Speech | Civil Rights

Redmond: Voter Suppression Is Discrimination


AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond's remarks as prepared for the 2022 Michigan A. Philip Randolph Institute Conference:

Thank you Lance [Holmes] for the warm introduction.

Before I begin I’d like to thank Jerry [King] and all of the APRI chapters here in Michigan for the incredible work you’re doing.

And thank you to everybody whose work makes this conference possible. I’m thrilled to be joining you here today.

Good afternoon. As Lance said, I’m Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be a leader of the national AFL-CIO.

I will always be a regular guy...a Black kid from the south side of Chicago who navigated my way through life by trying to do the right thing.

That’s the key. To do what’s right. Whether it’s for an individual, a community or a country.

And that’s our guiding light in the labor movement...our collective responsibility.

That’s why I’m in the labor movement. And I’m pretty sure that’s why you are too.

But it hasn’t always been easy being a person of color in the labor movement, right?

That’s why we had to form minority caucuses…so-called ad-hoc committees in the 40s and 50s…to address the lack of minority representation and other inequalities within our own structures.

To give a voice and perspective that may not have been considered or was too easily dismissed.

To open up a dialogue on the issues that divide us if left unspoken …but through discussion, bring us closer together. 

To carve a path for people of color to reach and succeed in leadership roles. 

I come out of the Steelworkers. My dad worked at an aluminum mill outside of Chicago called Reynolds, and in the summer of 1973, I took a job there and it was the best decision I ever made.

Joining that union made me who I am today. It helped me find my purpose. 

But I faced significant challenges on the job and within the labor movement. Like my father did. And like many of you have too.

In the steel mills, they sent the white workers to slit the coals. The Black workers, we had different jobs, intense jobs, dangerous jobs. We worked at the mouth of those fire-breathing, skin-melting furnaces.

When I tried to get an apprenticeship in Chicago, I found out I had to go clear across town for a letter of recommendation from an elected leader. You know, many unions made it harder for Black workers to get apprenticeships, which are very important in giving folks a path to a good union job.

I know you all have your own first-hand experience. But I mention it because I realize…we had a right to a job, to an apprenticeship…but there is a difference between a right and an opportunity. 

We had the right to be considered fairly without discrimination. But if the racist structures are still in place that allow for discrimination…then where is the opportunity?

That’s the challenge of this moment. And it has always been the challenge.

Now, take our voting rights. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution stated that the right to vote cannot be denied based on race or color. Now, that only applied to men at the time, but our right to vote was established in 1870.

But the opportunity to vote eluded us. Especially in the South where tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests blocked most Blacks from voting.

And literacy tests wasn’t about being able to read. They were exercises in discrimination. 

Some voter registration offices were open only a couple of days a month. And folks would wait in line all day to register to vote only to be denied their right because they didn’t dot an “i” or cross a “t”. 

Or they would have to recite passages from the Constitution or answer questions on obscure government functions. 

Or they would have to be able to count the number of beans in a jar. Those were the literacy tests. We had the right but did we have the opportunity?

The numbers tell the story. In the Deep South in the '60s, only one in three African Americans of voting age were eligible to vote. 

In Mississippi less than 7 percent of African Americans were registered to vote.

And in Selma, Alabama, blacks made up 57 percent of the population while whites made up 99 percent of the voting rolls.

The same Selma where John Lewis and scores of civil rights activists demonstrated for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then were bloodied and beaten on the Pettus Bridge by state troopers in riot gear.

Now, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were powerful pieces of legislation. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. King and John Lewis and Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph and countless others whose dedication and sacrifice helped push these bills through. 

But if you think about it, these bills were misnamed. They are less about establishing rights than they are about limiting the discriminatory practices and the systemic racism that prevent us from accessing the rights we already have.

Our voting rights. Our civil rights. Our right to organize.

And we are again facing serious threats on our rights.

Voter suppression and gerrymandering and limiting our right to organize… these are dire issues.

And the goal of these right-wing attacks are the same… to limit our opportunity and sideline our voices.

Look no further than what is happening here in Michigan. Republicans are trying to change the rules to make it harder for Michiganders to vote. They have a petition drive called Secure My Vote.

And by “secure” they mean “discriminate” … 

By making it harder to vote absentee…. 

By asking for sensitive personal information like social security numbers…

By throwing out the ballots of registered voters who can’t satisfy the new and restrictive identity requirements…

And even by making it harder for people to volunteer to be an election official.

These changes are not only anti-voter, they’re anti-democratic.

If they collect enough signatures, this voter suppression package won’t be on the ballot in November. It will go straight to the legislature and become law…without it being subject to the governor’s veto.

These kinds of voter suppression tactics are happening all across the country…and have happened. In fact, voters in 13 states have more restrictive laws than they did in 1965.

So we need to keep pushing for our rights…and our ability to exercise our rights…and the state level and the national level too.

That means doing everything we can to get the John Lewis Freedom to Vote Act across the finish line.

We can say the same thing Dr. King said about the Civil Rights Act in a speech he gave here in Detroit 60 years ago. He said: “Let’s not fool ourselves. This bill isn’t going to get through if we don’t put some work in it and some determined pressure.”

That “determined pressure” here is pushing the Senate to sideline the filibuster…the same tactic that threatened and killed civil and voting rights legislation in the past.

Some senators are making the claim that changing the rules is some kind of moral affront. But the moral affront here is that we need to pass this bill in the first place.

We know why it’s so hard to pass voting rights.There are senators who want all the power and privilege for themselves. They want to limit our opportunity.

They don’t want a democracy or society that has the full scope and range of diversity and perspective.

But our elected officials don’t lead…the people lead.

Great leaders like Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph recognized that. They knew the people in the labor movement and the people in the civil rights movement were the two greatest forces for change. That is why they fought so hard to bring them together.

And their vision was revolutionary. It’s based on the idea that a good, union job is a life-changing opportunity.

We are building a movement that provides that opportunity…one that centers on people of color…and we are on a mission to bring more of us into the fold.

We have to. Our workforce is changing.

People of color will soon make up the majority of all working people in this country.

In a few years, women will be half of the labor movement.

And right now, millennials are already the largest generation in the workforce.  

And today’s workforce is looking for a change. 

Right now, working people are fed up. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain. Workers are rejecting jobs where they risk their health and safety for a poverty wage. Workers are striking and standing up for their rights.

And young people especially are embracing unions as a vehicle to speak up at work. 

There’s an energy out there. We need to capture it.

We need to show all working people that the labor movement is for them.

That the labor movement continues to demand equal pay, respect on the job, and an end to sexual harassment and discrimination in all its forms.

And that the most urgent racial and social justice issues run right through the labor movement.

Economic justice.

Gender justice.

Voting rights and strengthening democracy.

Guaranteeing a path to citizenship for immigrants.

All of these issues are critical to making sure that working people live a dignified life both inside and outside of the workplace.

That we are able not only to exercise our rights, but that we have access to the best opportunities for ourselves and our families.

How do we do that? 

By growing opportunities for people of color and communities that have been left out? 

By connecting with women and young people and communities of color….

By making sure our own house is in order.

We are having tough conversations on race and racial justice and equality...through the AFL-CIO’s Task Force on Racial Justice.

But we need to do more than have conversations…we need to make sure our own structures empower rights AND opportunity.

And we need to make sure our democracy empowers it too. 

The labor movement needs to be at the forefront...to combat voter suppression...discrimination…and the anti-worker laws designed to silence us.

And the work of the APRI is essential. You are a force for change…in your unions and in your communities.

You make sure the labor movement always aspires for progress…to do the right thing.

And to be at the forefront. For social justice...for racial justice...and for opportunities. Together, in true solidarity for all working people.

Thank you so much.

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