The Filibuster is an Anti-Worker Rule, TooBreaking News
tags: filibuster, labor history, wages
Emily DiVito is the senior program manager for corporate power at the Roosevelt Institute.
Suzanne Kahn is the managing director of research and policy at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Divorce, American Style.
This year, the filibuster has kneecapped voting rights and derailed a wide range of legislation, from changes to policing to a minimum-wage increase. Much has been written about the filibuster’s antidemocratic and racist past and present. But it has also been used as a tool of the antilabor right to weaken labor unions. As a result, the United States hasn’t had comprehensive labor reform in more than seven decades, leaving workers subject to a set of antiquated and restrictive labor laws.
The filibuster is not an original feature of the Senate. Until the early 19th century, a simple majority of senators could end debate and call for a vote. For the next century, although there were few formal rules about the filibuster, chamber norms prevented senators from delaying votes indefinitely. These norms began to break down in the early 20th century, when a small group of senators effectively blocked President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed military arms bill, leading to the creation of the first cloture rule. This new rule outlined a process for ending debate and forcing a vote. Notably, the 1917 cloture legislation required a two-thirds vote to break a filibuster; only in 1975 did the vote requirement change to three-fifths, or the 60 votes required today.
Once senators realized the potency of the filibuster, they deployed it with abandon to thwart liberal initiatives like anti-lynching, anti-discrimination and voting rights legislation.
Liberal labor law bills did not escape this treatment either.
Support for collective bargaining was a pillar of the New Deal. In 1935, the Supreme Court struck down President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first attempt at codifying worker and union rights, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933. But, Roosevelt’s broad personal popularity and wide Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Congress — majorities that widened in the 1934 midterms — helped allow for quick passage of a follow-up attempt at worker rights: the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which guaranteed the right of private-sector employees to organize into unions, engage in collective bargaining and take collective action like strikes. The NLRA also accounted for one of the major failings of the NIRA by establishing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce labor law and adjudicate disputes. Energized by a short period of expanded labor rights via the NIRA, and angered by its invalidation, workers mobilized in full support of the NLRA.
Republicans saw the new legislation as an intrusion by the federal government into areas best left to the free market. In 1946, Republicans retook the majorities in both the House and the Senate for the first time since 1929 and 1931, respectively. Shortly after this new Congress was sworn in, it set about dismantling the victories workers had achieved in the New Deal era with new legislation that, among other measures, excluded independent contractors from the meaning of the term “employee” and banned closed union shops.
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