Voting Rights Front and Center

Labor’s strong campaign, joined by those of civil rights, religious and civic allies, to preserve and strengthen voting rights took center stage at a key session of the AFL-CIO’s Northeast Region District Meeting for union leaders and activists. 

But speakers, including federation Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the keynoter, didn’t neglect other causes, especially the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act (H.R. 842/S. 420). She linked them.

“It’s also a civil rights bill,” Shuler declared of the PRO Act, labor’s top legislative priority. “And it’s no coincidence there’s an attack on unions at the same time there’s an attack on voting rights.” The corporate elite and radical right “want to divide us and want to disenfranchise us.”

Left unsaid, though: The PRO Act, along with other progressive and pro-worker legislation, including climate change bills, the American Jobs Plan, strengthening OSHA, aid to students and schools and more, would die on the vine without filibuster reform.

And it would be shelved forever if the right wing and white nationalists gain permanent hegemony over the United States, though they’re in the minority—a hegemony that can be prevented if Congress passed the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the legislation discussed at the June 10 session. The For the People Act, in particular, would halt the danger. 

The burgeoning slew of GOP threats to voting rights, state by state—almost 400 pieces of legislation and counting—“are a threat to the entire labor agenda,” said Clayola Brown, longtime union officer, former president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and head of the federation’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department.

“Everything that has to do with us has to do with voting rights,” she told the regional session, one of six the federation hosted for unionists in different sectors of the country.

“Workers are always the first to be attacked," especially if they are workers of color, Brown elaborated. At the same time, she noted, some unionists tune out the right to vote issue, thinking it important only to those workers. It’s important to all, she stated.

One slide posted on the Zoom split screen during the presentation said it all, making the issue not one of race, but one of domination. “The people in power want to control and limit the right to vote in order to stay in power,” it read. 

That even included the union movement, Brown noted, as the AFL, before the 1955 merger with the CIO, did not order all-white unions to integrate. Longtime UAW President Walter Reuther, a civil rights visionary and the CIO leader, broke that stand.

He declared “we’ll represent workers of all colors,” as CIO unions did. That, and a threat by Randolph to have Black unionists form their own federation, broke segregation. But nationally, Brown added, “it’s incredible how much has changed over the years—and how much has stayed the same.”

Poll taxes have been replaced, in the new round of repression, with fees for documents workers need to prove their right to register. The usual mode is to charge high fees for drivers’ licenses, passports, birth certificates or other ID voters need. But that’s not all.

In Texas, for example, certain IDs are legal to help you register, and others aren’t. College ID cards, carried by presumably pro-Democratic students, are unusable. Gun permits, presumably carried by right-wing Republican whites, are legal IDs for voter registration. 

And Florida’s gerrymandered GOP-run legislature was particularly toxic, said Alex Roe, managing counsel of the AFL-CIO’s Union Lawyers Alliance. There, two-thirds of voters decided via a 2020 referendum to restore voting rights to 1.4 million former felons, disproportionately people of color, who have served their jail terms. 

Then the white GOP majority passed and white right-wing GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill mandating the ex-felons, most of them poor, to pay all their high fines, fees and court costs before they can register to vote. That law effectively re-disenfranchises them,

Challenges from outside private  “poll watchers” replace literacy tests. Polling stations have been closed by the hundreds, all in majority-Black areas. And in 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated preclearance, where the Justice Department had to sign off on voting rights changes in areas with a history of voter discrimination. Republican-run states rushed to implement a slew of voting restrictions.

“In the past 20 years, we’re going back in time,” Brown commented.

To combat the repression, Brown and Roe outlined a four-pronged drive to protect and enhance voting rights. 

The prongs start with geographic outreach to union members, to convince them of the absolute priority they must give to preserving, protecting and enhancing voting rights. Then there’s advocacy, to convince unionists to lobby lawmakers—especially Senate Republicans—to approve the For the People and John Lewis Acts.

The other two prongs are relationship building with like-minded civil rights, civic and  religious groups, for joint campaigns, and building capacity to train workers and their allies as poll watchers, monitors and reporters of election repression, county by county.

But there was one more problem that the session ran out of time for before it could tackle it: Pervasive voter cynicism. Participant Alana Lewis brought it up in the Q-&-A, and there’s no answer, yet. “There has to be voter education against all the false information out there. A lot of people believe they vote and don’t get anything out of it,” she said.