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Analysis: The AFL-CIO is attacking the filibuster – here’s why

With a Democratic trifecta in the House, Senate and White House, labor leaders can almost taste victory as they work to pass legislation that would completely remake the nation’s labor laws.

What stands in their way? The filibuster.

By tradition, it takes 60 senators to overcome a filibuster and to move legislation forward. This is frustrating the plans of union leaders, who have openly declared war on the filibuster and the politicians who support it. The executive council of the AFL-CIO labeled the filibuster a “creature of white supremacy,” and called on Democrats to make “swift and necessary changes” to Senate rules – including eliminating the filibuster – in order to pass a progressive legislative agenda.  

The AFL-CIO is an umbrella union and includes many trade unions but also public sector unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Their top legislative goal this year is to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a massive labor bill already approved by the House. The legislation primarily affects private sector workers, and would, among other things, override right to work laws at the state level.

But it isn’t just about passing the PRO Act. The AFL-CIO statement says the filibuster is stopping Democrats from passing the “Workers First Agenda,” which includes tax increases, election law changes, and higher government spending.

The national unions have become the training grounds for the next generation of progressive activists, so it is unsurprising that the union’s agenda is situated so far to the left.

In addition to the AFL-CIO, a coalition of left-leaning groups, including some smaller unions and union-funded organizations, are advocating for the end of the filibuster now that Democrats control Congress and the White House. They say it slows down the work of government and stops the people’s business from getting done.

But “the people” are as divided as Congress – and ending the filibuster will only make these divisions worse. The purpose of the filibuster is to force lawmakers to find common ground across party lines. The filibuster also smooths out the swings from right to left as Congress switches back and forth between parties.

By taking a strong position on such a controversial subject, the AFL-CIO is sending a message to the moderate Democrats who support maintaining the tradition of bipartisanship in the Senate.

Through their political spending and organizing, unions exert a massive amount of influence on politicians, especially those in the Democratic Party. In recent years, union-funded fringe political parties and political groups have threatened to primary or have primaried moderate Democrats in order to replace them with more progressive candidates.

That is what is happening to the two Demcoratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – who say they won’t vote to eliminate the filibuster. The co-founders of the group Justice Democrats openly called for more progressive Democrats to challenge Manchin and Sinema in primary elections.

Saikat Chakrabarti, former chief-of-staff for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a co-founder of Justice Democrats, said the goal is to pressure them into changing their minds.

“The only real way to pressure any of these folks and hold them accountable to their promises is to threaten their power, and threaten the seat that they hold and threaten their reelection,” Chakrabarti told Politico.

Justice Democrats is a far-left political action committee that receives funds from the Working Families Party, which in turn is funded by several unions including UNITE HERE and SEIU, as well as union-funded organizations like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which receives money from the National Education Association.

The unions likely won’t back down, especially as more and more Democratic senators say they’re willing to eliminate or modify the filibuster. As the roar of disapproval from labor grows, it remains to be seen if Manchin and Sinema can hold firm, or if the pressure will grow too strong to resist.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.