The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, called on Democrats Thursday to reform the filibuster, the Senate rule standing in the way of enactment of some of their top priorities for the Biden administration.
“The very survival of our democratic republic is at stake. And standing in its way is an archaic Senate procedure that allows the minority to block the majority—the filibuster,” the AFL-CIO’s executive board said in a statement. “An artifact of Jim Crow. A creature of white supremacy. A procedure that was said to encourage robust debate but has turned into an instrument of government paralysis.”
POLITICO was the first to report the effort.
The labor federation’s lobbying could move the needle significantly on efforts to weaken or eliminate the filibuster, as President Joe Biden — a self-described union man — has firmly aligned himself with the labor movement, a large fundraising source for Democrats. Biden, a former longtime senator, has so far not endorsed efforts to get rid of the filibuster, with the White House saying his “preference” is to keep it.
The AFL-CIO’s statement didn’t suggest any specific changes.
The group’s executive council discussed the issue during meetings this week and was planning on speaking out to reaffirm its past stance against the filibuster, sources told POLITICO prior to the statement’s release.
“The abuse of the filibuster doesn’t just threaten our progressive agenda; it threatens our democracy and must be challenged,” the powerful union federation said in a statement in 2010, shortly after a union-backed labor reform bill, The Employee Free Choice Act, failed to gain enough Democrats to overcome a Senate filibuster in 2009.
At the time, the union federation’s executive council called on the Senate “to reform and democratize its procedures and rules.”
But this statement is much more forceful, deriding the filibuster as “a tool used by those seeking to preserve the social, economic and political status quo, that the AFL-CIO has long opposed, as a matter of principle as undemocratic and rooted in racism.”
Already, Biden has demonstrated the influence that organized labor has on his administration, nominating a former union president to be his Labor secretary, firing former Trump officials from the National Labor Relations Board, and releasing a video in support of workers organizing in Alabama.
The new president also has pledged to see the pro-union PRO Act — which would broadly expand workers’ ability to organize — enacted and to more than double the federal minimum wage to $15, which organized labor has sought for years.
However, those changes require approval from Congress. Eliminating the Senate rule — which allows unlimited floor discussion on a bill unless 60 senators agree to limit debate — is likely the only way for union-backed measures like the $15 minimum wage and an expansion of collective bargaining rights to pass.
While Democrats control both chambers, the Senate is tied 50-50. Scrapping the filibuster would allow Democrats to pass legislation through the Senate with just a simple majority of 51 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as a tie-breaker.
“I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh my, we don’t have 60 votes, woe is we,’” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told POLITICO last week. “Figure out a way to do it. Let’s figure out a way to do it.”
Two AFL-CIO affiliates — National Nurses United and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades — had already released public statements against the filibuster ahead of the union federation’s move Thursday.
House passage of the PRO Act Tuesday provided an impetus for unions to come forward. The legislation, which advanced mostly along party lines, would make it easier for workers to form and join unions by empowering the NLRB to levy fines on employers and by extending collective bargaining rights to independent contractors, among other things. Its lack of Republican support — the vast majority of GOP lawmakers deride it as anti-business — means it is extremely unlikely to win the 60 votes in the Senate needed for passage.
A coalition of groups, including IUPAT, Communication Workers of America and progressive organizations such as the Sunrise Movement, are planning to launch a mobilization campaign in support of the PRO Act in the coming weeks targeted at swing-state senators, said a person familiar with the effort.
NNU called for abolition of the filibuster ahead of Tuesday’s vote, calling it “an undemocratic rule that has long been used to block legislation that has widespread public support and is in the broad public interest.”
“It is a sad reality that the Republican leadership used the filibuster to make the Senate almost ungovernable during the prior Democratic administration, and it threatens to act in a similar manner today,” NNU President Jean Ross said in a statement. “We cannot let the minority hold our democracy hostage.”
In addition to the PRO Act and the minimum wage, eliminating the filibuster would also allow potential passage of health care reform, voting rights reform, and workplace violence protections, among other things, NNU said.
IUPAT joined NNU’s stance on Wednesday.
“The time is now for the United States Senate to stop hiding behind arcane rules that have prevented pro-worker legislation from being passed for decades,” the union said in a statement. “Our union has been spearheading the campaign to pass the PRO Act and we are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure its passage — not just for our 160,000 members, but for the 90% of US workers who are not afforded the protection of a union.”
This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.
About the Author: Holly Otterbein is a reporter for POLITICO Pro.
About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.