‘Pro-Worker Conservatives’ Are Just Union Busters in Thin Disguise

Marco Rubio, a stooge for management. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Americans with college degrees were more likely to vote Republican than those who lacked them. Today, the opposite is true.

Meanwhile, in every presidential election from 1948 to 2012, white voters in the bottom third of America’s income distribution were more Democratic than those in the top third. Now, low-income whites vote to the right of wealthy ones.

There are many plausible explanations for this phenomenon. But a major, pro-labor shift in the Republican Party’s economic philosophy is not one of them. In 2016, Donald Trump did disavow his party’s most toxic fiscal ambitions (slashing Medicare and Social Security spending). But he also argued that America’s minimum wage was probably too high and that corporations paid too much in taxes. Once in office, Trump sought to gut public health insurance from the poor, cut taxes on the wealthy, deny guaranteed overtime pay to 12.5 million workers, undermine workplace-safety standards, and erect new barriers to union organizing. Despite this reactionary economic program, the Republican coalition grew more working class over the course of Trump’s first term. In 2020, a large number of blue-collar Hispanic voters flipped to the GOP, while the exodus of college-educated whites from red America continued apace.

For years, heterodox conservatives have argued that the dissonance between the GOP’s plutocratic policy priorities and increasingly proletarian social base was unsustainable. As corporate America goes “woke” and blue-collar voters move right, Republicans will eventually need to align their agenda with their rank-and-file’s material interests. Oren Cass, a former Mitt Romney adviser and founder of the think tank American Compass, is the Republican who has come closest to articulating a coherent vision of what “pro-worker conservatism” would look like in the United States. In 2020, Cass called on conservatives to recognize that “strong worker representation can make America stronger” — a sentiment that has now found expression in the Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act, the GOP’s most tangible legislative effort yet to win the hearts and minds of the working class.

Cass did not ask his fellow Republicans to drop their opposition to the existing labor movement. On the contrary, he denounced Big Labor as an egregiously leftwing, overly political bureaucracy that did not serve workers’ best interests. After all, his think tank’s surveys consistently showed that workers do not want unions engaging in politics and prefer forms of workplace organization that are not adversarial to management. Therefore, Cass argued that labor law should be reformed to allow for the formation of worker organizations run jointly by employees and management (also known as “company unions”).

Of course, a union’s fundamental purpose is to secure workers’ leverage over bosses. The balance of power between an employer and individual employees is profoundly unequal. Most Americans have scant personal savings, enjoy meager unemployment benefits, and can be fired at will. Thus, individual workers generally have far more to lose from pushing back against an employer’s demand than an employer does from ignoring a worker’s request. For the worker, the termination of an employment contract can threaten their basic material security; for the employer, it mostly threatens a small, temporary disruption to business until a replacement can be hired. When workers organize into adversarial unions, however, they can credibly threaten to disrupt business massively by withdrawing their labor en masse, through a strike or work stoppage. This capacity to materially harm management is the wellspring of organized labor’s power. Every major concession that workers have won from capital in American history — from health-care benefits to the weekend — was won through adversarial labor relations.

To its credit, Cass’s initial program acknowledged this reality. In his telling, company unions at the shop level would be complemented by adversarial, collective bargaining at the sectoral one. Which is to say: Representatives of workers and managers from across an industry would bargain with each other over the minimum compensation, workplace safety, and benefit standards that all employers in that sector would need to honor. And workers would retain the right to strike to secure better terms in those sectoral negotiations (whether such militancy could be cultivated in the absence of adversarial shop-level unions is debatable).

This approach to labor-management relations had some evident virtues. When workers drive a hard bargain at the firm level, they risk putting their employers at a competitive disadvantage. Were workers able to team up with their peers at every other retailer or fast-food restaurant or construction company in their region — and collectively struggle for higher compensation levels across the sector — they could force employers to compete on some basis besides “who can get away with paying workers the lowest wages.”

Given that only 7 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. are currently unionized, the full implementation of Cass’s avowed reforms — which is to say, the establishment of sectoral bargaining throughout the U.S. combined with the promotion of company unions within firms — would probably increase labor’s leverage over capital on net.

It would also likely have some real appeal to working-class voters. As the American electorate has polarized along lines of educational attainment, a political rift has opened up between the (staunchly Democratic) leadership of America’s unions and its more ideologically heterogeneous rank-and-file. What Democratic strategists call the “union premium” in voting — the degree to which being in a union makes a voter more likely to support Democrats, holding all other demographic variables constant — has plummeted over the past two decades. In 2020, it nearly disappeared entirely. That same year, the longtime leader of an SEIU local in California lost reelection to a challenger who campaigned on a pledge to end the union’s political donations. In this context, Cass’s vision for simultaneously increasing workers’ bargaining power and gutting the existing labor movement (and thus, a key pillar of Democratic power) might have a real constituency. Combine these policies with American Compass’s proposals for family-centric welfare programs and immigration restriction, and you have the makings of a coherent “working-class conservatism,” with a broad resemblance to Europe’s Christian Democracy.

Alas, Cass’s vision always suffered from a fatal flaw: The Republican Party does not want to increase workers’ bargaining power. The GOP coalition may be home to a growing number of working-class voters. But voters do not generally set party agendas; interest groups do. There are a lot of organized business interests aligned with the Republican Party, from countless local chambers of commerce to small-business groups to the National Restaurant Association. But beyond America’s police and border-guard unions, there are virtually no labor organizations exercising power within the Republican tent. What’s more, precisely because organized labor has no voice in the GOP — but has some in the Democratic Party — America’s most Republican business interests also tend to be its most exploitative. Highly profitable, capital-intensive corporations can afford to support the Democratic Party, since a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board won’t threaten their core interests. Low productivity businesses that can’t afford even marginal increases in their workers’ rights, however, are deeply invested in Republican rule.

For the GOP therefore, pleasing working-class voters is a means; serving the interests of low-road employers is the end. The Republican Party has an interest in spotlighting the political divides between culturally conservative workers and progressive union officials. And it also has an interest in gutting the existing labor movement while branding itself as a “worker’s party.” But it has no interest in increasing American labor standards. Thus, as Cass’s vision for “pro-worker conservatism” made the journey from white paper to legislative proposal, it was shorn of every idea that threatened to do the latter.

The Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act, co-authored by Republicans Jim Banks and Marco Rubio, represents the culmination of Cass’s project. And the legislation would do little beyond providing employers with a new union-avoidance tool.

Under existing labor law, companies are allowed to sponsor employee organizations that facilitate brainstorming and communication between workers and management. They just aren’t allowed to sponsor worker groups that make specific proposals concerning working conditions, compensation, or any other subject of bargaining covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The reason for this is simple: Historically, employers have found that forming company-sponsored pseudo-unions is a potent strategy for preempting the organization of independent labor unions, which could wield genuine power through the threat of strikes and work stoppages.

The “TEAM” Act would amend labor law to legalize “employee involvement organizations.” Such organizations would serve as an “alternative to employee unionization,” which, unlike unions, would be incapable of engaging in collective bargaining, and could be dissolved at any time at the employer’s sole discretion. The law would also give employee organizations within large corporations the right to send a single, nonvoting representative to corporate board meetings. This is apparently an attempt to gesture at worker co-determination — a policy in which workers get dedicated seats (and thus, voting rights) on corporate boards — without giving workers any actual power over their employers.

Rubio, Cass, and their allies have framed the TEAM Act as a much-needed, pro-worker reform. They argue that organized labor’s current plight isn’t a function of America’s unusually hostile labor laws, or any structural changes to the U.S. economy, but rather of the working class’s antipathy for the existing labor movement. As Rubio wrote in an op-ed for Fox News, “According to polls, just one in three non-unionized American workers would vote to unionize.” The poll in question was commissioned by Cass. And viewed in context, the finding is more favorable for organized labor than it appears in Rubio’s framing: In the poll, unorganized U.S. workers are split roughly evenly between those who would vote for a union, those who would vote against one, and those who aren’t sure. So, another way of describing the results would be to say that two-thirds of U.S. workers are either eager to unionize, or open to doing so. Further, the fact that roughly a third of unorganized American workers would like to be in a union suggests that adverse organizing conditions are in fact keeping organized labor down; the finding means that if every American who wanted to be in a union got to join one, our nation would have a higher unionization rate that at any time in its history!

Conspicuously missing from Rubio’s proposal is any mention of sectoral bargaining. When pitching “working-class conservatism” to policy reporters, Cass & Co. felt compelled to acknowledge that labor organizations need leverage to win major concessions from employers. When pitching the TEAM Act to the Republican coalition, however, their emphasis is on how employee-involvement organizations can preempt “increasingly tense labor relations in major companies.”

It’s quite possible that this brand of rightwing pseudo-populism will prove politically successful. If recent history is any guide, Republicans do not need to advance working-class interests in order to gain working-class vote share. And the TEAM Act could be effective at undermining independent labor unions and, by extension, the Democratic Party. It is now clear, however, that if “pro-worker conservatism” succeeds politically, working-class people will lose materially.

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