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‘A creature of white supremacy’: AFL-CIO targets filibuster

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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.”

However, two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema — have said they oppose doing away with the filibuster.

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.


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The Filibuster Is a Labor Issue

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On Tuesday, the House passed the PRO Act, the sweeping labor law reform bill that would re-energize unions in America. If it were to become law. Which it will not, as long as the filibuster remains in place in the Senate. The situation now is very simple: destroying the filibuster is a labor issue. 

The Senate, an anti-democratic institution by design that exists to squash the dreams of the majority of our nation’s citizens, is evenly split, controlled by Democrats by only a single vote. It currently takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, meaning that ten Republicans would have to join all of the Democrats to push through the PRO Act. There is zero chance of this happening. (Frankly, I doubt that every Senate Democrat would even line up behind the PRO Act if the Chamber of Commerce lobbyists really started putting the screws on them, but that is purely academic at this point.) On top of that, it is hard to imagine any Congressional election in the coming decades that would change the composition of the Senate enough to allow the bill to pass with the filibuster in place. The PRO Act is not bullshit?—?it is serious, historic, pro-worker reform. That is something that is not now and will never be an issue that a large chunk of Republican senators will flock to support. The donors who pay to elect Republican senators, as a rule, are spending money to prevent a bill like this from ever passing. 

So here is where we are: A) Organized labor went all out to get Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress in place, and they know they are owed payback; B) The PRO Act is labor’s highest priority; and C) The PRO Act has virtually no chance of becoming law as long as the filibuster stays in place. To be very gauche and transactional about all of this, words from Senate Democrats now about how pro-union they are do not mean anything at all if they are not accompanied by a commitment to end the filibuster. I would venture to say that it is time to start painting Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the two most outspoken Democrats committed to preserving the filibuster, as anti-union. They will certainly protest, but reality tells its own truth. We need the PRO Act. There is only one way to get it. Being unwilling to do something completely within their power to get the bill passed is indistinguishable from being against the bill. And if you’re against the bill, you are not pro-union. 

The filibuster is a barrier to progress in worker rights, just like union-busting law firms and greedy bosses are. A barrier is a barrier is a barrier. It is absurd to treat this barrier as sacrosanct, and then declare that you are, nevertheless, strongly in support of doing the thing that the barrier is preventing. Get real!

The AFL-CIO’s executive board is meeting this week, and they are considering the possibility of taking a formal position on the filibuster. They should. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has said ?“The PRO Act is our litmus test,” which should imply that opposition to the filibuster is a litmus test as well. At this point, eliminating the filibuster is part and parcel of the progressive reforms that we are all trying to get passed. Claiming to support the PRO Act, or a strong green infrastructure bill, or the voting rights bill, without supporting the end of the filibuster, is like claiming to support going into a building but refusing to open the door. Assuming that you don’t enjoy banging your head against the wall endlessly, you must do one in order to do the other. 

It’s good that major unions are running publicity campaigns touting the PRO Act. It will also go down as a lot of wasted effort if we are not able to do away with the filibuster, as it seems rather futile to do all this work to promote a bill that will just languish in a Senate drawer. Ending the filibuster is a labor fight. It is an environmental fight. It is a healthcare fight. It is equivalent to the substance of all these issues themselves, because it is the thing that enables them to happen. There is a coalition to be built on this issue?—?of every progressive in America who wants tangible gains in the next two years?—?that is broad and powerful enough to push the Democratic Party where it needs to go. 

Any Senate Democrats who don’t like this ultimatum should consider themselves to be on the other side of working people. And we should be sure to tell them that, loudly. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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NLRB Nominees Head to Senate Floor….Filibuster Next?

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Image: Mike HallThe fight over President Obama’s five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is headed to the U.S. Senate floor after the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee voted today to send the five to the full Senate. Now the question is, will Senate Republicans filibuster?

The nominees—three Democrats and two Republicans—must be confirmed before August, when the term of one of the current NLRB members ends and the board will be without a quorum and unable to function.

In a recent column in The Hill, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote:

Extremist congressional Republicans and corporate lobbyists…want to weaken its power to protect workers who choose to organize and form unions on the job….South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key leader of the charge, said, ‘I will continue to block all nominations to the NLRB….The NLRB as inoperable could be considered progress.’

The five are current board members, Chairman Mark Pearce and members Sharon Block and Richard Griffin—and attorneys Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson, who represent management in labor-management relations.

The effort to block the nominations is part of a years-long campaign to cripple the NLRB that includes legislation to de-fund the board, to shut it down, to curtail its work and legal challenges that have stalled justice for many workers.

One of those workers is Illinois pressman Marcus Hedger who was illegally fired in 2010 and who the NLRB ordered reinstated with back pay. But Hedger is caught in the legal limbo generated by a recent court decision in favor of employers and anti-worker groups challenging the authority of the NLRB. He has since lost his home to foreclosure and is working at a job that pays only about one-third of what he previously earned.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on May 22, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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