AFT members turned out for voting rights rallies in four cities over the Aug. 21-22 weekend as the Fighting for Our Vote coalition kicked off a long-term campaign against voter suppression. Speakers included AFT President Randi Weingarten in Cleveland and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram in Milwaukee.
In Cleveland’s Humphrey Park on Saturday, Weingarten spoke to a crowd that included members and leaders of the coalition organizations, as well as community supporters. She was also in Cleveland for a stop on the AFT’s Back-to-School for All tour.
“It is really important today that, as we celebrate going back to school, we are also fighting for the vote,” Weingarten said. “The right to vote is sacred for all of us.” This year alone, she noted, more than 400 bills that would restrict voting were introduced by state and local legislators across the country.
The coalition formed earlier this month with founding members that included the AFT, the NAACP, the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association. Those organizations and allies are mobilizing against the anti-democracy forces that are working to constrict voting rights—particularly in communities of color—by limiting voter access to the ballot and manipulating vote counting.
Weingarten told the Cleveland crowd that there are three things that bind them all together: education, voting and the labor movement.
“What gives regular people a shot? What is it that helps regular people thrive? It’s education,” Weingarten said. And voting is the way that schools and educators get the resources they need, she said. “That’s why we launched this coalition, and why we are out here fighting for that right to vote.”
“What else gives people a shot?” Weingarten asked the crowd. “That’s labor. What is the ticket out of poverty? What is the ticket to respect? A good union job.” These are the things that give regular folks a path to a better life, she said. “When we have education, and when we have voting, and when we have labor, that’s when people—real people—will thrive in America.”
Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski was also among the speakers, as were Ohio leaders from the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the Ohio Education Association.
On Sunday at the Fighting for Our Vote rally in Milwaukee, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Ingram spoke to the crowd at Canaan Missionary Baptist Church. Invoking the historic advances of the civil rights movement, he said the United States is a better place when all of its citizens can vote.
“Our children and our grandchildren deserve a better community, a better country,” Ingram said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
While nearly all the voter suppression legislation across the country has been proposed by Republicans, Ingram said voting rights are not a partisan issue. “If you’re a Democrat and you’re doing nothing about it, you’re just as bad as the Republicans.”
This campaign and the Fighting for Our Vote coalition are so important, Ingram said, because the right to vote is the foundation of American democracy. “The vote empowers you,” he said. “It makes you Superman. It makes you Superwoman. Because your vote counts.”
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes sounded a similar theme at the Milwaukee rally. “The one thing that gives us as much power as any billionaire, as any CEO, as any powerful person,” he said, “is our vote. We all get one.”
Others speaking in Milwaukee included AFT-Wisconsin President Kim Kohlhaas and Lisa Conley, president of AFT Local 212, the faculty union at the Milwaukee Area Technical College.
The Detroit rally on Saturday featured Detroit Federation of Teachers President Terrence Martin, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and NEA President Becky Pringle. The multiracial voting rights coalition is planning a long-term campaign between now and the 2022 midterm elections.
Speakers at all the Fighting for Our Vote rallies urged people to press their senators and representatives in Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act. That federal legislation is so important, Weingarten said in a statement before the weekend rallies, because “every voter has an unalienable right to have a voice in our democracy and a say in how we’re governed.
“Our voting rights must be protected,” she said. “Access to voting must be protected. Early voting must be guaranteed, and the safety and health of poll workers must be protected. Any effort to limit those rights should be seen as an existential threat to that very democracy.”
At Saturday’s rally in Washington, D.C., AFT-Maryland President Kenya Campbell said America needs those “21st century rights acts.”
“Our fight for democracy isn’t a partisan one,” she said. “It is one that’s based on what’s right.”
Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and other labor and civil rights activists spoke at the Washington rally in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill.
Newly elected AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told the crowd, “We’re facing a fundamental assault. Extremist lawmakers are trying to take our voting rights away. Unions and voting rights put power behind our voices.”
AFSCME President Lee Saunders declared, “We can’t have strong workers’ rights in the country without strong voting rights. Our enemies know they can’t rig the economy unless they also rig the political system.”
Saunders said the Fighting for Our Vote coalition came together because the crisis is urgent. “We are at a crossroads,” he said. “Now is the moment—right now—to preserve and expand this most precious fundamental right of American citizenship.”
He urged union members to get involved. “Politics is a contact sport,” he said. “And all of us collectively have got to make contact. We’ve got to make our voices heard.”