Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

 Marco Rubio Wants to Be a Working Class Hero. There’s Just One Problem.

Feb. 8, 2022


Credit... Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist


However much Republican politicians denounce “woke capital” or emphasize their growing number of working-class supporters, the fact remains that the Republican Party’s economic agenda — of tax cuts for the wealthy and impunity for employers — is organized for the benefit of capital, from wealthy shareholders and Wall Street asset managers to the billionaire owners of glorified family firms.


This is true even when Republicans try to turn their rhetorical concern for the interests of workers into something like public policy. Last week, for example, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Jim Banks of Indiana introduced the Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act, which would permit the creation of voluntary organizations “comprised of an employer and a group of their employees for the purpose of discussing matters of mutual interest, such as quality of work, productivity, efficiency, compensation, benefits (including education and training), and accommodation of religious beliefs and practices.”


Crucially, these “employee involvement organizations” are not unions and “cannot enter into collective bargaining agreements.” They serve, instead, as an “alternative to employee unionization” and are “dissolvable by the employer.” Additionally, the Team Act would give employee organizations within large corporations the right to elect a single, nonvoting representative who could then observe corporate board meetings.


Conservative commentators have hailed this as a serious effort to make good on the populist conservatism of the Trump-era Republican Party. “The Republican Party was once the party of the worker and the boss,” Henry Olsen wrote in The Washington Post. “It can be again if it understands that the two prosper together. Rubio and Banks get that, and their Team Act is a good starting point on the G.O.P.’s road to a new majority.”


The big, glaring problem here is that there’s nothing particularly new, or pro-worker, about this sort of narrowly focused, nonconfrontational association with no ability to bargain or negotiate. If anything, these “employee involvement organizations” are a close cousin to “company unions,” which, well, already exist. Explicitly intended to undermine traditional unions, company unions were deployed in the first decades of the 20th century to defang and co-opt labor militancy.


When, in 1933, the federal government first recognized the right of workers to bargain collectively — under Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act — employers responded with a significant expansion of company unionism. According to a 1937 survey of nearly 600 company unions by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited by the historian Irving Bernstein in “The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941,” “The great majority were set up entirely by management. Management conceived the idea, developed the plan, and initiated the organization.” Of the 96 cases for which information was available on the employer’s motives, Bernstein notes, “50 were in response to the N.I.R.A., 13 to a strike, and 2 to a desire to improve personnel relations.”


Widespread hostility to company unions among labor supporters in and out of Congress — who argued, correctly, that company unions impeded the ability of workers to organize across an entire industry — produced Section 8(a)(2) of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which states that, “It shall be an unfair labor practice” for an employer to “dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it.”


After the N.L.R.B. ruled against one company’s “action committees” but made it clear that employee organizations were still legal, Republicans in Congress passed the Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act of 1995 in an attempt to sidestep Section 8(a)(2). The Rubio and Banks bill is, in its essence, a version of the one that President Bill Clinton vetoed in 1996. And, like its predecessor, the new bill reflects the Republican Party’s deep-seated opposition to organized labor.


If an “employee involvement organization” cannot bargain and cannot negotiate, and can be dissolved at any point by the employer, then what purpose does it serve other than to subvert union organizers and channel worker unrest into a front organization for management? The same goes for the nonvoting board representative. Without power to act, what does it matter that someone is permitted to watch and listen?


The real question of the Team Act of 2022 is “Why now?” It may have something to do with the fact that the economy is one of the best in recent memory for ordinary workers, even with inflation the way it is. Extraordinarily high demand for labor has given millions of Americans the leverage they need to demand better conditions and higher wages, as well as push for collective representation.


When asked, in a recent Gallup survey if they approved of labor unions, 68 percent of Americans said yes — the highest approval rating since 1965. After decades of attacks on unions — including a half-century of laws, rulings and decisions that have eroded the ability of workers to organize, win elections for union recognition and bargain collectively — there’s at least some reason to be hopeful for the future of labor.


In that environment, the party whose most recent president was a rapacious, exploitative boss might have some interest in trying to discipline a newly confident working class.


The rhetoric of harmony in employer-employee relations — the celebration of “input” and “a voice at the table” as ends in themselves — is a none-too-clever attempt to obscure the truth, which is that the Team Act is yet another attempt to undermine the right of labor to organize and fight for its own interests. Union busting with a friendly face is still union busting.

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