The Conservative Case for Organized Labor

Workers of red America, unite? Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past five years, many on the right have called for the GOP to become a “workers’ party.” Almost all of these proposals have been tales told by demagogues, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In 2016, Donald Trump often played the role of proletariat’s advocate. But once in the White House, the billionaire comported himself as a protector of plutocracy. The president has, among other things, showered shareholders in tax breaks, restored Wall Street’s God-given right to rip off its clients, and denied guaranteed overtime pay to 12.5 million workers, effectively transferring $1.2 billion from their paychecks to their bosses’ bank accounts.

Other purported proponents of working-class conservatism have proven similarly fraudulent. And while many socially conservative intellectuals will acknowledge the tension between Republican economic orthodoxy and their own communitarian ideals, the chasm between their stated ambition (to make it possible for working-class families to get by on a single breadwinner’s salary) and their proposed solutions (“Let them eat slightly more generous child tax credits”) casts doubt on their sincerity.

But Oren Cass is an exception. A former adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Cass and his newly founded think tank American Compass have spent the Trump era trying to develop an agenda for a genuinely pro-worker conservative party. At the heart of Cass’s vision is a call for providing collective-bargaining rights to virtually all U.S. workers. On Labor Day, American Compass released a more modest proposal: a resolution calling on conservatives to adopt the general goal of reforming and reinvigorating “the laws that govern organizing and collective bargaining” because “strong worker representation can make America stronger.” Florida senator Marco Rubio and an array of conservative thinkers have signed on to this statement.

Intelligencer recently spoke with Cass about his vision for a pro-worker conservatism and why he believes that, in the not-too-distant future, the Republican Party could embrace a labor agenda too radical for many present-day Democrats.

The American conservative movement was born in opposition to the New Deal. Its bedrock think tanks, foundations, and periodicals were bankrolled by industrialists and business owners who had a deeply hostile attitude toward the concept of organized labor. And that viewpoint has been the Republican Party’s dominant one on labor issues for decades. So why do you believe that conservatism and organized labor are not only compatible but complementary? And if that is the case, why have so few American conservatives recognized labor’s virtues?

I don’t think the history that you’ve described is wrong. But I think a major part of that history is that what we call organized labor in this country was itself aligned with the political left. Today, in the private sector, actual organization is so low, a huge share of what big labor actually does is fund left-of-center political campaigns. And so, to the extent that that is what organized labor has meant, I think it’s understandable that the right of center’s view would be that organized labor is undesirable. But I think that it’s really important to separate unions as they are behaving in America today from the concept of organized labor; the concept of workers organizing together and bargaining collectively.

I don’t think that idea necessarily has a partisan bent. And I think, for conservatives in particular, as we look out across a modern landscape at the problems in society, at what we have lost, at what we’re trying to address, I think unions perform many of the exact functions that we believe are missing from this society. And there are conservative strains of thought that have always recognized this. Catholic social teaching has long emphasized worker solidarity in general and the importance of organized labor in particular.

When Senator Rubio spoke about the idea of having a “common good” capitalism, he spoke about an encyclical from the late 1800s. And, of course, even in modern times, in the Cold War context, trade unions in Europe — particularly, behind the Iron Curtain — were a vital form of resistance to communism and a big part of what brought it down.

I feel like there’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing here. Or, rather, I think that the American right’s hostility toward organized labor predates organized labor’s alignment with the Democratic Party. But I understand that you believe the GOP’s broad outlook on economics is changing. In the years since you served on the Romney campaign, do you think social conservatives have grown more conscious of the tension between their communitarian, family-oriented ideal and the libertarian one of unfettered markets? Or have there always been “reformicons” shouting heterodox ideas from the sidelines while the party’s corporate and libertarian wings call the plays?

Oh, I think there’s definitely a growing tension — if not an outright battle — going on at this point. And I think it really emerged over the last decade. But the roots of it are in the 2010 to 2015 period, when, frankly, we just became exposed to a lot of new information.

It’s always funny for me thinking back to the Romney campaign in 2011 and 2012. I mean — for someone in politics going around the country — it was obvious that something was wrong in the industrial economy. But at that point, if you went to economists and said, “Hey what’s going on with China?,” certainly within the right of center, there was just a blanket assertion that free trade is good and so this is working out fine.

Then all of the research on the China shock comes out in 2013, 2014, 2015. And likewise with the deaths of despair and the opioid crisis. On the campaign trail, it was clear this was an issue on the ground.

And I think you started to see a lot of conservatives saying to themselves, and to each other, you know, “Wait a minute, this economic paradigm really isn’t working for an awful lot of people, and it is contributing ultimately to exactly the sort of social dysfunction that conservatives want to remedy.” And so I think that has produced this real split between libertarians and conservatives. Both libertarians and conservatives like free markets. I love free markets.. But I’m interested in them because of the outcomes they accomplish. And I think they are incredibly contingent institutions that depend on their interaction with all the other institutions in society. So there’s no guarantee that they are going to generate great outcomes by themselves. Whereas libertarians, to a large extent, either just see the free market as an end unto itself, regardless of what it delivers, or else have a kind of absolute faith that the market will deliver good outcomes.

But I think both substantively and also in terms of sheer political numbers, the right of center is going to be conservative, not libertarian, at the end of the day. Conservatives just have to develop the vocabulary and the alternative agenda. After outsourcing economic policy to the libertarians for a few decades, I think there was some real atrophy of the muscles there. Part of our project is trying to figure out how to build that back up.

On that agenda: What would your ideal, conservative-friendly system of organized labor look like? And how would it differ from America’s current one?

I can only describe the general directions I think we should be moving in. One is to get adversarial bargaining out of the individual workplace and up to something more like the sectoral level. Which is to say we want to have bargaining about terms and conditions of employment at a higher level than just the individual workplace so that the agreements that are struck bind all the employers who are in competition with each other.

And what I think that does is instead of setting off a race to the bottom — in which firms compete to see who can squeeze labor the hardest — this approach says to firms, “You are all going to work from the same baseline on how you engage with labor. So what other basis can you find to compete and succeed on?” And I think that that would be a healthier outcome both for workers and for the economy, generally, in terms of where we want investment to focus.

Then, if you bring adversarial bargaining up a level, I would favor creating a much more collaborative model of labor-management relations within the firm. An example would be works councils. There are a lot of different ways to do it. But the principle would be that you don’t have to have an organizing campaign where everyone is voting — and either 50 percent, plus one vote for the union or not, and then your site is either unionized or it’s not. Instead, the default would be that every workplace can have one. I don’t think you have to mandate it necessarily, if the sites don’t want it. But there’s going to be some infrastructure that — without all the baggage of traditional labor unions — gives workers and management the opportunity to interact and collaborate and share information, and, in some instances, give workers an actual say over decision-making.

I think that is a much healthier structure for a labor movement generally. And I think it would address much more effectively the kinds of concerns that conservatives have in particular. One of the nice things with this system is that once you have the sectoral framework agreements, individual firms can then depart from those baseline standards if management and workers both wish to. Whereas in the U.S. today, we have regulations set by federal agencies and then the floor set by any bargaining has to go above that.

So a quintessential example is very strict hours-related rules. In the U.S., we mandate time and a half for overtime. And yet, at the same time, firms are allowed to have all of these terrible scheduling practices — on-call scheduling, constant changes in scheduling, and so forth. It seems to me that workers and management would often want to agree that, for instance, overtime would not necessarily be paid at time and a half, especially if you have people who want more hours. But, in exchange for forfeiting that benefit from the framework agreement, the workers are going to get much more consistency and certainty about the scheduling of hours.

I think that kind of flexibility — and collaborative labor-management relationship — at the firm level is something both sides prefer. If you look at surveys of American workers — the seminal study of this is the one that Richard Freeman did in the ’90s called “What Workers Want” — by a huge majority, they say they would prefer a collaborative relationship with management to an adversarial one, even if that means having less power.

Under this arrangement, do workers retain the right to strike? 

You can have striking at the sectoral level over whatever the issues being bargained over might be. But that tool remains in that context. Again, you’re trying to take that kind of action out of the relationship between workers and management at an individual firm.

If you allow workers to opt out of federal regulations (and/or sectoral frameworks) at the firm level, could that not lead to a tyranny of the majority situation, in which protections that are very valuable to a minority of the shop’s workers — such as rules making it easier for the partially disabled to do their jobs — might seem expendable to the dominant factions within the firm?

I think there certainly have to be exceptions to what can be changed at the firm level, and discrimination and accommodation are obvious ones. There are still areas where we’re going to have federal regulations. There’s no doubt about that. But also, at the sectoral level, you can have portions of the agreement that are defined as fixed and others as flexible.

How do you imagine this kind of labor reform actually coming about? For decades, progressives have failed to pass pro-labor legislation that enjoyed the united support of existing unions. Each time, they’ve run into the basic problem that, while there are many states with no significant union presence, there are no states that lack an organized business community. So when you come to the Senate with a bill that threatens to reduce investors’ share of income gains — and management’s room for maneuver — business unites in opposition and then crushes it. Your proposal, meanwhile, doesn’t just threaten corporate America but also all existing trade unions. So if we can’t pass pro-labor laws that incumbent unions support, how are you going to pass ones that both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO will likely oppose?

I think that’s a fair question. And I think if the analysis is being done on the special-interest level, then you’re exactly right. None of the special-interest constituencies engaged on this particular issue are interested in this sort of reform.

I think where it potentially could gain momentum, and actually achieve success, is from the changes under way in political coalitions and their priorities. On the right of center, I do think there is a genuinely shifting focus from the “rising tides lift all boats; as long as we’re for business, everybody will come out ahead” idea to a realization that something is going to have to be done to make the economy work better for the typical worker. I think there’s a lot of agreement on that point within the right of center. And you also have a deepening concern about the state of civil society and community, whereas ten or 15 years ago, the conversation would have focused exclusively on the nuclear family.

There are, of course, some who are just going to say, “Well, a capital-gains tax cut is what I say about that, because that’s what I say about everything.” But I don’t think that’s where the right of center is heading.

So as conservatives sit down and say, “Okay, well, what are our actual principles? What are things we care about? What are we trying to achieve?,” I think it’s hard to land anywhere except: We need workers to have more power. Either we’re going to have to turn to the government to give them that, or we’re going to have to see a better balance in the private sector. And I think conservatives will certainly prefer the latter.

So you have those substantive trends. And then you have the political one, which is that there’s an awful lot of folks who would benefit from pro-labor policies coming into the right of center, and some corporations fleeing it. I don’t know if you saw this controversy now, where the U.S. Chamber is funding a whole bunch of Democrats in House races. So you have this realignment under way that is actually leaving both of those special interests that you described — corporations and existing unions — on one side of the divide, and the bulk of the workers without a college degree on the other side.

I think there’s solid evidence for the voter realignment you describe. But I’m skeptical that there’s a significant corporate realignment. Yes, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is playing on the Democratic side in some House races. But that might just reflect the fact that Democrats have a comfortable majority that is poised to grow larger this November. And if you assume that Democrats are going to hold the House for a while, you’re going to want to have a few allies within that caucus. In the aggregate, though, I believe spending from the Chamber is still weighted heavily toward Republicans.

Yes, I think that’s right on the aggregate level. But I think if you step back and look at the corporate leadership in this country and ask what their political alignment is, we are a very long way away from “the country-club Republicans against the blue-collar Democrats.” That’s just not what the parties stand for, and that’s not what their agendas actually speak to at this point.

When I think of the Republican activist base today — or when I think of what class I associate most with the contemporary Republican Party — I think about small-business owners. We saw their centrality to the coalition during the debate over the Trump tax cuts, which provided big tax breaks to owners of “pass-through” businesses, over the objections of many conservative wonks. And it seems, to me, that small-business owners would not look kindly on sectoral bargaining, since large firms often have an easier time weathering high labor costs than small firms do. So if you elevate the floor across an entire industry, that could potentially hurt small firms that lack large profit margins or economies of scale. Do you think there’s a potential tension there?

I think you might be right about that labor-costs point. There’s also a sectoral divide where, under our existing system of organized labor, the actual activity tends to be in very large, mostly industrial firms. Whereas more service-based, fragmented industries are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to organize.

So there’s no question that a different model of labor organizing would bring more collective bargaining to the small-business sector. You’re probably right that this kind of stuff is not going to appeal to them necessarily.

How have Republicans on Capitol Hill responded to your resolution?

I think the response has generally been pretty positive. A lot of offices just have a very firm “We don’t sign things” policy so they don’t have to deal with evaluating every statement that comes to them.

In terms of substantive discussion about the topic, I think concerns have actually cut both ways. Some have said, you know, “We don’t want this to sound like we’re endorsing traditional organized labor as it’s operating today.” But there are also an awful lot of folks on the right of center who have cultivated very good relationships with labor unions, particularly in states where they have a significant political presence. And they are equally concerned with how traditional unions would feel about this sort of thing.

What I’ve been heartened by is that when we go to the wonky community — or the legal-expert community — there’s not even enthusiasm so much as just, “Oh yeah, of course. This makes sense.”

Beyond the issue of labor, another component of the pro-worker conservatism you’ve articulated is support for a reformed version of the social welfare state. Unlike libertarians, you believe that the state has a responsibility to provide basic assistance to those who cannot work. But when you discuss the problems with the existing welfare system in your book, you put a lot of emphasis on the perils posed by the excessive generosity of some existing social supports. You argue that, as the quality of entry-level employment has declined — while the value of social benefits has grown — low-income people now face strong incentives to remain in perpetual dependence. In your words, “For those who could be working, a generous safety net is not just ineffective; it is destructive.”

To progressives like myself, the notion that a leading problem with the U.S. safety net is its excessive largesse is strange. As a percentage of GDP, America’s level of social spending is below the OECD average. Meanwhile, the idea that there is a tight relationship between the generosity of a nation’s welfare state and its population’s attachment to the labor force seems belied by the fact that social-democratic Sweden had the highest prime-age labor-force participation rate in the developed world last year. Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Denmark — all nations where those who do not work enjoy more state support than unemployed Americans do — also had higher labor-force participation rates. So what is the empirical basis for believing that generous social benefits are incompatible with work promotion?

I don’t think I’ve ever said they’re incompatible. I think it’s a little bit … I’m trying to think of a nice word for it. I don’t think it’s correct to conduct a single-variable analysis — as if generosity of safety net is the only determinant of labor-force participation — and therefore conclude that a more generous safety net leads to higher labor-force participation. That does not strike me as a sensible way to do social or economic analysis.

To be clear, I’m not saying that one leads to the other, just that they appear to be compatible: You can have really generous welfare benefits without luring people into long-term unemployment, at least under certain conditions. So I’m wondering why you see generous social benefits as a major obstacle to facilitating labor-force attachment.

So I think you have to start by clarifying the extent to which you’re telling an economic versus a cultural story about what’s going on. So the economic story about what’s going on is: If you have high levels of benefits — and you phase them out when people start working — it becomes less economically attractive to work. That’s a bit of microeconomic theory, which is accurate as far as it goes. We have very high marginal tax rates on our lowest-income households, which strikes me as unwise.

There’s a separate cultural story that I think is at least as important. When you think about what it is that one essentially earns for working, there is the actual paycheck, but there are a whole host of other essentially social goods — both internal, in that you have the satisfaction of succeeding in providing for a family and fulfilling an obligation and so forth, and external, in that you can essentially attain respect as a productive member of the community and so forth.

One of the things that concerns me most about a safety net that becomes as generous as what an entry-level job provides is that you strip away a lot of those noneconomic rewards for work. You essentially say, “Well, you going to work is not actually providing for your family because we have already provided for your family.”

And there’s certainly a chicken-and-the-egg component here. When you have communities where the majority of households no longer even have a full-time worker, you lose the basic expectation that people work and that those who don’t are failing in some way.

And I think that is something that has been a problem in America and that a better safety net would represent improvement toward. I’m not an expert on the sociology of those other countries. But I think the discussion we would have to have about what’s going on in them would have to be at the sociological level, not at the “Well, here I’ve measured the safety-net dollars and the percent of labor-force participation” level.

I very specifically argue that we should not be cutting the total amount we spend on supporting low-income households. But I think we should have a safety net that better encourages people to work.

I take the point that cultural factors can influence social outcomes. But I think the point in referencing the Swedish example is that if it is possible to ensure the material security of all citizens without depressing labor-force participation, then that seems like what we should be aiming for, as opposed to using material deprivation as a cudgel for forcing people into jobs.

I don’t disagree with almost any of that. I think that our safety net should lift people out of material deprivation. And given that we spend roughly $20,000 per person in poverty, the sheer level of resources that we have allocated to our safety net is not insufficient to accomplish that goal. This speaks to how poorly we run our system.

But a place where I disagree most strongly with progressives is the argument “Well, if our goal is to lift people out of material deprivation, the most efficient way to do that would just be to give everybody cash. So let’s just give everybody as much money as they need and go from there.” I think that’s where you run into the most serious social and cultural problem, which is that you’ve now created a baseline income that looks an awful lot like what you could earn in the workplace.

So I would like to see government programs that do in fact address material deprivation. But I think they should be in-kind programs. And I don’t think they should attempt to replicate, or be as good as, what you can achieve if you are actually contributing productively and supporting your family.

For the health of individuals, the health of families, and outcomes for kids, government benefits are not the equivalent of a paycheck. And so this is why we start with labor, in a sense: The long-run solution has to be finding a way to run an economy where the typical American — or even the American at the tenth or 20th percentile of the income distribution — can support a family by working full time. That is something that’s obviously not true today. But I think the solution to that problem has to be enacting reforms that make all jobs pay, not government-spending programs that make us comfortable with the fact that work isn’t being rewarded.

The Conservative Case for Organized Labor