With workers’ and voting rights in the balance, labor campaigns against filibuster

Click here to sign the AFL-CIO petition “to sideline the filibuster.”

“The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., aptly observed in remarks at the 1961 AFL-CIO convention.

That’s still true.

Anyway, it’s no coincidence that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is clinging like grim death to the filibuster to derail the PRO Act and to stall legislation that would override GOP-sponsored state laws that deliberately make it harder for people of color to vote and vest control over vote counting and election certifying to partisan bodies such as appointed election commissions.

“The heirs of Jim Crow are weakening the foundations of our democracy,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted recently. He was talking about people like McConnell, who got an F on the latest NAACP Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card.

The architects of the racist southern Jim Crow system were conservative southern Democrats. Because everybody is supposed to be equal in a union, they feared unions would undermine white supremacy. Hence, they never missed a chance to race-bait and labor-bait. Today, the political positions have shifted, and it’s Republicans who are upholding and seeking to expand the racist and anti-union offensive.

McConnell is all in for those neo-Jim Crow voter laws. He demonizes the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—PRO Act for short—and anything else that gives unions a fair shake. The bill would “empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize and negotiate for better wages and working conditions,” explains the AFL-CIO. “It will remove archaic barriers to organizing, increase worker protections and strengthen the institutions that hold corporations accountable. It will repeal the ‘right to work’ laws that lead to lower wages, fewer benefits, and more dangerous workplaces.”

The AFL-CIO supports the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and the Freedom to Vote Act. The measures “would protect the right of every American to cast our vote and have that vote counted,” says AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler.

Shuler adds, “There is nothing more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote. It’s how we make our voices heard.” She calls the Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act “a desperately needed federal response to the attacks on voting rights happening in state legislatures all across the country.”

Such attacks are hardly new. Segregationist Southern senators, who were also fiercely anti-union, notoriously filibustered against civil rights legislation, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though the historic bill ultimately passed.

The AFL-CIO backed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965, also a landmark measure. (The conservative-majority Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and further weakened it last year, thus opening the door wider for more voter bills that restrict voting.)

“Not only did the AFL-CIO provide much-needed capital to the civil rights movement, but numerous affiliates did as well,” says the AFL-CIO. “Several combined to give more than $100,000 to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The UAW directly funded voter registration drives in predominantly African American areas throughout the South and paid bail money for jailed protesters.” The AFL-CIO also used its considerable political influence in helping to shape the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At the same time, labor activists were prominent in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO endorsed the march, as did 11 international unions and several state and local labor councils,” the AFL-CIO says. “A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a key organizer of the event.”

King saw the civil rights and labor movements as natural allies. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs—decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community,” he also said at the 1961 convention.

In 1961, too, King warned, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”

McConnell and like-minded anti-union Republicans love “right to work,” one of the oldest union-busting scams around. Under RTW laws, workers at a union shop can enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying the union a service fee to represent them. The idea, of course, is to weaken strong unions, wipe out small unions and prevent unorganized workers from unionizing.

Of course, McConnell et al. would prefer that RTW’s racist roots not be exposed. “The drive for such laws was fueled by Texas businessperson and white supremacist Vance Muse, who despised the doctrine of human equality represented by unions,” wrote Roger Bybee in The Progressive.

Muse, a Ku Klux Klan fan, was “the Karl Rove-meets-David Duke brains behind the whole right to work movement,” wrote Mark Ames.

You can bet Muse and his ilk cheered on white supremacist filibusterers like Sen. Strom Thurmond who joined the 60-working day filibuster against the Civil Rights Act. (The segregationist “Dixiecrat” candidate for president in 1948, Thurmond switched to the GOP in 1964 and was ultimately followed by a slew of other white Dixie Dems who hated to see Jim Crow go.)

“The filibuster is a relic that has been used to maintain white supremacy,” said Brian Clardy, a Murray State University historian. “We are seeing that come back in a very rabid form.”

He said Republican laws that suppress minority voting “represent the first time since the Jim Crow Era that states—and not just in the South—have moved to actively disenfranchise whole populations for nefarious reasons.”

Like the old anti-civil rights and anti-union Southern Democrats, today “the Republicans just want to hold onto power at all costs,” Clardy said.

“Try explaining to a Black grandmother raised under Jim Crow why it takes only 50 votes in the Senate to stack the Supreme Court with justices who are undermining her voting rights, but 60 votes to pass a bill protecting them,” wrote John Podesta and Wade Henderson in the Washington Post recently. (Podesta chairs the board of directors at the Center for American Progress, which he founded. Henderson is interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, where Shuler and Randi Weingarten, president of my union, are on the board of directors.)

“Or better yet, ask her to tell you about her life 60 years ago, and how the law was used to keep her from accessing education, jobs, and the ballot box.”

In a 1962 letter to the Amalgamated Laundry Workers, King reiterated, “As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.”

Added Shuler: “In 2020, Americans raised our voices and cast our votes to send representatives to the Senate who will advance a bold legislative agenda. It is absolutely wrong that a minority of senators have the power to block the expressed will of the people. To save American democracy, we need democracy in the U.S. Senate.”

Click here to sign the AFL-CIO petition “to sideline the filibuster.”


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.