Over the past few years, a small but highly-visible band of Republicans have publicly declared their intention to transform the GOP into a “worker’s party.” Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) have all embraced versions of this vision, part of a high-brow attempt to divorce the party from its sole adherence to pro-business conservatism.
On election night 2020, Hawley — who was elected to the Senate in 2018 after running a relatively conventional Republican campaign—declared that the GOP was “a working class party now. That’s the future.” Cruz and Cotton have since echoed Hawley’s populist rhetoric, the former blasting Democrats as “the party of the rich” while claiming for Republicans the mantle of “the party of the working class.”
There has been some movement on the legislative side, too. Early last year, Cotton and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour. Hawley’s personal crusade against Big Tech — which attracted bipartisan support before he refused to certify the 2020 presidential election and supported the insurrectionist crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — is, on its face, anti-monopolistic.
But in reality, a few policy gestures aside, their rhetoric hasn’t lived up to the hype. In recent weeks, as American workers have won a string of significant victories — organizing Starbucks coffee shops across the country and unionizing an Amazon warehouse for the first time in the company’s history — this group of supposedly “pro-worker” Republicans have been handed a prime opportunity to speak out in support of these organizing efforts. Instead, they’ve been silent.
This reticence is particularly notable from Rubio, who already supported one Amazon union drive. Last year, when workers and organizers in Bessemer, Alabama, tried unsuccessfully to form a union at a local facility, Rubio penned an op-ed in USA Today effectively endorsing the efforts, writing that Amazon’s corporate behavior was “uniquely malicious” — a notable stand for someone who once warned that unions threatened to “destroy industries their workers are in.” But when it comes to the successful campaign at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in New York, Rubio has kept mum.
Amazon, a regular target for these senators, hasn’t attracted any criticism from the likes of Hawley or Rubio for its anti-worker practices during the JFK8 union drive. Starbucks, another easy target given that its CEO Howard Schultz was once floated as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, has also escaped scrutiny for its vicious union-busting campaign. Beyond a few culture war salvos, these Republicans have had nothing to say about workers taking on corporate power, as their voting record confirms.
Cruz, Cotton and Rubio all voted for the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a deeply regressive piece of legislation that slashed taxes for the richest Americans, left lower and middle class taxes relatively untouched, and cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent — its lowest level since the 1930s. Rubio made his support contingent on expanding the Child Tax Credit, which provides a rebate to families with children, but even those benefits accrued mostly to families making more than $400,000. When it comes to protecting union rights, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding unemployment insurance, and providing more comprehensive pandemic relief, the faux-worker wing of the GOP has consistently voted against the interests of working people.
The conservative case against organized labor
Among the modern Republican Party, labor unions are particularly despised.
Rubio introduced the Teamwork for Employees and Managers (TEAM) Act in February with Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), pitching the legislation as a mechanism for workers to avoid national unions. The bill creates “a pro-worker alternative to unions, which are notoriously left-wing and almost always pit workers against management, only worsening the workplace environment,” Rubio said. These “union alternatives,” hold no legal force and cannot engage in collective bargaining, unlike an actual union.
Ex-Mitt Romney policy wonk Oren Cass — founder of the conservative think tank American Compass and the man most responsible for articulating the “pro-labor” conservatism underpinning the TEAM Act — has spent years offering an intellectual defense of this specious embrace of worker power.
According to Cass, federations like the AFL-CIO and major unions like the American Federation of Teachers aren’t authentic representatives of the American working class because they’re intolerably left-wing. Under this view, they’re seen as ‘Big Labor’ — a bureaucratic, socially progressive behemoth locked in a parasitical relationship with the Democratic Party.
Cass often argues that the American labor movement has struggled to reverse the declines in unionization because modern unions are too politically active, not because the law has been failing labor for decades — leaving corporations free to launch brutal union-busting campaigns, such as the one currently being waged against Starbucks workers — or because politicians from both parties stood by as businesses sent millions of jobs overseas, structurally disadvantaging American workers.
But this analysis is especially incoherent when applied to both Amazon and Starbucks workers’ recent union victories, which have been propelled not by professional labor organizers but by workers themselves. Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who led the first successful union campaign at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse, previously criticized the professional labor organizers who led the failed union campaign at the Bessemer facility.
In an interview with the New York Times, Smalls and Palmer detailed their trip to Bessemer at the beginning of 2021 to support the unionizing Amazon workers. When they got to Alabama, they said, they found the professional organizers’ approach lacking. “They barely wanted us to talk to workers,” Smalls, ALU’s president, said.
“We were at the Circle K gas station talking to workers at the Alabama facility,” Palmer said, “and we noticed that some of them didn’t even know about the election coming up. If this union is so strong, then how come you have workers who don’t even know what’s going on?”
That experience led the two to form a union independent of bigger national unions.
“How the hell [are] we going to listen to expertise when this has never been done before? In reality, we the experts. We the ones who invested into this company, we know the ins and outs of the company. And that’s exactly how this campaign — our campaign — played out,” Smalls said.
Over 20 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United (SWU), an independent SEIU affiliate. Like the Amazon effort, SWU’s success is driven by grassroots organizing at local stores, as opposed to a top-down, professionalized approach.
These recent victories have been something of a return to form for the American labor movement, which, before the pandemic, was experiencing successes not seen in a generation. The years 2018 and 2019 were the most active back-to-back years for labor activity since the early 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, however, halted growing labor militancy. In 2020, the United States saw the sharpest drop in the number of workers striking since 1947, when the BLS began collecting that data.
The benefits that unions provide to their members are well documented. A study from 2021 found that, since the Great Recession, unionized workers have reported higher job satisfaction than non-unionized workers — a reversal from previous research which found the opposite.
Another study in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that union membership has been consistently correlated with higher wages since 1936. Some research has even found that union membership reduces drug overdoses, food insecurity and overall mortality.
Despite these clear benefits for workers, so-called “pro-worker” Republicans aren’t coming anywhere close to declaring their support for this year’s union activism.
A number of Democrats, meanwhile, have supported the twin union drives. More Perfect Union reports that 63 congressional Democrats, including House and Senate leadership, as well as President Joe Biden, have publicly endorsed the Amazon Labor Union’s victory. On April 6, President Joe Biden himself warned the company, “Amazon, here we come.” Starbucks workers have received about half as much support, with 35 members of Congress voicing their approval.
The political promise of a working-class message
Rhetorical support for organized labor, however, only goes so far. And, as Democrats face an incredibly challenging political environment ahead of the 2022 midterms, they could gain from further embracing American labor.
Stanley Greenberg, a political scientist and longtime pollster, argues that the party can blunt much of the damage if it embraces a more explicitly pro-working class politics. This would also counter the GOP’s attempt to rebrand itself as a working class party. His polling finds that a populist economic message highlighting Democratic legislative successes, such as the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, as well as bills the party still aims to pass, such as the pro-labor Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the omnibus Build Back Better (BBB) plan, more than doubles the party’s margin in battleground districts and states.
“We have found that voters are continually surprised when they learn that Democrats are in favor of big change,” Greenberg told In These Times. He added, “What is the risk here?”
Professor Ken Jacobs, chair of the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, suggested a few ways Biden and congressional Democrats could put action behind a robust working class message.
“They need to get a reconciliation bill passed that both taxes those at the top end and provides necessary support to working families,” he told In These Times. “Democrats have to show that they can govern.” In that reconciliation bill, Democrats could require corporations that violate labor laws to pay financial penalties under the National Labor Relations Act, “putting some real teeth” in the law, Jacobs says. The BBB framework includes such penalties, though it is currently stalled in Congress due to opposition to the bill from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.).
President Biden could also use his office more effectively. “To be out there, out front, using the bully pulpit to support the workers’ struggles that are ongoing right now — that sends the right signals,” Jacobs said. But without passing more pieces of the president’s agenda, “through the narrowest of margins,” it will be hard to stem the party’s midterms losses, Jacobs added.
The problem is in large part structural: Many Democrats have been “much more interested in the needs of upper middle class professionals, and the very wealthy in the tech industry, than in the needs of working people,” says Jacobs. That wing of the party, exemplified by Sens. Manchin and Kristen Sinema (D-Ariz.), is “able to stop [Biden] from carrying out the kind of actions that would win high levels of popular support.”
If the moderate wing can be brought along, and if Biden can exercise decisive leadership, Democrats have the opportunity to benefit both their own political fortunes and U.S. workers by speaking to broad economic discontent and by embracing class politics.
But if they don’t, the party runs the risk of allowing Republicans to seize on this discontent by falsely claiming to support the working class — when in fact the GOP has nothing to offer workers but more rhetorical gamesmanship.
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Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York.