For almost 80 years, the conservative movement and the Republican Party that has served as its imperfect electoral vehicle have sought to advance three goals related to labor relations: restoring voluntarism to union membership and participation; subjecting union operations, finances, and internal governance to government scrutiny; and protecting American consumers and the broader economy from the fallout from strikes and other industrial action. That approach has been wildly successful; few American workers face the choice of either funding fundamentally political groups with which they disagree or losing their jobs.
But a faction of conservatives heavily backed by left-wing, anti-free-market foundations like the Omidyar Network Fund and the Hewlett Foundation would open the door to bring Big Labor back into many workplaces where workers have rejected it. They are exercising their influence over Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation–led coalition that proposes a comprehensive, ready-made agenda for the next president.
It’s understandable that many conservatives seek to reinforce ties with working-class Americans and to resist increasingly “woke” Big Business. But Big Labor is even more woke than Big Business and wields great political power that harms all Americans. Abandoning 80 years of successful policy approaches and enacting policy that would strengthen union bosses will not empower America’s working families but channel funding and support to a key pillar of the left-wing movement, including by taking money out of conservatives’ pockets.
Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise was produced by the 2025 Presidential Transition Project coalition organized by the Heritage Foundation, the longtime flagship think tank of conservatism. This document presents a comprehensive, ready-made agenda for the next president—just as Heritage has done every four years since the 1980 presidential election. This ninth iteration has grown into an impressive 900-page tome with detailed recommendations spanning the entire federal government, department by department, agency by agency. The recommendations draw upon expertise and experience from across the conservative movement.
Inevitably, not every recommendation is supported by every conservative. Such policy disagreements and debates are a necessary and wise prerequisite of good government.
However, in its chapter on labor issues the Mandate makes troubling recommendations that would partially abandon a nearly eight-decade consensus conservative approach to labor relations. The most troubling of these are the endorsement of laws to encourage works councils and regulate the membership of corporate boards. Oren Cass and the nonprofit he leads, American Compass, have long promoted these and similar policies, but if implemented, these works councils and board seats would almost certainly be captured by existing, staunchly liberal labor unions, becoming what I characterize as a “misguided Republican gift to Big Labor.” The Mandate also fails to urge repeal of federal laws that grant undeserved privileges to unionized contractors on federal projects—privileges that conservatives have long opposed—choosing instead to relegate criticism of these privileges to an “alternative view.”
Statism from the Right
Oren Cass’s American Compass has long advocated for creating works councils and mandating worker representation on corporate boards. Interestingly, American Compass has accepted funding from liberal Big Philanthropy as part of those philanthropies’ effort to replace free markets (well, free-ish-markets) as the dominant political-economic paradigm with a statist, administrative, left-wing model.
As its influence over the 2025 Presidential Transition Project coalition’s Mandate shows, American Compass’s vision of a statist right wing in American politics is gaining increased purchase. It claims allies in the Senate Republican Conference and even the conservative House Republican Study Committee. Populists understandably worry that Big Business has aligned with the radical Left—even Bud Light, the longtime chosen beverage of millions of red-blooded heartlanders, recently rejected their good will to partner with transgender TikTokers in a vain pursuit of “Zoomers.”
But Big Labor has long oppressed and abused workers in ways pro-union conservatives rarely consider, and Big Labor’s social policies are actually more woke than Big Business’s. To give power and influence to Big Labor is to give priceless aid to the institutional Left, which will come with a price tag for the millions of Republican and conservative workers forced to accept union representation in the 24 states lacking a right-to-work law. Were American Compass’s positions to gain more purchase, the errors could be consequential indeed.
To understand why the works councils, government dictates about membership of corporate boards, and government mandates for union-wage construction projects that American Compass advocates and Project 2025 endorses are errors, one must understand the paradigm that prevailed through the Trump administration’s labor agencies and still commands a majority or near-majority of elected Republicans. I call that paradigm the “Taft-Hartley consensus” after the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, a law that passed with a bipartisan majority over Harry Truman’s veto and is better known as the Taft-Hartley Act. It corrected many but not all of the political-economic errors of the New Deal–era National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
The Taft-Hartley consensus pursues three principles: voluntarism in union membership and union activities; public scrutiny and government regulation of labor unions’ exercise of the powers they’ve received from government; and protection of the American consumer, worker, and broader economy from the disruptions of mass industrial action like the strike wave of 1946 that helped the Taft-Hartley Congress get elected.
How the Right Got Here
Since the 1940s, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have mainly sought three goals in the government administration of labor-management relations:
- Restoring voluntarism to union membership by opposing laws that coerce workers to join unions and coerce union members to follow union leadership;
- Subjecting unions’ internal operations to the scrutiny and governance they deserve, given the coercive powers that federal law grants unions; and
- Limiting the potential damage that labor disputes can cause the broader economy and the American consumer.
These are fundamentally moderate goals. They arose because of the Democrats’ Wagner Act of 1935, which overrode then-prevailing constitutional separations of powers with the aid of the Supreme Court’s infamous “switch in time to save nine” ruling that established the modern federally administered private-sector labor-relations regime. When in response the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947, it only tweaked that regime around the edges, which did not stop Big Labor from denouncing Taft-Hartley as a “slave-labor law,” showing how little left-wing hyperbole has changed in almost a century.
Taft-Hartley was also passed only after the most destructive wave of labor disputes in American political history. It did not reverse the constitutional “innovations” of the original National Labor Relations Act by, for example, rejecting government sanction for collective bargaining or modifying the default assumption that a union would enjoy exclusive monopoly representation of all workers in a company, not just union members, with all to be governed by a union contract. Instead, the law simply granted states the power to end forced-dues arrangements, which was a lukewarm attempt to restore voluntarism by permitting “right to work laws.” It also subjected unions to certain reciprocal duties in collective bargaining (the first such effort after the NLRA to subject union behavior to federal governance), and it restricted certain types of strikes, in response to the 1946 strike wave, which had left Americans sufficiently alarmed at union power to elect a Congress that would pass Taft-Hartley.
The work of the Taft-Hartley Congress was later supplemented by the work of the Eisenhower administration and by passage of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) in 1959. This law passed in response to investigations that exposed widespread corruption in labor unions (especially the Teamsters under Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa). It subjected union finances to the barest scrutiny and somewhat tightened the secondary strike regulations in Taft-Hartley (secondary strikes occur when a union tries to pressure its primary business target by striking against or boycotting other corporations that do business with the primary target). Scrutiny of union finances was later increased by the George W. Bush administration, when then-Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao directed that the financial disclosures required by LMRDA become more comprehensive.
In the next installment, Big Labor radicalizes after the Cold War as public employee unions become dominant.