By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI) — Declaring the Senate filibuster a relic of the Jim Crow era that hurts workers, refugees and people of color, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre stepped up labor’s campaign to abolish the archaic Senate rule.
Only when it is gone, he declared, will a majority of the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. people be able to push through vital legislation they desire, 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 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 which enjoyed 55 or 56 votes” from senators, but not the needed 60 to end such blockades.
“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, he said.
The Democratic-run House passed both measures, and other pro-worker laws, earlier this year, but the filibuster’s rule that lets 41 senators block anything in the 100-member chamber gives the Senate’s 50 Republicans the cudgel 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% of the U.S. population, can stop virtually anything.
“That’s a travesty,” she added.
It’s not just rounding up the 41 votes to keep such deathly talkathons going, Gebre and other panelists noted. It’s also that filibusterers don’t have to keep talking. All they need is to threaten to filibuster and measures get halted in their tracks.
Foes don’t even need to be present and orating, Gebre noted. “The requirement those 41 don’t have to be on the Senate floor” to talk measures to death “is insane,” he declared.
The filibuster blockages mushroomed in recent years. It’s especially used by the GOP, the panel noted. There were 250+ “filibusters” in the last, 116th Congress. And that’s not counting bills, including the For The People Act and the Pro Act, which then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wouldn’t even allow committees to hold hearings on.
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 in other racist ways, including weakening 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, FDR had to yield to Southern demands to exclude farm workers, who even then were heavily Latino and Latina, and domestic, 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 can halt it. Until a rules 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 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.”
One panelist, Richard Arenberg, director of the Center for Politics and Policy at Brown University, offered a dissent. While stressing that he too agrees the GOP abuses the filibuster to maintain minority control and stop the Pro Act, HR1, and other progressive legislation, Arenberg warned the progressives, in essence “Don’t ask what you wish for, you might get it.”
If the filibuster is dead, and the Senate becomes like the House, and Trump comes back into office, all past progressive legislation could be undone, Arenberg said.
He also reiterated the argument, by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., a key swing vote in the 50-50 Senate, that the need to get 60 votes to pass anything produces compromise between the two parties. That brought a retort from Gebre.
“The U.S. Senate is not the Senate of ten years ago,” he said. “There is no sense of bipartisanship.”