Union leader, pastor say stakes are high for people of color in Missouri this election | St. Louis Public Radio

Union leader, pastor say stakes are high for people of color in Missouri this election

Oct 15, 2016

The national labor organization AFL-CIO is trying to take a more active role in issues affecting people of color, and has its eye on Missouri in particular this election.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre is in St. Louis this weekend for the fifth time in a year to talk about race, politics and the photo voter ID amendment on Missouri’s November ballot.

“In our 2013 convention where I was first elected to my office, part of our big theme was to have a lasting, transformational relationship with community organizations and to specifically highlight issues like mass incarceration and immigration as permanent labor issues, not side issues,” said Gebre, who was born in Ethiopia.

“The labor movement has always worked hand in hand (with civil rights),” Gebre said, noting that union leaders helped organize the 1963 march for racial economic justice where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“But we think we can do a lot better. We think we can make this relationship a transformational instead of transactional relationship where we write checks and they support us in our picket lines,” Gebre said.

During a rally Saturday against the photo voter ID amendment, Gebre told the room full of people gathered to canvas St. Louis neighborhoods that he may look different than the labor leaders people are used to.

Canvassers, including Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis (left) and Montague Simmons (right), applaud AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre. Simmons is the former chair of the Organization for Black Struggle and now works for the AFL-CIO.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“I’m what Donald Trump supporters consider to be a quadruple threat,” Gebre said. “I happen to be an immigrant. I’m a refugee. I’m a black man. And I happen to be a labor leader. I hope in this room I represent the beauty of our country, but in other parts of the country you hear the rhetoric that people like me are supposed to be the problem.”

Gebre told the canvassers that Amendment 6, which allows a photo voter ID mandate to become law, would shrink democracy.

“Raise your hand if you know people who are eager to vote three or four times,” Gebre told the group.  “I wish they’d vote once.”

The canvassers are part of a “No on 6” coalition of organizations that have banded together against the amendment, including the AFL-CIO, the AARP and Missouri Faith Voices.

If approved in November, Amendment 6 would allow HB 1631 to become law, and require a current government-issued photo ID to vote. Backers say the requirement is needed to guard against voter fraud.

The Republican-led General Assembly overrode Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of HB 1631 in September. Nixon is a Democrat.

Rev. Cassandra Gould of Missouri Faith Voices speaks to canvassers about Amendment 6.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“As a person of color who was born in the '60s, I know what voter suppression means,” said Rev. Cassandra Gould, the director of Missouri Faith Voices. “This is an attempt to suppress voters, and so we’re making sure this does not happen in Missouri. It’s wrong.”

Opponents of photo ID requirements argue they often disproportionately affect people of color, the poor and the elderly. A recent study published by the University of California, San Diego supports that argument.

Gould said Missouri’s law would also hurt students who attend schools in the state, but originally came from out of state.

“My church registers a lot of students to vote, (and if the amendment passes) then their Iowa ID, or their student ID that have been valid for years won’t be useful,” said Gould, a pastor at Quinn Chapel AME in Jefferson City.

For Gould, Amendment 6 plus the presidential election makes it doubly important for people of color to vote in November.

“What’s at stake is not just our ability to help decide who a president will be, but our ability to decide what happens to us after a presidential election — our ability to decide who’s in our statehouse and who’s in our city halls and who runs our police force,” Gould said.

AARP Missouri Advocacy Director Jay Hardenbrook said Amendment 6 also has the potential to impact a lot of AARP members. The organization's members are primarily older Americans.

“Many of our members definitely could find themselves in the horrible position of (deciding whether to) commit perjury or give up the right to vote,” Hardenbrook said, pointing to a provision in HB 1631 that allows someone to vote without a government-issued ID if they swear under threat of perjury that they don’t have the right form of identification and are unable to get it because of a disability or religious belief.

"If you’re one of our older members and you no longer drive, you often will find yourself either not knowing where your driver’s license is on Election Day, or having an expired driver’s license on Election Day and not be able to go and cast your ballot,” Hardenbrook said.

Another provision in HB 1631 authorizes the state to pay for the documentation people need to get a free government-issued photo IDs. But No on 6 Coalition members believe barriers such as name changes and difficulties locating original birth certificates will create barriers and discourage people from voting.

Black and Engaged training

The AFL-CIO’s Gebre also stopped Saturday by Black and Engaged’s political training at the T-REX building in downtown St. Louis.

The civic engagement organization focuses on giving political tools to black millennials, and Gebre said he wants to focus on listening to what participants have to say.

“What I’m going to tell them is their destiny is in their own hands. Yes, we march, but at the end of the day we have to be prepared to lead,” Gebre said. “Not too many years from now, in our lifetime, people of color will be the majority. The thing is, are we prepared to lead when we have that majority, and what responsible way will we exercise our majority status as people of color in this country?”

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.