Conservatives for Labor

Sep 08, 2020

After decades of setbacks, the American labor movement has made some headway in the last few years.

Striking teachers have won better pay and working conditions in a few states. Air traffic controllers effectively ended a 2019 government shutdown by refusing to work without pay. The percentage of Americans who say they support unions has risen to 65 percent, according to Gallup.

And Joe Biden has sent signals that, if elected, he may make labor policy a higher priority than Barack Obama or Bill Clinton did. (Biden told A.F.L.-C.I.O. members yesterday that he would be “the strongest labor president you have ever had.”)

But the most intriguing sign of a potential union resurgence comes from the other side of the political spectrum. As conservative policy experts have begun imagining a post-Trump Republican Party, some are arguing that it should drop its longtime antipathy to unions.

Republicans now rely on working-class votes, these experts point out, and unions have a long record of lifting workers’ living standards. The decline of unions, on the other hand, has contributed to slow-growing living standards for most Americans. A stronger labor movement, according to this view, would be better than high taxes and big anti-poverty programs.

This past weekend — Labor Day weekend — a group of conservatives released a joint statement on the importance of unions. The group included Senator Marco Rubio and Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general.

“There are a lot of things we like about free markets,” Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, the think tank that organized the letter, told me. “But at the end of the day, those markets are a means to an actual substantive end — a flourishing society and healthy communities and families and a strong nation. And if markets aren’t doing that, then we have a problem.”

Cass emphasized that there was a lot he didn’t like about today’s unions. He is instead intrigued by industrywide unions, which negotiate pay for workers across multiple companies and are common in Europe.

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