In This Episode
This week on Rubicon, Brian Beutler talks to civil rights icon Rev William Barber about efforts to unionize Amazon workers, how that fight continues, and what a Democratic majority in Congress can do to strengthen labor rights for working people of all races.
Brian Beutler: Labor unions used to be the backbone of the Democratic Party, but over the past several decades, political and economic trends in the U.S. and around the world caused a realignment.
[clip of Rev. Al Sharpton] Michigan Republicans have declared war on workers . . . trying to ram through a so-called Right to Work Law. It would essentially gut the state’s labor movement, including the historic auto unions.
[clip of reporter] Governor Walker today sat here at this desk, to sign the right to work legislation and make Wisconsin the 25th state to have it.
[voice clip] Majority Republicans approved a bill to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees.
Brian Beutler: The right went to war with unions. An increasingly neoliberal Democratic Party sometimes joined them. Trade agreements, globalized markets. Union density plummeted. The Dam-labor alliance weakened, and the clout unions held within the Democratic coalition shrank. The white working class drifted toward the GOP, and Donald Trump accelerated the drift.
[clip of Richard Trunka] He came to our members and said “I’m going to change the rules of the economy” and they believed him . . . Unfortunately, the rules he’s changing has hurt them. He’s opposed every increase in the minimum wage. He’s changed the regulation to take overtime away from a couple of million people. He’s proposed a trillion dollar cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. He’s done all, he’s rolled back health and safety standards to his workers.
Brian Beutler: Now Trump is gone. The economy wrecked. His promise to those workers almost entirely unfulfilled, and many political observers see a dilemma. President Biden can seek to rebuild the Obama coalition of educated white Americans and minorities of all economic classes with multicultural appeals. Or he can try to reverse the hemorrhaging of working class whites from the Democratic Party with economic appeals. But what if these two visions aren’t in conflict at all? And what if unions are the glue that can unify a multiethnic, multiracial working class under a single political umbrella? Biden, at least, seems to want to test the theory
[clip of President Biden] Unions put power in the hands of workers . . . Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union and especially Black and brown workers.
Brian Beutler: Rhetorically, he’s the most pro-union president we’ve had in decades. One of the first personnel decisions he made after he took office, was to fire the union-busting council of the National Labor Relations Board. More recently, he thrilled organized labor supporters by endorsing the right of Amazon workers at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, to form a union, free from intimidation.
[clip of President Biden] The choice to join a union is up to the workers, full stop. Full stop. Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace.
Brian Beutler: It was a historically pro-labor statement, particularly compared to recent US presidents. And the battleground was striking: a union drive in the notoriously anti-union deep south, of a majority Black workforce, against one of the most powerful corporations in the world. Biden’s tacit endorsement of the drive set up what looked like a perfect opportunity to test the theory, but the truth turned out to be complicated. As it stands, our labor laws, place union organizers at a huge disadvantage. Throw in things like immense corporate power, cultural skepticism of unions, racial division, and the obstacles grow. The drive to unionize the Bessemer facility, at least the first run at it, was unsuccessful. The vote wasn’t even particularly close. Should that make us doubt whether Biden can grow a new Democratic Party by fearlessly embracing unionism? Our guest this week doesn’t think so. Reverend Dr. William Barber is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, and helped organize the drive at Bessemer. We talked about where the effort to organize Amazon workers go from here. What more, if anything, Biden and Democrats can do to help, and how a revived labor movement fits into the broader fight to save multiethnic, multiracial democracy from the forces bent on destroying it. I’m Brian Beutler, welcome to Rubicon.
Brian Beutler: I’m really glad you could join us, Dr. Barber. It’s an honor to have you.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: Thank you so much. It’s really good to be with you in these times that we’re living in.
Brian Beutler: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience working in support of the effort to unionize the Bessemer Amazon warehouse? What did you see and what did you learn from the experience?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: You know, the work of helping to unionize workers has been a part of my family for some time. My father, when he first came back to the south in the ’60s, was a part of helping workers at a warehouse, a plant in North Carolina when actually Black workers were being paid less than white workers. And part of what attracted me to the Bessemer fight was I was a part of the fight to unionize Smithfield Plant, the largest hog processing plant in the world in Tar Heel, North Carolina. You know, it took a long time to get that done. And in fact, Smithfield pulled every trick in the book, you know, the split Black, brown and white workers. They gave money to organizations, sometimes civil rights organizations, as a way of eluding their critique. But we were able to get together and fundamentally organize with UFCW at the request of workers, and they were eventually able to do it. Which at that time was seen as a major accomplishment in the South. And when I saw, I was invited actually by the Poor People’s Campaign in Alabama and by the Bessemer workers to come down—you know, you don’t just go, you better be invited—and what moved me out that work is that here you have a plant of 6,000 workers in the Deep South. Alabama being, at one time was the most unionized southern state in the country. And these workers, 5,500 of them are African-American. But the significance of union organizing in the south is much bigger than just race. Dr. King said in ’65 that you have to understand the connection between the fight for the right to vote, the fight for wages, and the fight for unions is to fight against what he called the ruling class and the southern aristocracy.
[clip of Rev. Martin Luther King] And it may be part of the Reconstruction Era, that the southern aristocracy took the world and the poor white man Jim Crow.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: And what intrigued me about it is that they understood that, they were organizing, they were in a battle, and they were in a battle against Jeff Bezos and Amazon.
[news clip] About 5,800 workers are employed there by Amazon. And they are undertaking here a vote that could conceivably create the very first union for Amazon workers in the United States. And so what happens here really could set the stage for the future.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: And, you know, one of the things about that is Jeff Bezos has an interesting posture. For instance, in July of last year, he announced he was giving 10 million dollars to organizations because he said he’s concerned about Black Lives Matter. Two days later, he took away the hazard pay for his workers, the two dollar hazard pay. Which just at the Bessemer plant, would have been $25 million. So you can’t just judge what they’re doing by social giving. And one of the things the Bessemer campaign was saying is: you can’t say you concerned about Black Lives Matter because you give a little money here or there to some organizations, Black organizations, and then inside the plant, you undermine union rights and contract rights to over 5,500 African-Americans plus other workers. And so I knew how important this battle was. As I said it’s, I think it’s our economic Selma in a real sense, because the unionization in the south was blocked because of the fear of Black and white people coming together. It was blocked in the past. And today is critical to building that kind of fusion organizing that really can reshape the South politically as well as economically. And if you reshape the South politically and economically, you really fundamentally reshape the country. Lastly, I would say that I also have a friend who’s a historian and he wrote a book called I think “The Hammer and the Hoe” and one of the things in his book, he mentioned that the South is really not, quote unquote “conservative” or as we tend to talk about, conservative—that’s why there’s been so much effort to keep Black and brown and white people apart from each other, because every time they have come together, whether it be the Reconstruction Movement in the 19th century, or the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century, we’ve always seen fundamental national transformation come out of the South. And what is true was true then, and it’s still even more true today: in a real sense, the South is not so much conservative or extreme right wing, as it is unorganized. And that’s, the Bessemer fight represents another critical piece to the organizing of the South and the transformation of the nation.
Brian Beutler: I’m interested in your point about the sort of the different expressions of power and how to sort of take it head on. In the aftermath of the vote, I kind of informally canvased some of the people that I know and have worked with who are active in the labor movement and I picked up, I think, two contradictory impressions about how it ended. One was that if the outcome was going to be lopsided, maybe it was a mistake not to delay the election or call it off. It might discourage or demoralize other union drives elsewhere. The other view was more like, look at the context, the same context you were just talking about. You have a union drive in the Deep South against one of the most powerful corporations in the world with a multiracial workforce making the decision. The fact that it got off the ground at all is the story, this other view says, and it would have been worse not to see the effort to conclusion. Where do you come down on that strategic question, and why do you think the critics are wrong?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: Well, I think both of those angles kind of have some wrong in it, because, first of all, it’s not over. And that’s what I think people miss about this kind of organizing. I said in the Smithfield fight in North Carolina, took years. And this is a first effort. And that’s one of the things I think we lose in in our way of organizing today. We try not to lose it in the Poor People’s Campaign, but too often people look at: I do something and I win the vote, if I don’t, I lose the vote. And that’s it. The South is the place where people stayed off busses for 381 days. In North Carolina, more recently, the Moral Monday movement was four years, 1,200 arrests, four years of battling in the federal courts. And we won. You know, we beat back the worst voter suppression law after Shelby in the country, the Shelby decision. And that was not only what we won, we unseated a governor, that we are the only state in the South in the 2016 elections that unseated a sitting Republican governor in the South. But oftentimes those things aren’t picked up. So I think, first of all, this was a strategy. This is the beginning of a movement, not the end. The vote was lopsided because of what Amazon did. It’s because the bad laws that allowed corporations to have to teach classes on anti-union’ism and, you know, inside the workers had to take classes. And many times we were told that when they would question what was being taught about unionization, they would be brought before the class and have the picture of their badges would be taken, and all kinds of intimidation. When I was down there, they had African-American officers of the law protect, on the campus, you know, basically intimidating people to some degree, supposedly keeping order. So you can’t call this a defeat, you have to look at the context of what was happening. You have to look at how much money was spent. You have to ask the question: did Bezos’s money mute the voices of national organizations, civil rights orgs? They should have been there right alongside those workers in full force. And that has to be called out. So this is not a defeat. This was the first effort, a first battle. And one other thing we have to do in this movement to not to see it as a defeat, but one of the lessons, you know, if you will, that we learned, one of them is that we learned that the workers are already filing complaints. We should be right there beside them, you know, telling the true story of all the ways in which the company violated fundamental principles. They are filing complaints. They are not quitting. So let us not say that it’s over. Let us say that this was a first, this was a first. I plan to go back now and I’ve already been asked by some of them to come back. You know, we’re going to continue to organize deep. We have to do a better job at explaining to people when they say, well: at least they get 15 and they get health care. But they don’t have a contract. They can be fired for any reason. Even with starting at 15, they are fundamentally lower than other workers doing the same job. When we were down there, there was that evening on the news, Amazon put up a young lady—and I felt so sorry for her—and she was interviewed by the news and she was supportive of the company over against the union. And her opening statement was: well, I’m a menial, basically unskilled menial worker, and I should basically just be glad to have this job. We’ve got work to do to help people understand: no, you’re more than that. And this billion billion dollar company, this company where the owner made, what, 180 billion dollars last year, the company profits grew by 200% during the pandemic, should not be able to operate without workers having a contract, without them having competitive wages, without them having a right to for the grievances, and to be engaged in profit sharing. And I think that the more we teach that, we will understand that this is just the first round. This is this is not a defeat. This is the beginning
Brian Beutler: To your point about how Amazon conducted itself in this fight, when President Biden issued his statement in support of the workers, right, to try to form a union, he said there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda, no supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. Obviously, I take it you don’t believe that Amazon tempered its opposition to the union drive at all, in response to what the president said in that statement? Is that because the things that Biden implored against are not actually labor law violations, and what does that say about the state of labor rights in the US?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: Well, you know, that’s why we need the new law that’s being proposed now—I think it’s in the House—that actually strengthens Labor’s laws.
Brian Beutler, narrating: Here’s a bit of background on the bill Reverend Barber is talking about. It’s called the Protecting the Right to Organize or PRO act. And it would revive labor rights in a bunch of different ways. It would strengthen penalties for violating workers’ rights, and impose new ones for interfering with unionization efforts. It would also override so-called “right to work” laws, which prohibit unions from collecting dues from workers at unionized job sites who choose not to join their unions, but benefit from the wage and benefit guarantees the unions bargained for them. The bill actually passed the House with a handful of Republican votes, but it likely won’t be able to pass in the Senate unless Democrats change the filibuster rules.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: You know, yes, we need a strengthening of our labor laws. You know, it’s amazing to me that even when you look at COVID, the corporations basically got everything they asked for. First, you know, the first COVID bill gave 84% of the money to the corporations and banks, 84% of the money.
[clip of Sen Elizabeth Warren] A half a trillion dollar bailout to giant corporations . . . because it has the potential for Donald Trump and his administration to use this money, shoot, to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: The people who are low-wage workers, who are workers like those at Amazon, you know, some 20,000 people at an Amazon contracted COVID and some people died. That’s the statistic that we got from the union organizers. But these were the people who are on the front lines, the first to have to go to work, the first to get infected, many of them the first to get sick and the first to die, all over this country. We have to become a nation that does more than give people a name change and a handclap. You know, I was remembering when in the middle of COVID, when people used to come out on their roofs at night and they would clap their hands and hit pots and make noise [sounds of cheering and pots banging] and we came up with this phrase, essential worker.
[news clip] Such an important role. What is it like to be on the front lines of a public health crisis?
[voice clip] I’m not a doctor. I’m not a policeman, but I do work in a grocery store, and I try to do my part to help the public. Because this is a necessity. It has to be done. Somebody has to do it.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: We got to do more than be complementary. The question is: what are the essentials that workers need? And they need the union and labor rights, they need to be able to stand against these states that have these so-called “right to work” laws—which sounds actually like a positive thing but it’s not, you know, it means the right to be fired, basically to the right NOT work. And we have to understand the history. You know, we did a forum on the union movement in Alabama—and again, my friend who wrote the book “Hammer and the Hoe” he was a historian. He gave us the history of how Alabama became a “right to work.” He said that it was in the 1950s, early 1950s, that white Southern racist aristocracy could not stand the miner’s union. The miners were one of the most powerful unions in the South, organizing Black and white people. So they decided that they were going to label them as communists. Then he said that they, somehow the aristocracy finagled and got the NAACP in Alabama to write letters against the miners, calling them communists, the union. And they used that to then push forward the “right to work” law, and then the next year they outlawed the NAACP. I mean, that’s kind of trickery that’s been done in the South, and here we are today and a company can feel as though if they can get away with many of the things the workers are saying happened during this election because the laws are not strong enough. And that’s why there’s new laws being proposed. It should be fair. It should be free. It should be without intimidation. Workers should get accurate information. The corporations should not be given the advantage over the workers.
Brian Beutler: I take you to be saying that it’s the passage of laws that at least in part, contribute to the hostility to labor unions in the South. Do you think that the outcome of this election might have been different if other laws like the PRO act, which you alluded to, were the law of the land already? Or if there’s a second bite at the apple after the PRO act becomes law, if it becomes law, do you think the fortunes will switch and the workers will prevail on a second attempt?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: I think they will, I think. But that’s why you have to connect the fight for union rights and fight for voting rights. We have to understand in every state in the South, after the Shelby decision— interestingly enough, that came out of Alabama as well—has passed racist voter suppression laws. Why is that important to unions? Because the same people, and this is why we have to talk about voter suppression beyond just a racial issue—it is race, but it’s also connected to class. Every politician that benefits from racialized voter suppression, and racialized redistricting is also anti-living wages, anti-union rights, anti-health care, anti-LGBTQ, anti more money for public education. We have to start connecting these dots so that the fight, for instance, against voter suppression in the South and across the country, is not just a Black folks fight. Is the fight for the democracy, is the fight for a progressive agenda, because you have to have people in place in office to change the law. Now, now that you have a Democratic House and Senate, we must, these bills must be passed. They should have been passed years ago when Democrats had bigger majorities. But certainly now. And lastly, that is also why we have to connect the filibuster to economic justice, because the way in which the filibuster is used, and certainly the way it’s being used by Joe Manchin now, we can’t talk about is he’s just against the filibuster. No. If you support the filibuster—which is not a constitutional regulation—if you support the filibuster, we have to call them out. You are anti-voting rights. If you support the filibuster, you are anti-union rights. Because the filibuster down through the years has not just, it was not just used to try to block anti-slavery laws and civil rights laws. The filibuster was used to block women’s suffrage. It was used to block labor rights. It was used to block filing for unemployment. It was used to block the Consumer Protection Agency. You know, it’s bigger than just the race piece. So we have to have these simultaneous conversations and show how they connect. So, yes, the Democrats now should push forward. It needs to happen. And workers need to be given a level playing field. That’s all. A level playing field in these battles.
Brian Beutler, narrating: Coming up, what Reverend Barber thought of President Biden’s show support for the Bessemer workers. And I’ll ask him: should Democrats compromise on the filibuster, repealing it only for civil rights bills? When we return.
Brian Beutler, narrating: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is civil rights icon Reverend Dr. William Barber, who’s helping lead the fight for civil and economic justice as co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Brian Beutler: And one thing that there was consensus among everyone I asked who covers labor rights closely, who works in union organizing, was that they were surprised and impressed that Biden issued a statement at all with respect to the Bessemer fight. What do you view as a pro-union president’s proper role in a situation like this? And is there more that Biden could have done without sort of stepping out of the bounds of what’s appropriate for president to do?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: I don’t know about more per se. I would say I wasn’t as surprised because in September of last year, we had a gathering, mobilizing, organizing and registering, educating people for the movement who vote, that was coordinated by the Poor People’s Campaign and our 41 coordinating committees across the country and our labor partners and other partners. And some 14 million people showed up on that call, and the president came on. We invited Trump. The then vice president came on, former vice president, and President Biden came on, he said addressing poverty would not merely be an aspiration, but a theory of change. And we said: ooh. Because if you, if addressing poverty and low wealth as a theory of change, then you have to be pro, you have to be pro-labor rights. I mean, you have to be pro-living wages. And not only did he speak out on the Bessemer things specifically—which is what a president should do, exactly that, speak out very clearly and say what ought to happen—when he was running, he said, we need a living wage and union rights. He said 15 member union. And he made that a centerpiece of his electoral strategy, not a place on the margin. That’s what we need. We have to make sure that these issues of dealing with systemic poverty, dealing with low wage and low wealth, dealing with systemic racism: are centerpieces. Not side issues, but centerpieces. Both during an election process, and in the process of governing. For the president, before he even finishes his first 100 days, to stand side by side with a fight like the fight in Bessemer is exactly the right thing that needs to be done, because you use the bully pulpit to say clearly and forthrightly: I stand with workers, and I stand with their right to organize.
Brian Beutler: You’re an avowed opponent of the filibuster. One idea Democrats have kicked around as they’ve sort of worked through among themselves what to do about the filibuster, is to create a carve-out that would make civil rights and voting rights legislation exempt. Is that a concession you could accept, given the likelihood that it would omit things like the PRO act that aren’t civil rights bills on at least on their face?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: Well, I keep trying to figure out why are we trying to carve out which was never put in in the first place? It wasn’t put in the Constitution. So we, all the politicians, they swear to uphold the Constitution. They don’t swear to hold good old boy network backroom deals that were cut. Way long, a long wait a long time ago. And it’s not that I’m an avowed opponent. Alexander Hamilton was an avowed opponent. You know, he said Alexander Hamilton and I paraphrase, said that the filibuster would actually empower a minority in the Congress to basically dictate to the Congress. That’s not democracy: a minority in the Senate being able to block legislation that would lift minorities in the country. That’s not fair, that’s not justice. The filibuster is contrary to the basic constitutional principle of establishing justice, and one person, one vote—this is contrary to that. But it’s also contrary to our deepest religious values. There’s a scripture that Jews, Muslims and Christians all honor, it’s Isaiah Chapter 10, and it literally says this: woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights. One translation of the word filibuster is to loot. It’s to rob. Another translation of the word filibuster, its epistemological root is “to talk to death.” And I could even go into some of the New Testament scripture. But for me, the filibuster—just like voter suppression, just like denial of living wages—are fundamental moral issues that we should be challenging from a moral perspective. And by moral. I just don’t mean feel good. I mean, for us, a budget is a moral document because that money tells you, where your money is, that’s where your heart is. The filibuster is a moral action, because if you in a democracy say: I’m not even going to let you talk about this issue—that is fundamentally immoral in a democracy. We going to fix it so you can’t even have a conversation. At least it used to be that you had the debate on the floor. But that, was that was bad too. But today, they don’t even have to do that. You get a few people that just say: we’re not even going to have the conversation. In a democracy! That should be, that’s why we shouldn’t talk about the filibuster as just being a piece, a rule that has been used to block civil rights. It’s been a rule used to try to block every progressive piece of legislation since the founding of this country. And what amazes me is we always want to give concessions to that that’s wrong from the root. It’s wrong fundamentally. So here’s what we say. We’re saying here’s a rule, that’s the filibuster rule, that was put in place when the Senate was all white men. When the Senate was full of white men who were also pro-slavery or slavery sympathizers. Here’s a rule that has no place, that’s nowhere in the constitution, was never intended by the founders. Right? Here’s a rule that was used to block every piece of anti-slavery legislation. Here’s a rule that was used to block women’s suffrage for over two years. Here’s a rule that’s been used to block labor rights. Here’s a rule that was used to block an anti-lynching law in the 1930s. The filibuster was used to block 18-year olds from getting the right to vote. Where has the filibuster ever been a tool of democracy? So why would you want to carve out, when you’ve actually put something in that should never be worked around in the first place. End the filibuster. I don’t like it when people do wrong things and then we make concessions with wrong. Let’s go to the Constitution, do what the Constitution intended. I even hear some Democrats say sometimes: well, we want to keep it just in case we are not in power. Well, if you would end it, and vote and pass the things that 70, 80% of the country agrees with, the kinds of bills that impact people’s lives, their pocketbooks, their health care, their voting rights, their immigrant rights—you wouldn’t have to worry about being in power because you would stimulate the vote. Right now in this country, poor and low-wealth people are a third of the electorate, 30% of the electorate, 65 million people. 35 million voted in this past election, 29 million voted in the 2016 election. We’ve had six million more vote in this election. We did a study, and the study with Columbia University, we asked poor and low-wealth people: what is the number one reason you don’t vote? It wasn’t voter suppression. It was: nobody talks about our issues and when people get elected, they do not focus on policies that would lift poor and low-wealth people. What if you gave the filibuster and truly impact people’s lives with public policy? What’s the whole, that’s, there is some million votes that you could tap. You could expand the electorate. So I could selfishly say: OK, let’s just do the civil rights piece, but not do the economic pieces. But the civil rights movement did never, never bifurcated justice like that. Economic rights is civil rights! It’s all connected. It’s all connected. So I’m not willing to say—and nobody should say—let’s concede. What we should say is: let’s end. And if if you can’t end this year, you say a Joe Manchin can’t end of this year, then maybe in the 2022 we need to make sure we win some more seats and we primary some of the people that are blocking it, so that you can get the 51 votes to do what needs to be done. And when you get it, and here’s the here’s the mistake Democrats made—years ago when they had both of the Senate and the House of Representatives and they had the margins, some of the stuff that should have been passed wasn’t passed then. So what I’m saying to them: don’t make that mistake again, you get the power, use the power.
Brian Beutler: This debate over the filibuster has mostly centered around the issue of voting rights and democracy reform, rather than labor rights, per se. And I think there’s a few reasons for that but the obvious one, which Reverend Warnock and others have observed, is it’s the tool of the political minorities are using to make it harder for ethnic and racial minorities to exercise the right to vote in political elections. And so the filibuster is kind of central to this question, right, of whether we’re going to have a multiethnic, multiracial democracy or not. To what extent do you see things like the Bessemer fight and labor unions as part of that same story, that this is all just one big fight?
Rev. Dr. William Barber: We don’t often make that connection. And it’s a dangerous thing not to make it, because if you make the suppression of voting rights as just targeted at Black people, and the extremists and the so-called far—the right, I don’t like that term—but for Republicans, they want us to only argue that part. Now, legally, under the law, we know that that’s a legal category, the race piece. Right? You take it in the court. You prove that it’s systemic racism that fundamentally violates the Voting Rights Act, and it fundamentally violates the 14th Amendment equal protection under the law. But the 15th Amendment says you cannot deny or abridge. What we have to understand is why the voter suppression, it’s not just to keep Black people from voting, it’s targeted at Black people, to keep Black, white, brown, Asian, Native, fusion coalitions from coming together. It’s a tool designed to win political power so you can control economic power. Right? Which is why you can’t ever separate the two. That’s one of the geniuses of Dr. King, not in 1968, but in 1965, at the end of the summer, the Montgomery March: he connected the fight for voting rights and the fight for economic rights and economic justice as tied at the hip. Right? Why is it that the same, some of the same voter suppression laws are being put in place in West Virginia—where there are hardly any Black people—that are happening in Georgia? Why is it in Arizona the same way it is in North Carolina? Why is it now over 300 bills in over of, what, 40 states? Well, it’s because of the fear of fusion coalition, the demographic shifts where Black and brown and white people can make a difference. And I’ll tell you something else, it’s the fear of poor and low-wealth people. This past election, 55% of poor and low-wealth people voted for Biden Harris. If we begin to frame that and function in that, that fundamentally transforms the electorate. So what happens is the extremists want us to only talk about voter suppression as a, quote, unquote “attack on Black people.” It is an attack on Black people! But it’s an attack fundamentally on the democracy. And you have to look at why all of these laws are being passed. The fear is that the Republicans have not won a majority of the vote in a presidential election in, what, 20 some years? A real serious majority. And the goal is to block fusion organizing and voting coalitions that will lead to economic power. We got to make sure we make the connection.
Brian Beutler: And that’s why this is, the filibuster fight and the fight over whether we’re a multiethnic democracy or not, and the Bessemer fight: they’re not distinct. They’re one fight.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: And the extremists don’t think like that. And look at Ted Cruz and Trump: Trump can talk about his momma. Now I come from a tradition, you talk about my mama, I’ll never go to work with you on anything. And you talk about my wife? No. They can talk about each other’s mama, but they are cynical enough to come together. You know, they will come together to fight against voting rights. They’ll come together to fight against the living wage and union rights. They’ll come together and fight against health care. Because who are they trying to please? They’re trying to please the ruling elites and the corporate allies that can only get what they want if people fundamentally don’t participate. What I say, and what we say in our movement: if they are cynical enough to be together, we must be smart enough to come together. We must lift from the bottom, because the great fear of the extremists today is that poor and low-wealth people will finally find themselves a way to come together and vote together.
Brian Beutler: Reverend Dr. William Barber, I really appreciate all the time you spent with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Rev. Dr. William Barber: Thank you so much. God bless you.
Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions. Our email address is Rubicon@Crooked.com. Listener Gwynne writes: What’s the point in passing a voting rights law that will be held up and then trashed by right-wing Supreme Court—that’s why I keep asking folks about a clause in the Constitution that allows Congress to declare that a law will not be subject to judicial review. Gwynne is referring to Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says Congress can regulate and make exceptions to the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. The problem: judicial review is a power the Supreme Court already claims, and it includes the power to throw out any language Congress passes to prevent the courts from exercising judicial review. The Supreme Court would likely hold an attempt to strip it of jurisdiction over the For the People Act or the John Lewis Act, to be unconstitutional in and of itself, a violation of separation of powers and a usurpation of judicial authority. As we discussed last week, the only way to guarantee that a partisan Supreme Court won’t gut new voting rights laws is by reversing the GOP theft of the courts directly: add new seats to the court before the Roberts majority has a chance to throw out New Democracy reform laws. But here’s an optimistic view, given that Democrats don’t seem inclined to expand the court at the moment: imagine Democrats pass both bills and they both remain popular. The whole effort is widely understood as a response to Republican efforts to disenfranchise Democratic voters, particularly voters of color. Republican Supreme Court justices could strike down both laws anyhow, but they’d be doing it with the full knowledge that the decision would be widely and correctly interpreted as an illegitimate effort to help Republicans steal elections. Would they do it anyhow? They very well might. But here’s something worth remembering. The last time a reactionary Supreme Court so brazenly and repeatedly thwarted the will of big popular majorities, it wasn’t court packing that forced a change of course, it was the credible threat of court packing. Democrats might not want to add seats to the court right now, but they may be willing to warn that further efforts to gut voting rights could leave them no choice. President Biden has already impaneled a commission to make court reform recommendations. And if Republican judges seem inclined to rubber stamp a 21st century Jim Crow, nothings stopping Democrats from warning that it’s the last decision the Roberts court will ever make.
Brian Beutler: Rubicon has written and hosted by me: Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Olivia Martinez. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.