On September 14, the Senate introduced the Freedom to Vote Act, a bill that would do more to protect American democracy than any law since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The news flew under the radar in California, where citizens were busy voting in our recall election. In a sense, it was perfect timing. The recall, which saw incredibly high turnout driven by millions of ballots cast through our state’s universal vote-by-mail provision, made a strong case for precisely the kind of commonsense voting laws that we need to enact on a national level.
To see why, compare the ease of voting in California to the difficulty of doing so in neighboring Arizona, where Republicans are passing anti-voting laws at breakneck speed. And it’s hardly just Arizona. This past year, Republicans in dozens of states have rolled out hundreds of anti-voting laws that would make democracy a mirage for tens of millions of working Americans.
Our union represents some 32,000 of those working Americans across Southern California and Arizona. Our members are cooks and dishwashers, housekeepers and bartenders. Most are Latino. They are precisely the people who would be most affected by anti-voting measures, and they know it. That is why they’ve organized a nationwide campaign for voting rights to push for federal legislation that would protect their access to the ballot. Their efforts have helped to create the opening for the Freedom to Vote Act, and their experiences show us why this is an opportunity that our country cannot afford to miss.
When the pandemic hit last spring, 90 percent of our members lost their jobs out of nowhere. It is easy, with the vaccines, to forget the blind dread of those early months. In that moment of intense fear and uncertainty, we could have consolidated our past gains and rode out the storm. But we didn’t. Instead, our members set out to change the country. In Arizona, we knocked on 900,000 doors to help elect Joe Biden. Then we went to Georgia to help flip the Senate. At a moment when few others dared, the workers who clean your hotel room and serve you coffee at the airport donned masks and face shields, hit the scalding Phoenix pavement, and turned out the vote.
This was hardly the first time. For the past three decades, our members have campaigned for dozens of progressive, working-class candidates all across Los Angeles and Orange County. Some have even run for office. The results speak for themselves. Places like California and Arizona didn’t just turn blue because of “demographic shifts.” They changed because working people spent decades building durable political power in their communities. As we see it, a strong union does more than negotiate work contracts. It helps workers become active citizens who stand up for their democratic rights.
Our members who went door-to-door in Arizona and Georgia saw firsthand the impact that different voting laws can have on an election. To pick just one example: Over the past 20 years, Arizona has cultivated a strong culture of vote-by-mail. We spoke to many people who, between their long work hours and their daily precarities, depended on a mail-in ballot to be able to vote. In Georgia, where absentee ballots were much harder to request, working families who wanted desperately to vote often asked us for help getting to the polls. If we hadn’t knocked on their door, they wouldn’t have made it out. Countless others, no doubt, never did.
Since then, Republicans in both states have enacted harsh anti-voter legislation. Arizona got rid of its permanent early voter list, ensuring that far fewer voters will automatically receive an absentee ballot. Georgia dispensed with drop boxes, severely restricted mail-in voting, and much else besides. Take it from our members who were on the ground: These anti-voting laws will make an enormous difference in whether everyday Americans have a chance to exercise their most fundamental civic right.
It is worth mentioning that union members are voting rights experts for another reason, too. In the United States, workers trying to vote in a union election often face intense voter suppression campaigns by their employer. They are subjected to bogus claims about the dangers of voting by mail, efforts to stifle their votes along racial lines, and rules that prevent them from helping each other cast their ballots. Amazon’s attempt to restrict mail-in voting in the Bessemer, Ala., union election because of “fraud and coercion”—a clear echo of Republican lies about election fraud—is only a well-publicized example of standard anti-union tactics. Our “industrial democracy” is a microcosm of what our national democracy could become if anti-voting laws win out.
In short, union members—and our union members in particular—are uniquely equipped to speak on the importance of voting rights. That is why, earlier this year, we went back to knocking doors in Arizona, encouraging voters and small businesses to push Senator Sinema to stop propping up the filibuster. When she refused, we joined with civil rights groups for a Freedom Ride to Washington to bring our message directly to our representatives. When they hesitated, we protested outside the Senate office building—and were arrested for doing so. At every turn, we refused to take no for an answer.
Now, finally, we have some real movement. The Freedom to Vote Act would guarantee mail-in voting, encourage voter registration, and ensure that people have time to vote on Election Day. It has widespread support in the Senate, including from moderate Democrats. And President Biden has indicated that he will work with senators to carve out an exception to the filibuster in order to pass the bill.
We need everyone, from our fellow unions to progressive groups across the country, to join us for the final push. There will be other campaigns for other moments—important ones like immigration reform or the PRO Act—but right now the Freedom to Vote Act must be our most urgent priority. We know from experience that the dangers that it would counter are too present; the rights it would affirm, too dear to lose.