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Working In These Times

Friday, Nov 22, 2013, 10:38 am

The Union President Who’s Helping Put Filibuster Reform in Motion

BY Mike Elk

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Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, pictured here at an October march for immigrant rights, has been fighting for filibuster reform for four years. (CWA)  

Since 2009, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen has been pushing to eliminate the filibuster in Congress. Earlier this year, Cohen’s union, CWA, worked with the Sierra Club, NAACP and Greenpeace to convene the “Democracy Initiative,” a progressive coalition that, among other objectives, has called on the government to eliminate the filibuster, protect voting rights and get money out of politics. Yesterday afternoon, their hard work came to some fruition—the U.S. Senate voted 52-48 on a measure that would effectively ban the use of the filibuster to block nominees from being confirmed. Previously, a three-fifths majority vote was required to lift or avoid a filibuster; now, only a simple majority is necessary to do so.

In between fielding phone calls from senators yesterday afternoon, Cohen gave In These Times his first reactions to the victory that he had fought for nearly four years to achieve.

Cohen said that one frequently overlooked story of filibuster reform has been the grassroots activity among the organizations involved in the Democracy Initiative, which claims it represents more than 20 million members.

“Two million members have weighed in and contacted their elected officials [about this issue] since June. In the last week, 200,000 people have weighed on in this,” said Cohen. “Some of them are just active members on this organization, but some of the people ... have known these senators for years.”

Though Cohen is an organized labor leader, he noted that the filibuster can stymie a wide variety of progressive legislation—which is why, he said, the Democracy Initiative, with its diverse background of activists, has been so effective.

“There are key environmental nominations being held up,” he pointed out. “Mel Watt was being blocked from heading the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and that's critical both to helping people on their mortgages and to our broader coalition on economic justice. The [National Labor Relations Board] was being blocked. We all needed this reform,” said Cohen.

Though Thursday's vote was certainly a great leap forward, Cohen said, progressives shouldn’t get complacent. He, along with the rest of the Democracy Initiative, intends to continue the fight to expand filibuster reform even further.

“[Filibustering senators] should have to talk [for 11 hours] like Wendy Davis at the minimum," he said. Explaining that in the Senate, the GOP can currently deny filibuster cloture without all of the senators being present, he continued, "If you want to block something because you want to support a minority vote, you better show up [for a cloture vote].” 

Cohen knows that further changing the rules of the Senate and getting the money out of politics will be an uphill battle. But he's still optimistic. “It’s not hopeless,” he said. “It’s hard, but it’s what we signed up for, and we have to do it.” 

Full disclosure: The Communications Workers of America is a website sponsor of In These Times.


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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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