How the GOP Can Mend Fences With Unions

Sohrab Ahmari

How the GOP Can Mend Fences With Unions

The GOP is more popular among union households than it has been in nearly four decades. Unions, meanwhile, are more popular among the American public than they have been in half a century. So you might imagine Republicans are rushing to rebuild bridges to the labor movement burned down by an earlier generation of C-suite conservatives. With precious few exceptions, however, the party remains indifferent—at best—to labor’s cause.

One excuse frequently heard on the right is that while unions might have been worthwhile in the past, today’s actually existing labor movement is hopelessly captive to the Democratic Party and a vehicle for full-spectrum progressivism or “wokeness.” Instead of fighting for bread-and-butter issues like wages, benefits, and working conditions, unions go all in for abortion rights or involve themselves in foreign policy—and on the side of Hamas, at that.

While overstated, there is a kernel of truth in these charges. If Republicans are looking for someone to blame for this state of affairs, though, they might start by glancing in the mirror.

For many Republicans, the moniker “labor activist” conjures a dread archetype: the Pink-Haired Barista. Face masked (long after sane people stopped masking), with a “they/them” button pinned to her apron, and maybe a keffiyeh wrapped around her neck, the PHB is bent on injecting her miserable politics into Howard Schultz’s happy and harmonious pumpkin-spice-latte empire. Economically, she might be as precarious as any Rust Belt factory worker displaced by globalization. But, the thinking goes, no one forced her to get an expensive degree in Judith Butler Studies that turned out to be useless—screw the PHB.

The PHB, to be clear, is a real part of the labor left. I’ve met that literal person. In fact, I’ve met several iterations. But she also serves as a convenient foil to discredit the wider labor movement on the right—or at least, to justify a criminal indifference to the generational collapse in workers’ bargaining power and share of the social income.

“Organizers don’t sit around brainstorming new ways to subvert the family.”

Anyone who knows his way around labor spaces can tell you that organizers don’t sit around brainstorming new ways to subvert the family. Is there some of that on the leftmost edges? Sure. Just as, on the rightmost edges of the conservative movement, you will encounter neo-eugenicists and devotees of the League of the South. In the main, people in the labor movement dedicate their energies to questions like industrial policy, workforce development, financialization and gigification, plus core labor problems like organizing, negotiation, and how to get around the latest devious methods of the half-a-billion-dollar “union-avoidance” racket.

The more serious element of the conservative critique is organized labor’s transformation into an appendage of the Democratic Party. In this telling, organized labor’s real function is to raise funds (via membership dues), which “union bosses” then launder over to the Democrats. In reality, the core function of the labor movement remains the same as it ever was: to raise up the countervailing power of sellers of labor power—workers—against employers. It’s just that these days, fulfilling this traditional function requires subservience to the Democrats, the major party that, for all its faults, at least isn’t overtly hostile to labor.

Beginning in the 1970s, pro-business Republicans—and some like-minded Democrats—tore down a New Deal order characterized by a high-wage, manufacturing-oriented economy and high union density. Free trade, deregulation, and de-unionization went hand-in-hand to enfeeble the labor movement. The types of working-class jobs increasingly on offer—services, instead of manufacturing—were harder to organize by nature. And Republican judges and GOP-dominated labor boards made it still harder to mount collective action: by allowing employers to hold captive-audience anti-union meetings, denying union organizers hitherto-accessible sites like workplace parking lots, doing away with card check, and a thousand other cuts to the original New Deal regime; the share of private-economy workers belonging to a union shrank to 6 percent, down from a third in 1945.

(Incidentally, the rise of the Pink-Haired Barista is driven in part by the same structural changes. As Compact columnist Michael Lind convincingly argues in his latest book, Hell to Pay, the loss of decently waged working- and middle-class jobs pressed many young people to seek higher degrees, as well as the boutique identitarian politics that typically go with such credentials. Saddled with the degrees, the weird worldviews, and the debts to Uncle Sam, many never obtain commensurate jobs. Hence, the angry, keffiyeh-clad educated precariat of Republican nightmares is in some ways a creation of the neoliberal right.)

Against this backdrop, “much new organizing _is _political organizing,” as a senior Service Employees International Union official told me. If you want to improve wages and conditions for a few thousand low-paid and ultra-vulnerable home-care workers in, say, Washington state, it’s nearly impossible to do so via traditional organizing, given the power asymmetries baked into current labor law. The way you do it is by going to the state house and leveraging relationships with Democrats who fund the private home-care providers via Medicaid.

Put another way, it was in large part Republicans who turned organized labor from an independent movement that used to be courted by both parties—Richard Nixon aggressively competed for the labor vote—into a sad client of one of the two parties. And then conservatives wonder why labor marches in lockstep with the Democrats. A child caught between a merely lousy parent and a viciously abusive one will try to win over the lousy one; at least she doesn’t wallop you, and she even buys you ice cream, from time to time.

What we _should _want is a labor movement that represents the material interests of all working people, regardless of their cultural views—and that stands apart from both parties. Labor’s role as an appendage of the Democrats isn’t good for workers. The Democratic Party isn’t a labor party, after all. It’s a coalition of various interest groups, including much of Wall Street, Big Tech, and the upper-professional class—blue-city social segments that can be as fiercely opposed to worker power as any red-state mining magnate. Nor is labor’s subservient status among Democrats good for Republicans, since it means that the GOP’s working-class voters lack an organized voice inside the party—unlike, say, small and regional capital, which remains the party’s true organized power base.

Resetting organized labor’s relationship with the GOP will require patient, courageous leadership from both sides. Simpatico Republicans are unlikely to get far by demanding, at the outset, that national union leaders get behind their immigration agenda, even if a tighter border would boost wages on the lower rungs of the labor market. Likewise, labor leaders looking for GOP support aren’t going to get sign-ups for the PRO Act on Day One. Trust-building starts small. Populist Republicans in Washington, for example, could push lawmakers in their own states to welcome union involvement in apprenticeship and workforce development, one of the labor movement’s most remarkable capacities that will prove enormously useful in a new age of industrial war. In turn, national labor leaders might make it easier for locals to endorse pro-worker Republicans.

If Republicans want less “woke” and less Democratic-dependent unions, they had better start by extending an open hand—rather than showing labor the back of the hand, as the party has done since the Reagan era.

Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact.

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