The “statement on a conservative future for the American labor movement,” released just before Labor Day by the fledgling think tank American Compass, opens, naturally, with a celebration of “economic freedom,” “limited government,” and markets. All of these things are good, American Compass claims, but something has nevertheless gone bad.
“As we advocate for owners and managers in their pursuit of profit, and celebrate the enormous benefits their efforts can generate for us all, we must accord the same respect to the concerns of workers and ensure that they too have a seat at the table,” the statement—signed by Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions, and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, among others—explains. “In a well-functioning and competitive market, participants meet as equals able to advance their interests through mutually beneficial relationships.” Sounding very much at one point like Bernie Sanders, the statement’s authors continue, “Strong worker representation can make America stronger.”
What follows is a truncated history of the decline in union membership in the United States, which treats the phenomenon as a mysterious ex nihilo occurrence, and an amicable vision of the future of the worker-employer relationship built on mutual respect and benevolence. It all feels fairly harmless, if a little deluded.
The prospect of a right-wing workers’ movement has terrified the left and titillated nationalists for decades because it tends to evoke the specter of a salt-of-the-earth white majority rising up to, if I can borrow a phrase, make America great again. But despite the recurring fascination with this idea on both sides of the political divide, in the U.S., pro-worker conservatism, for all its pretenses of mass appeal, is a fleeting thought-exercise cooked up by pundits and think tanks more than a movement with any significant constituency. This is Mitch McConnell’s party, after all.
Earlier this spring, for instance, as American Compass was just launching with blogs about family life in a work-obsessed culture, McConnell—who’s opposed increasing the minimum wage and heartily cheered the Supreme Court’s undermining of public sector unions—blocked federal aid to states struggling to cover public employees’ pensions during a pandemic. And though Donald Trump’s thundering about jobs and trade may have helped him win around 43 percent of union households in 2016, his presidency (like most other Republican administrations) has been defined by handouts to corporations and the wealthy. Whatever support he once had among working-class voters now appears to be crumbling.