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What Republicans Plan to Do to Labor If They Win
Forget slogans. Here are the actual, awful policy proposals.
Labor policy is probably the single best reason for people on the left to support Joe Biden. He ain’t perfect—he crushed the railroad strike, for example, which was very bad!—but by the standards of modern US presidents, he is by far the best thing unions have seen in my lifetime. It’s been impossible to pass the big labor law reform bill, the PRO Act, through Congress thanks the existence of the filibuster, but Biden’s NLRB has been in overdrive trying to do what it can to make the regulatory environment more conducive to union organizing. If Biden is reelected, you can safely assume that unions will have everything in place at the federal level to make serious gains throughout America. Unless they fuck it up.
What if Biden doesn’t win? No matter who the Republican nominee is, as always happens in Republican administrations, the NLRB will be flipped back into an agency that works to crush worker power, rather than to bolster it. In this election, though, we don’t have to guess about what the Republicans want to do—they have compiled and released a handy plan that tells us. That 920-page plan is “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise,” a top-to-bottom list of policy priorities for every federal agency published by the Project 2025 Presidential Transition Project, representing a who’s who of right wing establishment groups like the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, the Family Research Council, Turning Point USA, and others.
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This is the playbook that the Republican establishment hopes will set the agenda for the first 180 days of the next Republican administration. It is a far right document that has already gotten attention for its plans to purge the civil service and fill it with MAGA drones, to criminalize the existence of trans people, and other horrific things. Fun stuff. This is, again, the guiding document of what is now the mainstream of the Republican Party. They are really proud of this stuff, which is why they release this document publicly.
The labor policy section of their plans has gotten less attention than some of the other more flamboyantly catastrophic sections. So let’s give it a quick examination, shall we? The first thing to note about this entire document is: The right wing policy world are true believers in the culture war. Politicians often just throw out culture war stuff as red meat for the rubes back home, but this document goes to show that the top tier think tank thinkers on the right consider these things to be legitimate policy priorities. The section covering the Department of Labor and related agencies was written by Federalist Society goon Jonathan Berry (Yale, Columbia Law, Supreme Court clerk for Alito), a man whose prestigious resume does not prevent him from writing things like “The Judeo-Christian tradition, stretching back to Genesis, has always recognized fruitful work as integral to human dignity, as service to God, neighbor, and family. And Americans have long been known for their work ethic.” Okay dude.
Because of this, an absurd amount of space is dedicated to the hysterical goals of getting rid of governmental “Critical Race Theory Trainings” and DEI policies, eliminating anti-discrimination language, changing legal standards so that workplaces can be more religious (and anti-abortion), gutting the EEOC, and—my favorite—mandatory time and a half pay on Sundays because “God ordained the Sabbath as a day of rest, and until very recently the Judeo-Christian tradition sought to honor that mandate by moral and legal regulation of work on that day.” Okay. Sure.
I’m all for time and a half on Sundays, but the Christian fundamentalist cast of these proposals actually robs Republicans from their duties to protect the interests of capital, not just be racist religious loons. Those policy prescriptions above, which take center stage, are bad, yes, but anyone with a materialist analysis of labor policy understands that those things are ultimately sideshows. They are not how a smart capitalist would go about gutting the ability of working people to build power in their own interests. The tiny little Christian aphids that eat the brains of the Republican base also appear to be getting to their Supreme Court clerks. Sad.
After the gaudily anti-DEI beginning, though, the chapter does get into the ideas that would do the most damage in the real world. They want to roll back “independent contractor” rules to earlier standards that make it impossible for “gig economy” workers to organize and build power; they want to roll back the improved “joint employer” standard, which would allow corporations that have franchises to escape responsibility for bad labor practices; they want to roll back the recently improved overtime threshold, which would make millions of workers ineligible for overtime pay; they want to exempt small businesses from OSHA and NLRB regulations altogether, which would leave millions more workers with no protection from unsafe, abusive bosses; and, despite that litany of calls for less government supervision of the workplace, the one place they do want to increase supervision is over people receiving unemployment benefits, who must be monitored more closely lest they engage in fraud (unlike upstanding business owners, who need no such oversight).
When it comes to worker organizing and collective bargaining, the document acknowledges that “American workers lack a meaningful voice in today’s workplace.” It proposes to fix that getting more workers into unions, which exist for the purpose of giving workers a meaningful voice in the workplace. I’m kidding. It proposes to “create non-union ‘employee involvement organizations,’” so that workers have the choice of joining a thing that looks vaguely like a union but exercises none of its power. It benevolently proposes that these pseudo-unions could place a worker on their company’s board—though that would, of course, be a “non-voting, supervisory” board seat.
Having dispensed with this show of concern, the document then proposing cracking down on the supervision of unions and their finances, despite the fact that they have extremely high disclosure requirements already. (To understand Republican priorities, consider the fact that the party consistently opposes increasing funding for the NLRB, which makes sure that employers aren’t violating worker rights, but here proposes increasing funding for the OLMS, the agency that supervises unions themselves.) Also included are proposals to limit the scope of “protected concerted activity” at work; to impose burdensome regulations on non-union worker centers, the only groups that can successfully build power for large numbers of workers who can’t join unions; to do away with requirements that companies disclose the professional union-busting firms that they hire; to eliminate any possibility for “card check” union elections (which don’t even exist today, but why chance it?) and to make it easier for disgruntled workers to decertify their existing unions; and, in a favorite idea of right wing reformers who like to cast themselves as pro-worker, to make laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as safety laws under OSHA, “negotiable” in collective bargaining. This would, for example, grant impoverished workers the ability to negotiate safety and overtime laws in exchange for pay increases. Perhaps if all of those Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers had had this ability, they would have still burned to death, but at a slightly higher rate of pay.
Then there are a number of proposals that would crush the ability of pensions to do ESG investing, squeeze union pension plans, restrict immigration, and implement protectionist policies. And, in case you are having trouble envisioning who all would be staffing our nation’s regulatory agencies in 2025, the chapter specifically calls to fire NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo—the most pro-union appointee in the entire government—on day one, to “Implement a hiring freeze for career officials,” and to “Maximize hiring of political appointees.” Goodbye, civil service; Hello, an army of 30 year-old Federalist Society lawyers who don’t know how to turn on the computers but it’s okay because they don’t want the place to function, anyhow.
In recent years some Republicans have found it politically expedient to strike a pose as “populists” who care about the working class but find unions tired old political machines that people must be protected from. Simultaneously, writers like me who cover labor have been forced to write a sickening number of essays explaining why all of these Republicans are full of shit. This work is tedious, like explaining to kindergarteners why the drifter offering them candy is not really their friend, and I do not want to keep writing essays like that for years to come.
Instead of wondering whether Republicans have finally changed their hearts, please just refer to the policies mentioned above. These policies are a fair representation of the substance of the Republican Party’s agenda on labor. They intend to use every regulatory mechanism they can to weaken unions. They intend to make it harder for workers to organize and build power against corporations. They intend to make it easier for employers to flout safety laws and many other types of pro-worker regulations. They intend to make it harder to hold employers responsible for discriminating on the basis of religion or sex or race. They recognize that labor unions are legitimately powerful tools that can build an effective wall against the power of organized capital, and their overarching goal is to make it as difficult as possible for unions to grow or flourish or spread their protections to new workers. There is nothing “populist” or pro-worker about this agenda. Nothing. As on many other issues, the Republican Party waves a flag and a Bible to distract you from the fact that they are picking your pocket.
You do not have to be an expert on the arcane portions of labor regulatory policy to judge what is happening here. Just remember this simple rule: Anyone who truly cares about working people will do whatever they can to strengthen unions. Anyone who claims to care about working people while trying to weaken unions is full of shit. If you are drowning, you need a life raft. You don’t need a Federalist Society member standing on the side of a ship, yelling “Hey I’m very concerned about the fact that you’re drowning, but rather than a life raft, let me offer you this book about breath-holding techniques. By the way, my family owns the publisher.”
Ignore the bullshit and watch the policies. The policies are very, very bad.
I wrote a book about the American labor movement, how it can change this country for the better, and why it hasn’t succeeded in doing so yet. It’s called “The Hammer,” and it’s coming out in February of 2024. You can preorder it here. It’s fun to read and I bet you will like it!
The screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America have been on strike for more than four months now. The actors of SAG-AFTRA have been on strike for nearly two months. Thousands of people in those unions are really, really suffering with no income. You can read about how to support the strike here, and you can donate to the Entertainment Community Fund, which is providing emergency financial support for strikers, here.
I am not on strike, thankfully, because I am now “self-employed,” a term that can mean just about anything. It is you, the thousands of subscribers to How Things Work, that enable me to try to forge this bold and ill-advised career path in independent media. If you like what you read here, please consider very seriously becoming a paid subscriber, so that I may purchase and consume the food that fuels my fingers when I am typing things. We are a team here. And we will win.