AFL-CIO’s Gebre: Senate filibuster hurts workers, refugees, people of color

TEFERE GEBRE, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, said Senate filibusters harm workers, people of color and immigrants and refugees, among others. He laid out the case for their abolition, and passage of the Pro Act, at an Economic Policy Institute forum. – AFL-CIO photo

Washington (PAI) — Declaring the Senate filibuster hurts workers, refugees and people of color, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre stepped up Labor’s campaign to abolish the racist and archaic Senate rule.

Only by doing so, he declared, will a majority of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. people be able to pass vital legislation such as HR1/S1, the comprehensive voting and election reform For the People Act, and HR842, the Protect the Right to Organize (Pro) Act, the most pro-worker Labor law reform proposed in decades.

“I have lived my entire life trying to foster civil rights legislation, expansion of workers’ rights and to bring justice to immigrants,” Gebre, – a worker of color, Labor organizer and Ethiopian refugee – passionately declared at an April 13 American Constitution Society Zoom teleconference. “In all three areas, the filibuster has been used to thwart progress.

“In the Clinton administration, it was used to thwart anti-striker replacement bills. It’s been used repeatedly to thwart gun safety legislation.

“And it thwarts only one side of the aisle,” the progressive side, he elaborated. “People who want tax cuts for the rich and corporations never needed” to overcome it.

The Democratic-run House passed the PRO Act, the For the People Act, and other pro-worker legislation earlier this year but the filibuster rule that lets 41 senators block anything in the 100-member chamber gives the Senate’s 50 Republicans the cudgel to halt everything.

The AFL-CIO and progressive allies are campaigning to kill the filibuster once and for all. They make the point, as another panelist, University of Pittsburgh Professor Keisha Blain noted, that 41 senators representing states which, combined, have only 18 percent of the U.S. population, can stop virtually anything.

“That’s a travesty,” she added.

The Senate filibuster rule is particularly vexing because it doesn’t require senators to keep talking to hold the floor and prevent legislation from moving forward.

All they need is declare a filibuster to halt measures in their tracks.

Senators don’t even need to be present and orating, Gebre noted. “The requirement that those 41 don’t have to be on the Senate floor” to talk measures to death “is insane,” he declared.

The use of the filibuster has mushroomed in recent years, especially by the GOP, the panel noted. There were 250+ “filibusters” in the 116th Congress, which convened on Jan. 3, 2019 and ended on Jan. 3, 2021.

And that’s not counting bills, like the For the People Act and the PRO Act, which then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wouldn’t even allow to be heard in committees.

Historically, the filibuster was used by racist Southern Democrats, when they held the balance of power in the Senate, to block voting rights and civil rights legislation, going all the way back to blocking anti-lynching laws in the 1930s.

But they also used the filibuster threat to weaken worker rights. To get the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — the nation’s basic minimum wage and overtime pay law — through while avoiding the filibuster, President Franklin Roosevelt had to yield to Southern demands to exclude farm workers, who even then were heavily Latino and Latina, and home workers, who were mostly Black women.

The panel noted the Senate has the power to change its rules to eliminate or modify the filibuster, as it has in the past. Now, 60 senators — three-fifths of the 100 — can halt it. Until a rule change in the 1970s, stopping filibusters needed a two-thirds majority.

And McConnell completely eliminated filibusters for Supreme Court nominees, letting former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump push right-wingers Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett onto the bench. Before that, former Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), eliminated the filibuster for lower-court judges, federal agency and board appointees and for Cabinet nominees, but left it for legislation and the High Court.

“Progressives have a blind spot. They assume the Republicans play by the same rules” Democrats and independents do, said Gebre.

“Instead, they slap you down. They’re already violating my civil rights” as a unionist. “They’ve been blocking change in Labor law for more than 80 years. At the same time, they’ve ramrodded through what corporations want: Tax cuts for themselves and the rich.”


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