We're Not Slowing Down: The Labor Movement Must Keep Up The Fight For Voting Rights

Our guest author today is Elizabeth "Liz" Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO and a member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors.

It was deeply disappointing that just days after our nation paid homage to the great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday, the same senators who praised his name struck down critical legislation that would have strengthened our election systems and ensured every American has the fundamental right to vote.

Even though this was not the outcome we wanted, it is imperative that America’s labor movement does not give up this fight. There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote, and we will remember those senators who chose to stand on the wrong side of history.

On behalf of the AFL-CIO’s 12.5 million union members who fight for the rights of all working people, including the 1.7 million educators, paraprofessionals and school personnel in the American Federation of Teachers, we are going to continue to stand for voting rights and speak out against racial discrimination and voter suppression.

Because we simply cannot afford to ignore what is unfolding across this country at breakneck speed. On January 6, 2021, empowered by President Trump’s green light to overturn the will of the people, an extremist mob tried and failed to violently overturn a free and fair election. We witnessed one of the greatest assaults on our democracy since the Civil War. And even though the insurrectionists failed in that attempt, extremist efforts to subvert our election process did not end on Jan. 6.

In the 12 months following the insurrection, extremist lawmakers in 19 states passed more than 34 voter suppression laws in 2021 alone. We are already beginning to see the lasting and damaging effects of these bills.

For example in Texas, where Republicans rushed a sweeping voter “reform” (read: suppression) law through the legislature last year, thousands of Texans are now beginning to receive letters saying they have “been flagged as potential noncitizens” and can no longer vote.

Let me repeat that: With our midterm season right around the corner, thousands of Texans are actively losing their right to vote every single day. Meanwhile, Arizona has gotten rid of its permanent early voter list, meaning far fewer voters will get an automatic mail ballot this year. In Georgia, it is now a crime to give water bottles or snacks to people waiting in line to vote—lines that are statistically much longer in Black and Latino communities.

Unless we take action, these restrictions—which disproportionately fall on voters of color—are only going to get worse.

Contrary to opponents’ claims, voter suppression laws do nothing to protect democracy or stop the manufactured crisis of voter fraud. Instead, they create voting barriers that harm historically disenfranchised groups, such as women, minorities, the elderly, people with disabilities and young people. None of these proposals do anything to solve real problems.

Voting rights and union rights go hand in hand. At the same time extremist lawmakers continue to carry out their fundamental assault on our voting rights, corporations are using every union-busting tactic in the book to deny workers’ a voice on the job. Workers who practice their legal right to organize for dignity and safety are subjected to intense suppression campaigns, complete with forced anti-union meetings and false claims about the dangers of voting by mail.

Any employer who claims to defend voting rights at the ballot box but will union-bust in the same breath is actually an enemy of democracy. Nowhere is this more true than Amazon, where Jeff Bezos took to Instagram after the 2020 election to write, “By voting in record numbers, the American people proved again that our democracy is strong.”

Really, Jeff? If the e-commerce behemoth practiced what they preached, why did they feel the need to illegally interfere with the mail-in voting process during the unionization campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama last year?

I think we know why. Because voting rights and unions put power behind our voices.

Thankfully, our National Labor Relations Board ordered that the election be rerun in Bessemer and ballots went out in the mail last week. It is crucial this time around to ensure that workers’ voices are heard fairly without interference from Amazon’s limitless power to control what must be a fair and free election.

Similarly, with the 2022 midterm elections fast approaching, America’s unions are not going to let an anti-worker minority block the will of America’s people. There is no cheating your way out of a fair democracy.

We are going to do everything in our power to make it easier to exercise the right to vote, with guaranteed early voting, mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes in every community, in every state. We are not going to sideline the hopes, aspirations and representation of the American people. Today, tomorrow and every day forward, we will raise our voices and demand democracy for all.