You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Conservatives Aren’t Serious About Empowering the Working Class

A new manifesto by the nonprofit American Compass capably identifies the problems facing the working class but stumbles on the solutions—especially labor unions.

Simon Denby, an apprentice instructor, helps a student at Ironworkers Local 29 in Dayton, Ohio, in 2022.

For years we’ve been hearing about Republican strategies to displace the Democrats as the party of the working class, but conservative efforts to define what that means have always faltered. The main strategy, dating to the Nixon years, has been to use racial and religious prejudice to drive a wedge into what’s left of the New Deal coalition. But “working class” is an economic designation, not a cultural one. In their 2008 book Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam tried to argue that social issues were economic issues, but that’s too facile and sometimes plainly wrong. (What do working-class women gain by losing abortion rights?) In 2021, Representative Jim Banks wrote Representative Kevin McCarthy a memo on how to make the GOP “permanently … the Party of the Working Class.” But apart from hawkishness on trade and immigration, to which Trump had converted the GOP, Banks was silent on economic matters, relying instead on waging culture war.

American Compass was created three years ago to change that. Founded by Oren Cass, a fortyish former Bainie and domestic policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, American Compass is a conservative nonprofit that fashions itself pro-worker. It just produced a manifesto titled Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers that attempts to define a set of conservative economic policies to help the working class. It will host a conference to discuss these on Wednesday afternoon in the Russell Senate Office Building, with remarks from Senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, J.D. “Hillbilly Elegy” Vance, and Todd Young.

Rebuilding American Capitalism acknowledges wage stagnation, decries stock buybacks, bemoans financialization, and rejects “market fundamentalism.” It knocks libertarians for disdaining government and mocks Glenn Hubbard, President George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser, for stating that “the goal of the economic system [is] optimizing consumption.” It recognizes the serious problem of growing economic inequality. Except for progressives, whom it denounces cartoonishly as disdainful of the private sector and overly “eager to use public programs to provide whatever the market does not,” the manifesto is against the right things. The trouble arises when it’s called upon to be for something—specifically, labor unions.

You can’t be serious about empowering the working class unless you want to strengthen organized labor. Does American Compass want to do that? Yes and no.

Give American Compass credit for including in its manifesto a chapter forthrightly titled “Labor.” Congressional Republicans are so nauseated by this word that whenever they regain control of the House they change the name of the Committee on Education and Labor to the Committee on Education and the Workforce. This revulsion does a disservice to the roughly one-third of union members who reliably vote Republican. Indeed, there’s a conservative argument to make in favor of labor unions, and I’m pleased to see American Compass make it:

Especially for conservatives, who cherish the role of mediating institutions, prefer private ordering to government dictates, and believe prosperity must be earned rather than redistributed, reforming and reinvigorating the laws that govern organizing and collective bargaining should be an obvious priority.

Amen. I would add only that Republicans show their true colors by relying, whenever they control the White House, on government power to impede the growth of private-sector unions at the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB.

Also on the plus side, Rebuilding American Capitalism calls for sectoral bargaining, in which labor unions negotiate wages across industry sectors. The United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers established a variation on sectoral bargaining called pattern bargaining back in the 1940s, though its efficacy diminished with the rise of foreign competition. The idea, which is a good one, is that competition within an industry (or its absence) shouldn’t drive down wages.

The section heading “Guarantee Workers’ Legal Right to Organize” got me very excited. But on closer inspection, the manifesto avoided any mention of the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO. Act, the only serious vehicle right now to shore up labor rights, which has two Republican co-sponsors in the House (Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick and New Jersey’s Christopher Smith), though none, alas, in the Senate. The PRO Act would reverse key anti-labor provisions in the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, voiding, for instance, state “right-to-work” laws that allow union nonmembers to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without paying union fees, and legalizing secondary boycotts like the supermarket boycotts that the United Farm Workers’ Cesar Chavez organized during the 1960s to bring grape growers to heel. (Chavez was allowed to target supermarkets that sold grapes only because agricultural workers weren’t covered by the NLRA, and they still aren’t.) The PRO Act would also for the first time allow the NLRB to impose serious monetary penalties on businesses that violate the NLRA; right now all it can do is require payment of back wages and reinstatement of a fired employee, which is why companies violate the act routinely.

How would Rebuilding American Capitalism guarantee workers’ right to organize? By doing, to quote Jake Gittes describing his instructions as a cop patrolling Chinatown (in the great 1974 film of that title), “as little as possible.” The PRO Act would require the NLRB to seek a court injunction to reinstate immediately any employee fired for union organizing. Rebuilding American Capitalism merely advises the NLRB to give its general counsel authority to seek such injunctions—authority the general counsel possesses already, and, under General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, is applying aggressively. Under a Republican president, the energetic pursuit of injunctions is a lot less likely to occur, and a polite request from American Compass will have no effect.

Even worse than its Chinatown approach to protecting workers’ right to organize is Rebuilding America’s section titled “Get Worker Organizations Out of Partisan Politics.” Organized labor’s political influence, even in its current greatly diminished form, is pretty much the only thing it has going for it at a time when private-sector union membership is down to 6 percent. Unions have always been a force in politics, and it would be suicide for them to withdraw now.

Or perhaps Rebuilding America means only that unions should withdraw from spending directly on political campaigns, something they were barred legally from doing before the Supreme Court turned corporations (and labor unions) into people in 2010’s Citizens United case. “The United States should prohibit political spending by worker organizations,” the manifesto says, “comparable to the prohibition on political spending by 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations.” Spending by affiliated PACs would still be permissible. Fine by me—but only if corporations (which take much greater advantage of Citizens United than unions do) are similarly barred from political spending. Which of course would require the Supreme Court to overturn Citizens United. Good luck with that. Rebuilding America makes much of the fact that the AFL-CIO and SEIU don’t allow members to dictate how they allocate lobby resources, but neither do corporations allow stockholders to do the same. The prospect of unions disarming unilaterally and leaving politics to corporations doesn’t seem to worry American Compass.

Ultimately, Rebuilding American Capitalism, for all its proletarian posturing, can’t muster much enthusiasm for labor unions. After its very good review early on of the data on growing income inequality, and a less-good section accusing liberals of not supporting apprenticeship programs (not remotely true), the manifesto gives the game away by stating that “although most Americans … wish they had more opportunities for their voice to be heard” in the workplace, “the traditional labor union is not the model they prefer.” Oh, please. Anybody who’s paid the slightest attention knows that labor unions enjoy more public support today than they have in half a century. It’s inconceivable that the authors of Rebuilding American Capitalism don’t know this.

To justify its claim that workers don’t especially like unions, Rebuilding American Capitalism cites polling data (from a poll conducted by American Compass) that says 63 percent would prefer a “worker organization” (whatever that is) to be run by labor and management, as opposed to 37 percent who would prefer it to be run solely by workers. This is a testament not to any wariness of unions on the public’s part but to the public’s naïveté about American management’s willingness to cooperate with labor. It’s different in Europe, of course, where they have works councils and other organizations where these things get hashed out by labor, management, and the government. American corporations rejected this model after World War II, when Walter Reuther and other union leaders proposed it. If they could now be persuaded otherwise, that would be lovely. But after reading American Compass’s manifesto, I wouldn’t trust any conservative to write the enabling legislation. Rebuilding American Capitalism has some good ideas about what ails America, but it balks at furnishing the means to fix it.