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Rachel LuJune 15, 2021

Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable. The Republican Party had spent years crowing about the achievements of entrepreneurs, while advising ordinary workers to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Times have changed, however. Quite recently, the right-of-center think tank American Compass, established in 2020,posted “A Guide to Economic Inequality” on the main page of its website. Its founders are not dismissing the problem. Instead, they tell readers that “our economy is failing to spread prosperity” and “our gains are not being widely shared.” The warnings get even more dire. “The longer such trends continue,” warns American Compass, “the greater the threat to our social fabric, our political solidarity, and the legitimacy of our free-market system.”

American Compassis directed by Oren Cass, a former advisor to Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah. He and a growing number of conservatives have become increasingly concerned about the future of American blue-collar labor. For some time now, the Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been speaking and writing publicly about the “dignity of labor,” often citing Catholic labor encyclicals in his public speeches. In March, Mr. Rubio publicly supported a drive to unionize Amazon warehouse employees, though he wrote that he was doing so because “companies like Amazon have been allies of the left in the culture war” and were implementing “‘woke’ human resources” policies.

So far, people like Mr. Cass and Senator Rubio seem to be groping for ways in which conservatives can make a better pitch to the American worker. To a great extent though, this is true of American politicians in general. Labor in the United States has changed radically in the past couple of decades, with concerns about wages and working conditions increasingly overshadowed by fears of being cut loose entirely by employers without warning. There is an opportunity for either party to position itself as being more responsive to the priorities of working families.

There is an opportunity for either party to position itself as being more responsive to the priorities of working families.

Many on the left are deeply skeptical of conservatives and Republicans who call themselves “pro-labor.” That is unsurprising, as the Republican Party has had a hostile relationship with American labor for several decades. But the antagonism has not always been so deep. Calvin Coolidge, a Republican hero, was the first U.S. president to sign legislation giving workers the right to organize. Great 20th-century labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and George Meany worked closely with the political right, especially in opposing communism. Through the 1970s, it was common for urban districts to elect pro-labor Republicans like Jacob Javits, the four-term Republican Senator from New York. When Javits lost his fifth re-election campaign in 1980, it was a sign of things to come. Under the Reagan administration, the Republican Party’s relationship with labor would become far more antagonistic.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike. It was an aggressive move that nevertheless secured the admiration of the right-wing base. Conservatives believed that unions had become too powerful and corrupt, with little accountability to anyone but their members. Under Reagan, free enterprise became a major component of the Republican Party’s “three-legged stool,” along with moral traditionalism and a strong emphasis on national defense. Labor unions were viewed as a drain on national prosperity, and they increasingly looked to the Democratic Party for support. In broad form, those political allegiances have largely persisted through the present day.

[Related: The fight to unionize Amazon is the most important labor story of this century]

The major labor unions in the United States have certainly been a political asset to the Democratic Party. In 2020, public-sector unions alone contributed more than $90 million to political parties and campaigns across the nation, with the overwhelming majority of that (about 90 percent) going to Democrats. Total union contributions exceeded $200 million. Many of the largest unions endorsed Joe Biden in the presidential race, though exit polls suggest that Donald Trump won about 40 percent among union members nationwide and Mr. Trump had significant grassroots support in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states traditionally associated with labor unions. The Republicans have continued to attack unions politically. Under the Obama administration, they undercut union power by passing “right to work” legislation in five more states, bringing the total to 27. These laws weaken unions by limiting their ability to collect dues from workers.

Those political dynamics could endure for some time. If the Biden administration’s fiscal decisions seem to be destabilizing the economy, the Republicans could rediscover their old enthusiasm for limited government. In that case, the right might arc back into a Tea Party-like philosophy, abandoning any serious effort to unfurl a labor agenda. Republican politicians might continue to talk about “the dignity of labor,” especially when this helps them to channel popular anger against Silicon Valley. It is also common for politicians to use labor concerns as a noble-sounding excuse for lavishing tax breaks on corporate friends. (Recall President Trump’s effort to “save jobs” at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis by offering the company $7 million in incentives. Job creation can often provide a convenient excuse for showering benefits on the already-wealthy.) It is understandable that some see labor-interested Republicans as scavengers, pillaging the flotsam of the once-robust unions they helped to destroy.

It is also common for politicians to use labor concerns as a noble-sounding excuse for lavishing tax breaks on corporate friends.

That may be too cynical, however. Conservatives may truly get serious about the concerns of working-class voters in the years to come. They have both motive and opportunity, especially in Midwestern and Rust Belt states, where many voters are disillusioned with old political solutions and searching for new answers. By securing the loyalties of working families, the right has a chance to bolster its faltering coalition. Its countercultural message resonates with many voters in economically desiccated regions.

There are many conservatives for whom the renewed interest in labor seems to be sincere. Intellectuals like Mr. Cass clearly believe that they are charting a new course forward for conservatism, while a politician like Mr. Rubio has long shown an interest in cultural reform that transcends Reaganite limited-government principles. At gatherings of right-leaning Catholic intellectuals, “Rerum Novarum” and “Quadrigesimo Anno”are now being discussed with real enthusiasm and energy. Family policy has become a popular topic, as the rugged-individualist rhetoric of the Tea Party era fades into the background. Conversations about “the common good” are trendy once again. Social justice is no longer a taboo.

This could be a redemptive moment for the Republican Party. American workers do, after all, need help. Mr. Rubio and others have identified a worthy cause that merits serious attention. This could be the moment when the right turns a page, redirecting some of its reactionary angst toward compassionate advocacy and prudent policy. But given their strained relations with labor unions, Republicans will need to offer some game-changing new ideas if they hope to set the agenda moving forward. The challenge is formidable, but it may not be impossible, precisely because America’s labor situation has indeed changed rather markedly over the past few decades.

Workers Adrift

Historically, labor movements have focused on the relationship between workers and their employers. Collective bargaining, for example, helps workers to leverage their worth to a company or corporation for the sake of securing better wages or improved working conditions. Labor laws use the power of the state to pressure employers into maintaining certain standards with respect to employee treatment. Both of these measures help to prevent workers from getting trapped in dangerous, underpaid or soul-destroying jobs.

Poor and socially marginalized people tend to be especially vulnerable to employer exploitation, since they have few resources and feel compelled to protect at all costs the little they have.

Poor and socially marginalized people tend to be especially vulnerable to employer exploitation.

This problem was widespread in the years following industrialization, when factory production undermined skilled labor and home industry. Many workers were forced by circumstances to take whatever work was available, and for many, the obstacles to moving or re-skilling were prohibitive.

Collective bargaining helped many to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Other exploitative practices were ended by legislation, which improved safety conditions, ended child labor and offered workers more securities against injury, illness and old age.

Exploitation is still a relevant concern today, but for many workers, oppressive bosses and inhumane working conditions may not be the most significant problem. They do not feel trapped in soul-destroying jobs. Rather, they are adrift, unprotected in a labor market that offers them plenty of freedom but little security. Relatively few workers today are pressured to endure unsafe working conditions, or to put in 70-hour weeks. Many struggle, however, to chart a career path that promises stability and financial security across a lifetime.

To some extent, this is a cost of our dynamic and ever-changing economy. At one time in history, people expected their children to follow in their own footsteps, taking over the family business or farm, or learning their parents’ trade. By the mid-20th century, this was less common, but it was normal for an adult to remain with one company for almost his entire working life. Pension plans and other retirement benefits were often created with that expectation. In the United States today, though, the average worker will hold at least 12 different jobs across his life. The median amount of time a worker has been with his current employer is just over four years. People often worry whether their profession will even exist long enough to support their children through high school.

Obviously, these uncertainties can be destabilizing for all families and communities, but poor and socially marginalized people pay the heaviest price.

At all socioeconomic levels, people must live with the expectation that they will likely need to change jobs or acquire new skills from time to time. We have accepted these costs, in general, as the price of widespread wealth and opportunity. For advantaged people, economic change creates anxiety, but the consequences are rarely catastrophic. Those in a relatively advantaged situation have created a number of social mechanisms to track and reward personal stability, enabling them to maintain their status and lifestyle across periods of economic turbulence.

For advantaged people, economic change creates anxiety, but the consequences are rarely catastrophic.

We lean on these mechanisms regularly, often with very little thought. If I need a loan, a bank will check my credit score to see whether I have reliably paid my bills. My college diploma proves to an employer that I am the sort of person who can spend four years writing papers and passing tests. As we move through our adult lives, a résumé becomes the magical key that opens professional doors. If a company folds or a job becomes obsolete, an established track record of employment may persuade other companies to hire an established worker. None of these mechanisms guarantee a trouble-free life, but they do help certain workers to ensure that they will have options. Instead of forging a lifelong relationship with a given employer, an advantaged worker builds up a personal reputation for himself, documenting his desirability as an employee, client or business partner in ways that prospective associates can verify.

Mechanisms like credit scores and résumé can serve many good ends, but they also have the effect of concentrating privilege. Almost no one becomes an educated, financially stable adult without considerable help. It is much easier to build credit if parents, siblings or friends are able to offer short-term loans at need, helping to avoid late payments on bills. Without significant support from family, young people may find it prohibitively difficult to complete a four-year degree program or to take advantage of valuable volunteer opportunities. A good word from a family friend can be invaluable for getting a young person her first job. In myriad ways, we have built a world in which the stable get more stable, while the unstable get battered by every passing wave. The latter need more help, but the problem is more diffuse than exploitation by employers. They are struggling with structural disadvantages that may make it prohibitively difficult to find a foothold in a contemporary workforce.

A person with bad credit or nontraditional credentials can still make valuable contributions to society, but a human resources department may only see the risks. To overcome this problem, we need to do a better job of preparing people from all backgrounds for stable employment. We alsoneed to motivateemployers to think more creatively, finding new ways to tap the potential of underdeveloped workers. Our existing union structure may not be optimal for pursuing these particular goals, as unions specialize in serving the needs of people who already have stable employment.

Pro-Labor Conservatives

Protecting workers against exploitation is still a worthy goal. It needs to be balanced, however, against the need to create better jobs for a wide range of people. Can the Republicans devise a policy approach that balances both goals? Already, this is an active concern for politicians like Mr. Rubio and for intellectuals like Mr. Cass. Some of their ideas are interesting, and there is potential here for a healthy form of political rivalry, as the right and left both scramble to generate effective labor policy. Prudent reform will be possible, however, only if conservative politicians can resist the populist right’s more vengeful impulses. That may prove difficult.

Many pro-labor conservatives want to motivate corporations to invest more resources toward employees. They rail against “shareholder primacy,arguing that American workers are suffering from decreased opportunity and stagnant wages, owing in part to a financial system that motivates corporations to prioritize the demands of their shareholders. This may not even be good for the companies themselves over the long run. Workers, argued Mr. Cass in a recent essay in Politico, are more interested in the company’s long-term viability. Shareholders mainly want to make some quick cash.

Prudent reform will be possible, however, only if conservative politicians can resist the populist right’s more vengeful impulses. That may prove difficult.

This is an intriguing argument. It may not be entirely true. It is encouraging nonetheless to see conservatives making a serious effort to reassess our financial practices, considering who does and does not benefit from modern commerce. If the Republicans can generate serious recommendations for worker-friendly tax reform, for example, that might create a foundation for a new kind of labor policy.

Job training is another major focus for pro-labor conservatives. Mr. Cass argues in his book The Once and Future Worker that it is unfair to give massive public subsidies to our universities without offering alternatives to young people who are not interested in, or suited for, college. Need-based college scholarships have existed for decades, but four-year colleges still disproportionately attract students from privileged backgrounds. By investing more in trade schools and other credentialing opportunities, we can open a wider range of options to students from less-advantaged backgrounds. We can help struggling workers by opening more opportunities for “earned success,” ideally at a stage of life where it can make a significant difference.

Pro-labor conservatives are also becoming more interested in unions, albeit in a modified form. Mr. Cass regularly discusses alternative union models like northern Europe’s “Ghent system,” under which unions run unemployment insurance programs, and sectoral unions that represent entire industries. It may seem that Republicans are just re-inventing the wheel here, proposing new unions in hope that these will be less hostile to them politically. But even if this is true, it might be healthy to have a public debate about the merits of different models of unionization. Sometimes re-invented wheels are needed when the old ones start to creak.

Building a worker-friendly economy is a slow and difficult job. Stoking the rage and resentment of disaffected voters is much easier.

All of these ideas have potential. Some may be genuinely transformative. Before any policy agenda can take root, however, the Republicans will need leaders who can focus on the common good. The former president Donald Trump had an impressive talent for making disaffected workers feel heard, but while in office he repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to mortgage long-term goals for short-term populist approval. Building a worker-friendly economy is a slow and difficult job. Stoking the rage and resentment of disaffected voters is much easier.

Even if Trump’s own political career is finished, his brand of politics may not be. Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, presents himself as a pro-labor conservative, but his speeches are filled with the embittered rhetoric of class warfare. Where Mr. Rubio touts the benefits of worker-friendly investment, Mr. Hawley preaches darkly about the unpatriotic plutocrats who have decimated the “great American middle.” In his narrative, American prosperity is being sapped by the privilege and indifference of educated elites. Each evening on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the Fox News host offers a similar message, telling more than four million viewers about the evils of the “cosmopolitan elites” who, in his narrative, have ransacked the American heartland.

Politicians have often used class resentment as a spur to labor reform. After the events of last January, though, is it reasonable to worry whether the populist right’s destructive impulses may overwhelm everything else in the Republican Party. Do conservatives really wish to reform fiscal policy and build trade schools, or will they be content to vilify Big Tech and destroy universities? Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to devise prudent policy that addresses the real needs of marginalized people. The challenges are especially intense in a politically polarized environment, where there is little trust between employers and workers. Intellectuals like Mr. Cass seem to understand this, but his mild-mannered advocacy may not electrify the right-wing base as effectively as Carlson’s angry populism.

Still, we can hope. There are reasons why the political right has attracted more support in the heartland in recent years. Conservatives may not speak the language of exploitation, but they have a particular attachment to those elemental goods that make life meaningful for ordinary people. Hearth, home, tradition and family are all central to conservative patterns of thought. Conservatives can relate to the anguish workers feel when those things seem to be slipping away from them. When working class voters move right, this is generally a sign that a society’s farmers, mechanics and factory workers are concerned about the difficulty of passing on the customs, creeds and cultural mores that have made life meaningful for them. Now it is up to the Republican Party to answer those concerns in a constructive way that genuinely supports the common good.

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