AFL-CIO’s VP Tefere Gebre: Filibuster slams workers, refugees, people of color
Tefere Gebre, Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO |

WASHINGTON—Declaring the Senate filibuster, a relic of the Jim Crow era and before, slams workers, refugees, and people of color, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre stepped up labor’s campaign to abolish the racist and archaic Senate rule.

Only by doing so, he declared, will a majority of the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. people, be able to push through vital legislation they desire. That includes both HR1/S1, the comprehensive voting and election reform For The People Act, and HR842, the Protect The Right To Organize PRO Act, the most pro-worker labor law reform in decades.

The Democratic-run House passed both measures, and other pro-worker laws, earlier this year, but the filibuster’s requirement which says 41 senators can block anything in the 100-member chamber gives the Senate’s 50 Republicans the cudgel they need to halt everything.

“I have lived my entire life trying to foster civil rights legislation, expansion of workers’ rights, and to bring justice to immigrants,” Gebre, a worker of color, labor organizer, and Ethiopian refugee, passionately declared at an April 13 American Constitution Society zoom teleconference. “In all three areas, the filibuster has been used to thwart progress.

“In the Clinton administration, it was used to thwart anti-striker replacement bills. It’s been used repeatedly to thwart gun safety legislation which enjoyed 55 or 56 votes” from senators, but not the 60 needed to end such blockades.

“And it thwarts only one side of the aisle,” the progressive side, he elaborated. “People who want tax cuts for the rich and corporations never needed” to overcome a filibuster.

The AFL-CIO and progressive allies are campaigning to kill the filibuster once and for all. They make the point, as another panelist, University of Pittsburgh Professor Keisha Blain noted, that 41 senators representing states which, combined, have only 18% of the U.S. population, can stop virtually any legislation, except for tax bills.

“That’s a travesty,” Blain added.

And it’s not just rounding up the 41 votes to keep such deathly “talkathons” going, Gebre and other panelists noted. It’s also that filibusterers these days, unlike Mr. Smith who went to Washington, don’t have to keep talking. All they need is to threaten to filibuster and measures get halted in their tracks.

The foes don’t even need to be present and orating, Gebre noted. “The requirement that those 41 don’t have to be on the Senate floor” to talk measures to death “is insane,” he declared.

The filibuster blockage has mushroomed in recent years, and it’s especially used—or abused—by the GOP, the panel noted. There were 250+ “filibusters” in the last, 116th Congress. And that’s not counting bills, including the For The People Act and the PRO Act, that then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wouldn’t even allow hearings on.

Historically, the filibuster was used by racist Southern Democrats, when they held the balance of power in the Senate, to block voting rights and civil rights legislation, going all the way back to blocking anti-lynching laws in the 1930s. Just last year, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., used a filibuster threat and GOP support to block another House-passed anti-lynching bill, said Blain.

But Southerners also used the filibuster threat in other racist ways. One case: To weaken the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the nation’s basic minimum wage and overtime pay law, To avoid a Southern filibuster which would have sunk it, FDR had to yield to demands from racist senators to exclude farmworkers, who even then were heavily Latinx, and home workers, who were mostly Black women.

The power to change

ACS panelists noted the Senate has the power to change its rules to eliminate or modify the filibuster, as it has in the past. Now, 60 senators—three-fifths of the 100—can halt it. Until a rules change in the 1970s, stopping filibusters needed a two-thirds majority.

When he was Majority Leader, McConnell and the GOP changed rules to eliminate filibusters against U.S. Supreme Court nominees. That change let former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump push right-wingers Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett onto the bench. Before that, former Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., eliminated the filibuster for lower-court judges and for Cabinet nominees, but left it for legislation and the High Court.

“Progressives have a blind spot. They assume the Republicans play by the same rules” Democrats and independents do said Gebre. “Instead, they slap you down.

“They’re already violating my civil rights” as a unionist. “They’ve been blocking change in labor law for more than 80 years. At the same time, they’ve ramrodded through what corporations want: Tax cuts for themselves and the rich.”

One panelist, Richard Arenberg, director of the Center for Politics and Policy at Brown University, offered a dissent. While stressing that he too agrees the GOP abuses the filibuster to maintain minority control and stop the PRO Act, the For The People Act,  and other progressive legislation, he warned the progressives, in essence, “Don’t ask what you wish for, you might get it.”

If the filibuster is dead, the Senate becomes like the House, Arenberg said. Given that and a right-wing president—such as if Trump wins back the White House in 2024–all past progressive legislation could be undone, he warned.

He also reiterated the argument, made by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., a key swing vote in the 50-50 Senate, that the need to get 60 votes to pass anything produces compromise between the two parties. That brought a retort from Gebre.

“The U.S. Senate is not the Senate of ten years ago,” he said. “There is no sense of bipartisanship.”

The discussion is on the ACS website:


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.