Recently, we lost two heroes of the civil rights movement. Amelia Boynton Robinson championed voting rights for all, and Julian Bond recognized and helped build the unique partnership between the civil rights movement and the labor movement, a connection that is only growing stronger. 

The victims of institutional racism in this country, whether in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Baltimore, Maryland; or Waller County, Texas, are always low-income and working-class people of color, and the labor movement has an obligation to speak out for them. We must end structural racism and its ugly consequences to achieve social justice in our country.

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Today, just as 50 years ago, we must build a movement to secure our freedom. This begins with a freedom from want: a decent standard of living, a union job, and the ability for our children to do better than we did, as well as our democratic freedoms, especially our right to vote and our right to have a truly participatory democracy by and for the people.  

As the new president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), our entire union and I are committed to standing with the civil rights community behind a new Voting Rights Act. In 1965, the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act was a joint effort of civil rights groups and labor.  This coalition and the deep bond that ties our struggles together is needed more than ever with the continued attack on voting rights across the country.  

We are steadfast in our efforts to get Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act that would help correct the hole left in the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision. On September 16, CWA will join with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, and many others in a massive lobby day for a new Voting Rights Act.  It is an outrage that the Republican House majority has refused to permit hearings on the impact of voter suppression. 

Progress at the federal level appears to be blocked, but we can move forward in the states.  CWA, along with Democracy Initiative allies, will lead an effort to promote and pass a positive, pro-voter agenda that gives everyone a voice in our democracy.  We want to turn around the voting debate, from false worries on fraud to the right to vote and duty of government to make this right of citizenship readily available.  We will argue and fight for a truly fair voting system through measures such as voter registration modernization and expanded early voting to give working people more opportunities to vote. 

In our vision of a fair and just voting system, those who have lost the right to vote because of a criminal conviction would be eligible to again vote when that person was discharged from incarceration. This re-enfranchisement would restore the right to vote to millions of working class voters.           

We must also get big money out of our political system. The Koch Brothers and their allies are literally killing our democracy, drowning it in an ocean of mega contributions. The Citizens United decision and other Supreme Court rulings have been a cruel joke. The idea that corporations are people and that money equals free speech is just pure nonsense.  Our voices will never be heard until we stop the flood of corporate cash from buying our elected leaders.    

Every social justice organization has a specific agenda which is core to its founding. But none of us will achieve our top priority if we don’t restore the right to vote for all Americans and stop letting the one percent pollute our politics with corporate cash. Our demand: big money out, voters in. Each of us must engage in these fights.  

We must do this together: labor, civil rights groups, and all of us who believe in this great American democratic ideal.  We need to come together and fight like hell to create a society and a community where every American has an equal voice and an equal chance. If we stay on the course that the one percent has charted, we risk losing our democracy completely.

Shelton is president of the Communications Workers of America. CWA represents 700,000 workers in telecommunications, media, airlines, public service and manufacturing.