Without filibuster reform, worker rights will wither


Tom ChamberlainBy Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president 

Our 2009 efforts to pass comprehensive labor law reform failed by one vote in the U.S. Senate.  Sensible labor law updates and changes — in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act — failed because a U.S. Senate procedural vote requires 60 votes out of 100 to close debate, and failure to close debate results in preventing an up or down vote on legislation or an executive branch or judicial appointment (filibustering the bill or appointment).

Over the last half decade, corporate and Wall Street lobbyists — helped primarily by Senate Republicans — have used the filibuster not only to kill the Employee Free Choice Act and a load of progressive legislation, but they have also successfully blocked President Obama’s federal judicial appointments — judges who would have countered President Bush’s 240 judicial appointees and brought the court system’s rightward trajectory back into balance.

The success corporatists have had using the filibuster (specifically the silent filibuster, where senators don’t have to talk anymore; they can simply “object” to a vote and everything comes to a screeching halt) has resulted in long-term vacancies in key parts of our government —from the Federal Election Commission to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. President Obama is not the first president whose appointments have been held hostage by the filibuster, but he is the first to see whole enforcement bodies held hostage by the filibuster.

Until recently, presidents have had the ability to make temporary executive appointments during Senate recess, allowing them to keep our government working even if the Senate is holding up permanent appointees. But recent decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and for the Third Circuit say that presidential intrasession recess appointments are unconstitutional. This decision is under appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and if upheld it would bring agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to a grinding halt.

Currently, the NLRB needs members to be reappointed (these are current members who have already been confirmed by the Senate in the past) to even have a quorum and be able to conduct business.  Without a NLRB quorum, private sector workers would have no way to enforce workers’ rights. Such rights range from enforcement of rules governing organizing to collective bargaining.

Without a Board to enforce the National Labor Relations Act, employers could threaten workers’ jobs or outright fire union advocates.  Union organizing would slow from the trickle we are experiencing today to no organizing.

Without enforcement, collective bargaining would halt, employers could simply refuse to bargain without recourse, dragging out negotiations and unilaterally cutting wages and benefits, putting ever-increasing pressure on workers in the hopes that workers would vote against their own best interest and decertify the union.

While employers have implemented anti-worker strategies, they have always had to function within the confines of the National Labor Relations Act.  Left to their own devices, employers could run rough-shod over workers in a way that hearkens back to the Robber Baron era of the 1890s.

Fifteen months ago, a Senate rules reform bill specifically focusing on filibuster reform was watered down in exchange for promises of cooperation from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Those promises have proven time and time again to be hollow.   Thankfully, Oregon’s junior U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley has spearheaded a charge to change the Senate rules to stop the efforts of a minority of senators who would rather derail government in their efforts to advance a political agenda.

Sen. Merkley’s leadership, coupled with increased pressure from progressive groups led by the American union movement, has resulted in a renewed outcry for filibuster reform. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has signaled that the time is right for reform.

Our message to Oregon Senators Merkley and Ron Wyden:

Fight on for reform, fight on for workers, and fight on for a government that works for the 99 percent, and work to get more of your colleagues standing on our side of filibuster reform.


  1. It appears that the Republicans not only don’t care about what the American public wants, they don’t even much care about what most Republicans want. So much for “democracy”, not to mention “freedom”. It’s obscene.


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