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

Mike Elk

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.

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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