Last September, the “populist” conservative think tank American Compass published a heresy against the Church of Reagan and Latter-Day Supply-Siders: In a written statement, the policy shop implored Republicans to promote “collective bargaining” in the private sector because “strong worker representation can make America stronger.” This is a sentiment that the American right was born to reject. So, it wasn’t surprising that only one congressional Republican was willing to sign on to the statement at the time of its release. What was surprising was that the Republican in question was Marco Rubio.
Over the course of his career, the Florida lawmaker has backed the AFL-CIO’s position in relevant Senate votes 8 percent of the time. For the average Senate Republican, that figure is 17 percent. Rubio is a co-sponsor of national “right-to-work” legislation (a policy that undermines organized labor by allowing workers who join a unionized workplace to enjoy the benefits of a collective-bargaining agreement without paying dues to the union that negotiated it, which has the effect of encouraging other workers to skirt their dues, which can then drain a union of the funds it needs to survive). Rubio opposes the $15 minimum wage, and supported all manner of anti-labor Cabinet nominees during the Trump administration. Just last night, he criticized Joe Biden for including a “bailout” of the pensions of millions of Teamsters, carpenters, builders, and other unionized trades in the newly signed American Rescue Plan.
Given this record, it’s been difficult to ascertain what, precisely, Rubio meant when he endorsed collective bargaining or began branding himself as a “pro-worker,” populist conservative.
But on Friday morning, the Florida senator finally made his outlook clear.
When word first leaked that Rubio was poised to endorse the unionization drive at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the senator’s pro-labor skeptics suffered a twinge of self-doubt. After all, the stakes of the election in Bessemer extend well beyond one warehouse: As Amazon becomes an increasingly dominant employer of blue-collar labor, a successful organizing drive at a facility in one of the most anti-union parts of the country could spark a broader wave of unionization, potentially shifting the balance of power between capital and labor in America’s broader political economy. For this reason, Biden’s tacit endorsement of the Bessemer union drive was historic; that a Republican would explicitly endorse the effort seemed all the more extraordinary.
And Rubio’s endorsement may well abet the union drive’s success. But in laying out his rationale for backing the effort in USA Today, the Republican senator was remarkably frank about the extremely conditional nature of his solidarity: Rubio does not support the union drive in Alabama because he wants workers to prevail over plutocrats in a class war; he supports it because he wants conservatives to beat “woke capital” in the culture war.
Here is an abridged version of Rubio’s argument:
For decades, companies like Amazon have been allies of the left in the culture war, but when their bottom line is threatened they turn to conservatives to save them. Republicans have rightly understood the dangers posed by the unchecked influence of labor unions. Adversarial relations between labor and management are wrong. They are wrong for both workers and our nation’s economic competitiveness.
But the days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over.
Here’s my standard: When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy — I support the workers. And that’s why I stand with those at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse today … Uniquely malicious corporate behavior like Amazon’s justifies a more adversarial approach to labor relations.
Rubio’s stance is admirable in its forthrightness (if loathsome in its substance). The senator is not disavowing the policy positions that have made him more hostile to the AFL-CIO than the average Senate Republican (which is a bit like being more hostile to the British royal family than the average Meghan Markle superfan). As a general matter, he opposes “adversarial relations between labor and management,” which is to say, labor unions that are not officially sanctioned by management (a.k.a. company unions). But he makes an exception for employers that engage in “uniquely malicious corporate behavior.”
Crucially, for Rubio, the measure of whether an employer is “uniquely malicious” has essentially nothing to do with how it treats its workers. The minimum wage for an employee at Amazon is $15 an hour. Rubio opposes requiring all firms in the U.S. to pay their workers at least as well Amazon does because (among other things) he believes that many small businesses cannot afford such high labor costs. Which is to say: Rubio does not consider employers who pay their workers poverty wages uniquely malicious, but rather, uniquely deserving of congressional sympathy. In fact, the senator is so concerned with safeguarding the right of businesses to pay their workers poorly, he argued last year that Congress should slash aid to the involuntarily unemployed, since many low-wage employers were “having trouble rehiring workers” who were earning more from federal benefits than they did on the job.
Rubio’s actual criterion for whether a company deserves to be subjected to an “adversarial” labor union is simple: What side does it take in America’s culture war? The senator is not incensed by Amazon’s treatment of its workers, but rather, by its assault on “working-class values” — which Rubio implicitly defines as the values of America’s staunchly anti-LGBT minority. In his op-ed, Rubio takes Amazon to task for refusing to sell the book When Harry Met Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, and excluding anti-gay-rights organization The Family Research Council from the list of charities it encourages its users to donate to. Rubio repeatedly asserts that Amazon is waging a “culture war” against its workers in Bessemer, without offering any evidence that its workers oppose their employer’s decision to not help anti-gay hate groups raise money. The senator does not criticize any specific labor practice or working condition at Amazon’s warehouse, but does take time to condemn a “‘woke’ human-resources fad” that the company could hypothetically subject its workers to sometime in the future.
Tellingly, the only economic critique that Rubio makes of Amazon involves its mistreatment of rival capitalists. The senator condemns the firm’s use of “anticompetitive strategies to crush small businesses,” but offers no complaint with its strategies for suppressing workers’ wages. Which makes sense. As I argued last month, to the extent that Republican populism has any material content, it is as a defense of provincial small-time capitalists in their conflicts with large, multinational corporations. Since we live in a semi-democratic country — and since there are exponentially more workers than small-business owners in the electorate — Republicans will often make it sound like this conflict pits the interests of working people in the heartland against those of “elites” on the coasts. But as the minimum-wage issue makes clear, the conflict between small and large capital is orthogonal to that between workers and employers. In a fight between Amazon and rival online retailers that can’t afford to pay their employees $15 an hour, the interests of the workers in Bessemer run directly counter to those of “small business.” (I have not personally interviewed the workers in question, but I would bet a large sum of money that they are not eager to accept lower wages in exchange for the opportunity to toil in a locally owned warehouse whose proprietor regularly donates to conversion-therapy clinics.)
Thus, Rubio’s endorsement of the union drive does not reflect an expansion of the conservative movement’s horizons or any evolution in its loyalties. The senator is championing the material interests of reactionary small-business owners and the cultural resentments of the Christian right. For Rubio, unions are not a means for checking the exploitation of workers by owners; they’re a means for owning the libs.
Again, the senator is admirably clear on this point. He is perfectly happy to come to the defense of corporations when “adversarial” labor unions threaten their bottom line — but he expects those companies to display some gratitude toward social conservatives for providing that service. Late in his column, Rubio writes:
Amazon’s opposition to the union effort in its own backyard is also inconsistent with the progressive values it has forced on everyone else. If Amazon thinks that conservatives will automatically rally to do its bidding after proving itself to be such enthusiastic culture warriors, it is sorely mistaken.
Here, union-busting is not framed as a violation of Catholic social teaching or the conservative veneration of hard work. It is cast as inconsistent with the progressive values that “woke capital” is tyrannically imposing on “working-class” Americans. Likewise, the reason why conservatives won’t automatically rally to Amazon’s defense isn’t that the firm is unforgivably hostile to its workers, but that it is unforgivably compassionate to LGBT people. The ultimate purpose of Rubio’s op-ed is, thus, to present corporate America with an ultimatum: Take our side in the culture war and conservatives will help you crush labor; go “woke,” and we’ll let the commies give you a taste of that “social justice” you care so much about.