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Is the Conservative Case for Organized Labor an Oxymoron?

An interview with Oren Cass about the ideas behind his “Conservative Future for the American Labor Movement.”

Hamilton Nolan

Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

Oren Cass — conservative policy wonk, 2012 Mitt Romney advisor and executive director of the new think tank American Compass (which does not disclose its donors) — is a surprising candidate for labor law reformer. That is exactly why his recently launched project to build and define a Conservative Future for the American Labor Movement” is drawing so much attention. 

In a founding statement titled Conservatives Should Ensure Workers a Seat at the Table,” the group argues that organized labor can improve economic prosperity and strengthen communities, all while maintaining limited government. The statement is signed by Cass, Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions and other figures on the right. As you might imagine, the devil of this labor reform project is in the details. 

We spoke to Cass about sectoral bargaining, labor militancy, and the political realities of convincing Republicans that unions deserve to exist. 

What made you decide that now was the time to launch this effort to save organized labor? 

Oren Cass: It fits generally with the broader focus of American Compass, which is to ask, What has gone wrong in our economy which is leading to poor outcomes for many people? And what would a genuinely conservative response look like?” My view is, what we call conservative economic policy in America is not conservative in any meaningful sense of the word, it’s libertarian. It’s a function of the Reagan coalition in which economic libertarians did the economic policy, and social conservatives did the social policy. But if you think about the market fundamentalism that dominates right of center thinking, it’s in many ways the antithesis of conservatism. It puts fairly blind faith in a market, without any reference to the rules around the market, institutions supporting the market, without concern for social structures or the social fabric. We’ve really been missing a genuinely conservative perspective that asks, How do we ensure that the market is one that is actually delivering the outcomes that we want for healthy families, and communities, and the strength and solidarity of the nation?” 

One of the places that strikes me as a huge opportunity that has been overlooked, if not outright denigrated, by the libertarian perspective is this idea that, look, organized labor is a great thing — that unions as they are operating in America today are dysfunctional in many ways, but the idea that we should want workers to be able to act collectively… is all to the good. That’s exactly the formula for a well functioning market economy. 

How do you distinguish what you call the conservative perspective on this issue from the liberal (non-socialist) perspective? 

Cass: If we talk about traditional liberals, I think in many ways there’s a lot of shared ground with respect to the outcomes we want. The major point of departure is on two questions: One, how good are markets at doing things relative to how good is government at doing them? My view at least is that markets are quite effective and powerful, and the role that we want for government is in figuring out what kind of conditions we need to create to channel that power in the right direction. Whereas the left of center view, I think, tends to be more, if we’re not happy with what a market’s doing, we will just tell it something else. Secondly and relatedly, I think there is a very different view of the role that redistribution can play. I think the liberal view tends to be, we can provide to whoever has been left behind, whereas the conservative view is that that’s actually not a good answer — that a government check is not a substitute for a paycheck. 

You were a Mitt Romney advisor in 2012. Have your views on these issues changed a lot since then? This doesn’t sound like the Romney labor platform.

Cass: I don’t think my views have necessarily changed very much. If we were to talk about specific questions like sectoral bargaining, [that] is something I’ve become much more interested in over the past year or two, after writing in my book that that was exactly the wrong way to do labor reform … But in terms of the bigger picture question of what should the goals of economic policy be and what should the levers be, I would say my instincts have always been in this direction, and as I’ve had the opportunity to do more research and work on it I’ve been able to flesh out more of the rationale for that, and what it might mean to give it shape in the real world.

Oren Cass, right, with Mitt Romney Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

You talk in your statement about substituting collective bargaining for employment regulations, rather than having both as we do now. How do you take away those workplace regulations without exposing working people to perilous danger in the process? 

Cass: I don’t think you take them away, I think you shift them from a baseline to a default. The way the system we have today works is that everything established in employment law is a non-negotiable starting point, and if you unionize or are otherwise bargaining with employers, the entire purpose of the exercise is to think of new things to add on top of that. But of course, the whole rationale for needing such a robust régime of employment regulation is that individual workers without collective representation don’t have the ability to safeguard their interests very effectively. So at the point where you do have workers organized and bargaining collectively, it seems to me they can just say, we’re adopting as much of the employment regulation as we want. They don’t have to agree to anything. When you think about the scope for bargaining an agreement that you could consider — having most, not all, of existing regulation on the table I think is a really attractive arrangement. I think it’s attractive for workers, because there’s no shortage of regulation that they don’t value that highly …

And likewise from the employer perspective, this changes the prospect of collective bargaining from the worst thing imaginable” to something that could actually have some upside. 

It seems to me that that arrangement would by necessity require workers to have a balance of power with employers they’re bargaining with. Do you support a robust right to strike as part of that? 

Cass: I do think there should be a right to strike, but I think if you shift to a sectoral bargaining concept then that becomes a very different question. Because this adversarial bargaining isn’t going to be happening between the workers and employers at a single firm, it’s going to be happening at the sectoral level. Do you get sector-wide strikes in sectoral bargaining? Yes, it does happen, but I think you tend to see a lot less labor strife in that context. 

What is the workers’ leverage, even in sectoral bargaining, besides the right to withhold their labor? Particularly if you are suggesting that employment regulations should be on the table.

Cass: That is one form of leverage they have, but there are a bunch [of others] that I think are more closely connected to the role that you have government playing in a sectoral bargaining system. If the fallback if no agreement is reached is not employer does whatever it wants,” it’s essentially bargaining is imposed, that’s obviously one fallback… Another thing that tends to play a role is, particularly when you have a sectoral system, unions are actually doing other things that are constructive. For example, unions are typically playing a much more assertive role in training. There are more facets to that partnership that are also at risk if no agreement is reached. 

I know some labor leaders who would say that the fact that a person like you is advocating for sectoral bargaining is proof of the drawback of sectoral bargaining — that it is a way to sap militancy out of the labor movement. What do you say to that? 

Cass: I see that attitude as encapsulating perfectly how the Left has managed to totally sabotage the labor movement in recent decades, which is to try to use it as a tool of partisan or radical leftist priorities, rather than a tool that’s actually going to improve things for workers. If you think we’re really on the cusp of success for a militant labor movement in this country, then I don’t know where you’ve been, but that’s obviously not the direction where this is headed. To the contrary, the labor movement is slowly dying out of its own dysfunction internally, and its own poor design in the statutory framework it’s operating under. Now, my equal frustration is with those on the right of center who say huzzah,” and stand aside and shrug or grin as this happens. To come from the right of center and say, let’s not have this thing die out, let’s find a way to have a labor movement that works, and achieves valuable things for workers, is not a plot to defang a militancy that does not exist and has no prospect. That would be a waste of effort. 

When you talk about the labor movement being too partisan — what choice do they have? The platform of the Republican Party is to wipe them off the face of the earth. 

Cass: If you go back and look at the history, there’s plenty of blame to go around … Dwight Eisenhower went to the AFL to campaign for their votes in the 50s. Nixon feted labor leaders at the White House. The AFL-CIO did not endorse McGovern in 72. Samuel Gompers had political nonpartisanship as a core principle of organizing. If you fast forward to the 90s, when Newt Gingrich was Speaker, those more pro-labor representatives in the Republican Party were ultimately abandoned by the unions, and in turn abandoned the unions. So it seems to me that it’s sort of a piece of the broader story of polarization in our politics. I guess if you wanted to have a strategy of reclaiming a strong and militant labor movement under the Wagner Act you would be welcome to try, but I’m not aware of anyone other than those whose job it is to say that’s a good idea who thinks that’s a good or plausible idea. 

Let me ask you about the political reality of these issues. I don’t see any space in the Republican Party of today for what you’re advocating. Am I wrong about that? 

Cass: I think you’re wrong. That’s partly why we started with this statement, which I think showed an interesting range of representatives … What I found on the Hill in particular, with folks in the House and the Senate, is that the overwhelming response was, This is really interesting, but not something we’ve ever thought about enough.” There’s not a single person we talked to where the response was, No, I don’t agree.” 

We’re at the point where there are a lot of people interested in this discussion. I can’t promise you we’re going to succeed, but I think that a year from now we will have a much broader coalition that says, actually now I understand this, and this is something we should be pushing forward on. 

What do you think the legislative first step would be down this path? 

Cass: Probably to find some particular places where it would make sense to try something like this. One would be to pick a topic, like minimum wage, where I think all sides would be happier than the status quo by saying, minimum wage should really be set through more of a sectorally bargained or wage board type model. On a lot of these things the federal government can’t do more than set up a framework, but here is a model that states and localities and whoever else could work from. 

Another possibility is a particular sector. There obviously are a number of sectors that are excluded from the [National Labor Relations Act], partly for discriminatory and partly for practical reasons. You could start in either the agricultural or domestic service or gig sector and say hey, let’s actually implement this here. That’s an approach that could have promise. And a third one is to do it regionally and say, we’re going to offer waivers from the NLRA to some state that wants to come forward and try a different framework. 

What do you think will happen if no agreement like this for the future of labor is reached, and current trends continue? 

Cass: Unfortunately trends can continue for a very long time. Everything has breaking points eventually. I don’t think anyone can very effectively predict where any sort of meaningful breaking point would occur. So I think the best bet in the absence of reform is that, during the near to medium terms, things just sort of continue … to concentrate the gains towards a small number of winners, and then you have an awful lot of folks who don’t get to share in those gains, and who struggle in a lot of ways. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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