people fighting for better health care and education, and people fighting for the rights of women and the LGBT community.”

Barber has led demonstrations of up to 100,000 people protesting newly passed voter suppression laws and cutbacks in Medicaid and school funding.

He said that the labor movement needs to place top priority in the fight for voting rights because denial of those rights is what makes it possible for labor rights to be dismantled state by state. He said labor spent $50 million to unseat Scott Walker, the anti-labor governor of Wisconsin and said that the same level of commitment if not more is needed now from labor to battle against the attacks on voting rights in the various states. Otherwise, he said, the labor movement is in danger of suffering what could be major additional blows.

He sounded a hopeful note, however, regarding developments in his own state.

“White Republicans fed up with attacks on healthcare and hospital closings have been forming NAACP chapters in the hills of North Carolina,” Barber said, and Forward Together organizers have been helping workers organize unions.

Barber said that across North Carolina, his organization has been fighting attempts by the state legislature to roll back voting rights and to impose measures that are “constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane.”

The Forward Together movement, Barber said, is successfully using the “language of morality.” He explained that “justice is the centerpiece of our deepest traditions, our faith and our values.”

There is a “moral crisis engrossing our country,” Barber continued. “It is caused by those who are trying to deconstruct our moral vision.”

He pointed out that ever since the late 1860s, blacks and poor whites in the South have attempted to work together, “which scares the daylights” out of those who want to make sure there is plenty of cheap labor in the South.

To illustrate his point, Barber went back to 1868, during Reconstruction. The North Carolina legislature adopted a new constitution. It both guaranteed African Americans the right to vote and established as a “self-evident, inalienable right” the right of all persons to have “the enjoyment of the fruits of their labor.”

Barber said that blacks and poor whites began building a society based on equality. However, former slave owners could not allow this. “They formed what they called the ‘Redemption’ movement,” Barber said, “which imposed an agenda of fear, took the right to vote away from black people, passed Jim Crow laws and established segregation.

Tea party people are today’s “Redeemers,” Barber said. “They got scared in 2008 when Obama carried North Carolina, Florida and Virginia.

“So in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and threw back to Congress the job of re-writing it.  Congress has done nothing.”

Barber continued, “The day after the Supreme Court decision, the North Carolina legislature began passing laws aimed at making it more difficult for black people, brown people and poor whites to vote.

“This same legislature has attacked women’s right to choose, cut back funding for Medicaid and education, and squashed proposals to raise the minimum wage.

“If unions really want to organize the South,” Barber said, “they must make front and center the reinstatement of voting rights and, among other things, join the fight for forcing states like North Carolina to accept more federal funds for Medicaid.

 “People ask me,” Barber said, “if the immoral agenda put forth by those who run this country is based on race or class. I answer: ‘yes.‘”

He exhorted the audience to “take the high road. Let’s build a movement with an agenda for the future, not based on fear.”

The movement, he “must be built from the bottom up, state by state. It can’t be built in Washington.”

He concluded: “Don’t underestimate the power of a movement built by uniting all those who are fighting for justice.”

Photo: Rev. William Barber speaking at 2015 ILCA Convention in Raleigh, N.C.   |  Larry Rubin


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.