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The Senate Republicans Who Voted for Paid Leave Aren’t Exactly Pro-Labor

Most of them have worse AFL-CIO lifetime scores than their GOP colleagues.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Florida Senator Marco Rubio

“GOP wants to be a working class party,” tweeted Josh Hawley Thursday, “or should want to. We’re about to have our first test vote—with the workers or with Biden.” But the GOP flunked.

Only nine Republicans joined Hawley in voting against the contract negotiated by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in September and subsequently rejected by four of the 12 rail unions required to ratify it. As a consequence, the Biden bill, assembled in mild panic to avert a threatened pre-Christmas rail strike, passed 80–15.

But there was a better test of whether the GOP was truly a working-class party on offer this week: a substitute bill, championed by Senator Bernie Sanders, that added seven days’ leave to the contract. “I believe the rail workers are making reasonable requests that should be adequately addressed,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said before joining Hawley in casting his vote for the Sanders alternative. The GOP flunked that test too. Only four additional Republicans joined Hawley and Cruz to vote for the Sanders substitute, so it failed, 52–43, seven votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster (assuming Senate President Kamala Harris would have voted aye). So the GOP’s working-class caucus is a grand total of three Republicans who voted for paid leave in the House and six in the Senate.

Yes, Biden also flunked this test, less than one month after the Democrats lost five percentage points in the midterms among working-class voters. But congressional Democrats passed it with flying colors. All House Democrats and all Senate Democrats except West Virginia’s Joe Manchin voted for the paid leave bill. If Biden had been nimble enough to switch horses and throw his weight behind Sanders’s sick leave alternative, might he have nailed down the additional seven Republican votes and secured a better deal for rail workers? Susan Collins of Maine, at least, ought to have been gettable, since she voted against the Walsh contract and then, unaccountably, voted against the paid leave bill too.

But let’s consider the membership of the Senate’s new makeshift Republican labor caucus: Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, John Kennedy, and Mike Braun. Cruz, Hawley, Graham, and Kennedy are perhaps the four biggest phonies in the Senate. Rubio is a notorious flip-flop artist, and Braun is in a tight primary contest for governor of Indiana. Only a fool would count on these Republicans to support labor in the future.

Rubio and Hawley have made the most effort to lure working-class votes by promising something more than the usual culture-war demagoguery. The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann identified Rubio as the favored 2024 presidential candidate of a group Lemann called “the Reversalists,” who question market fundamentalism and purport to attack Democrats on economic issues from the left. Hawley positions himself as a trustbuster, mainly out of Trumpian animosity against Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.

But give me a break: Rubio’s lifetime AFL-CIO score is 11 percent, eight percentage points below the Senate Republican average, and last year it dropped to 9 percent. Hawley’s lifetime score is also 11 percent, and last year it dropped to 4 percent. Cruz’s lifetime score is 9 percent and last year dropped to 4 percent. The others’ lifetime scores are 14 percent (Kennedy), 15 percent (Braun), and 22 percent (Graham). The only member of the de facto Senate Republican labor caucus who supports labor more frequently than the average Senate Republican is Graham, and Graham still opposes labor 78 percent of the time.

The most important labor bill before Congress is the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act, which would remove various obstacles to union organizing, many of which date back to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The Republican minority on the House Education and Labor Committee (who, if past practice is observed, will change the committee’s title to the “House Education and the Workforce Committee” when they assume the majority, because the very word “labor” offends them) have called the PRO Act a “radical union boss wish list.” Nobody in the makeshift new Senate Republican labor caucus dissents publicly from this view, and Rubio has introduced a lame teamwork” bill intended to derail the PRO Act. Five congressional Republicans support the PRO Act, but they’re all in the House. Even Susan Collins is afraid to support it.

“It wasn’t always this way,” Steven Greenhouse, former labor reporter for The New York Times, wrote earlier this year. Instead of five union-friendly Republicans in Congress, two decades ago there were 30. But GOP donors have made it all but impossible for any high-profile Republican to support the labor movement. That didn’t change this week, and it isn’t about to change anytime soon.