Executive Council Statement

Senate Rules Cannot Be Used to Block a Workers First Agenda

The passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, with its long overdue relief for those suffering under the COVID-19 pandemic, is both a reminder of what’s possible by a Democratic majority and evidence of a new day for working people and our communities—a day of hope we fought for and voted for and won through the darkness of 2020.

But we know that the American Rescue Plan is only law because senators used a loophole to overcome the roadblock of a threatened filibuster—and we saw how small that loophole was when Congress tried to raise the federal minimum wage, shamefully stuck for years at $7.25 an hour.

The Workers First Agenda is simply too big and too important to fit through that loophole. At stake is the urgent work of investing in our country, defending our democracy against those who would take the right to vote away from working people and, most of all—righting the balance of power in our country through the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—addressing decades of runaway inequality of wealth, income, opportunity and power that have left working people impoverished, silenced and angry.

The Workers First Agenda—investment, democracy and economic justice—is the agenda that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris ran on. It is the agenda that working people have fought for. And it is the agenda that our nation voted for. It is an agenda that cannot be delayed or denied. The very survival of our democratic republic is at stake.

And standing in its way is an archaic Senate procedure that allows the minority to block the majority—the filibuster. An artifact of Jim Crow. A creature of white supremacy. A procedure that was said to encourage robust debate but has turned into an instrument of government paralysis. A tool used by those seeking to preserve the social, economic and political status quo, that the AFL-CIO has long opposed, as a matter of principle as undemocratic and rooted in racism.

In 2012, we sent a letter to Senate leadership decrying “outmoded and broken legislative institutions” and calling for a series of reforms “in the interest of our democratic system.” Since then, the problem has only gotten worse. The filibuster HAS been reformed—to allow tax cuts for the rich and to lock down an anti-worker majority on the Supreme Court. In that same period, the filibuster has blocked: labor law reform, equal pay for women, the DREAM Act, eliminating tax giveaways for companies that ship jobs overseas, an expansion of Social Security and countless other measures that would have helped our country but were not even brought forward for a vote, despite enjoying the support of a broad majority of Americans.

But it need not be that way. The U.S. Senate could, starting today, choose to act on a bipartisan basis, to robustly debate and boldly enact a Workers First Agenda.

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives, on a bipartisan basis, passed the PRO Act—a bill of freedom and civil rights for America’s workers. Passage of the PRO Act gives the Senate—especially those Republicans who say they are workers’ advocates—the chance to show they are ready to work on our behalf.

But there simply is no time for delay or for paralysis. And should a minority in the Senate seek to hide behind the filibuster—to obstruct, to interpose that artifact of Jim Crow between the American people and the change we voted for—the path forward for the leadership of the Senate must be clear.

And surely, as a nation, it is troubling enough that there are efforts underway today to restrict the right of American citizens to vote. Under no circumstances can we allow the filibuster—a procedure rooted in generations of disenfranchisement of citizens of color—to stand in the way of the U.S. government protecting the right of all American citizens to vote in the 21st century.

The AFL-CIO calls on the Senate to work with the president and the House to enact a Workers First Agenda—investment, democracy, freedom and dignity in the workplace and justice in our economy.

But if that proves to be impossible under the Senate’s current rules—we call for swift and necessary changes to those rules so that the will of the people of the United States expressed in the 2020 elections can be turned into the progress our country and our people desperately need.