Labor Watch

A Mandate for Labor Error: Big Labor Radicalizes

A Mandate for Labor Error
Statism from the Right | Big Labor Radicalizes
Strange Bedfellows | Coming to Policy at Last | Conclusion

Big Labor Radicalizes

As conservatives advanced their moderate aims in the post–New Deal era, Big Labor started radicalizing. As workers’ freedom not to join unions thrived under right-to-work laws led to stalled growth of union membership in the private sector, Big Labor’s membership numbers were buoyed by liberal programs to expand collective bargaining to workers in the government sector—a move so radical that even supporters of Big Government like FDR had strongly resisted it.

These government workers made the American labor movement increasingly socialist in outlook, and their muscle would be supplemented by a new labor leadership cadre that was blooded in activism against the Vietnam War and in the left wing of the civil rights movement through groups like Students for a Democratic Society. During the Cold War, American labor unions largely occupied the center ground on foreign relations and on many social policies, even as they hewed to the left economically. This positioning is best exemplified by the AFL-CIO’s refusal to endorse 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who was seen as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” After the Cold War, the rising socialist forces took over the labor movement with the election of John Sweeney as leader of the AFL-CIO; future refusals to endorse Democrats would become unthinkable.

From Meany to Sweeney: Labor’s Leftward Tilt,” a 1996 report by Heritage scholar James Phillips, describes how this process played out:

The AFL-CIO altered its moderate political stance as it moved beyond the shrinking manufacturing sector. As the union movement has grown more dependent on the public sector, it has moved squarely into the liberal camp, forging the very alliances that [AFL president Samuel] Gompers and [AFL-CIO president George] Meany had shunned.

In October 1995, public employee unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) spearheaded a successful rebellion to depose Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO. John Sweeney, head of the SEIU, became the first AFL-CIO president from a largely public-sector union, completing the federation’s transformation from a voice for workers in negotiating with management into one of the nation’s principal defenders of big government.

In the nearly 30 years since that change, the strength of so-called social justice unionism within the labor union movement has only grown. In late March 2023, a coalition of AFL-CIO-affiliated unions issued a series of demands for left-wing social-policy legislation that would expand abortion access and constrain the rights of religious dissenters from left-wing gender and sexuality orthodoxies—positions the authors of the Mandate for Leadership chapter explicitly oppose.

The Rise of an Intellectual Fad

Before addressing the union-curious fad that drives groups like American Compass, it is important to document that labor unions and labor unionists have done nothing that should dissuade conservatives from their long-standing skepticism of Big Labor or their commitment to the three goals enshrined in Taft-Hartley.

Labor unions continue to fund the institutional pillars of the Left. The Center for American Progress, the Left’s direct counterpart to the Heritage Foundation, and its associated lobbying arm received $675,000 from the SEIU, AFSCME, National Education Association, and Communications Workers of America just in those labor unions’ 2022 fiscal years. Labor unions continue to press for left-wing social policy on issues ranging from critical race theory to sexuality and gender ideology to abortion access. The resources available to unions are massive: the Center for Union Facts calculated some years back the total dues paid at over $10 billion per year, and total spending on political activities and external contributions at over $1 billion per year. In the 2022 election cycle, OpenSecrets reports that the SEIU alone was a top-10 organizational donor in federal politics, giving 99 percent of its money to Democrats.

So what gives? One can trace three strands of thought driving otherwise sound conservatives to abandon 75 years of solid policy. First is the justified concern over the rise of “woke capitalism” and the desire to see socially conservative workers protected from what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of American Compass’s elected allies, called “management’s latest ‘woke’ human resources fad.” Another thread is simple electoral calculation: After all, Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by ceding more union-skeptical Sun Belt electorates to win more union-friendly Rust Belt electorates. Finally, some conservatives have thrown in their lot with liberal mega-foundations like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Pierre Omidyar’s foundations, who seek to “reimagine”—read “replace”—so-called capitalism, and American Compass is the most prominent group to cooperate with these left-wing donors’ imaginings.

These strands can be addressed in turn. Regarding “woke capitalism,” conservatives should fear the rise of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing, the affirmation of ESG by Democratic-controlled governments, and the corporate managerial class’s infatuation with left-wing social agendas at the expense of business success. See, for example, Alissa Heinerscheid, the Bud Light marketing executive who took a leave of absence after her controversial partnership with the transgender TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney led to customer pushback.

But would America’s labor unions protect workers against “management’s latest ‘woke’ human resources fad,” as Sen. Rubio has claimed they might? There is little evidence for that. Major labor unions fund the activist groups that lead woke campaigns. Their leadership strongly supports liberal social policy and has even demanded that private-sector employers carry out woke capitalist policies in support of abortion access when not campaigning for “free, safe, legal abortion on demand.”

Government-sector pension funds managed by politicians aligned with union agendas or by union representatives helped to originate ESG-style investing. California’s Public Employees Retirement System has been taking ESG into account since at least 2000, when it introduced an environmentalist-aligned “Double Bottom Line” policy under union-backed State Treasurer Phil Angelides (D). Effects on the state’s long-term fiscal outlook have not been the success the unions and their allies promised.

Unions Don’t Bring Conservative Electoral Success

As for claims by some conservatives that embracing unions will drive electoral success, these notions arise from populist factions’ overinterpretation of the 2016 election results and under-interpretation of elections since then. Many note that in his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump’s efforts in the upper Midwest states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were aided by his moderate stances on economic issues relative to the positions of prior Republican candidates like Mitt Romney. And this is generally true—but not on labor-relations issues.

President Trump’s campaigns promised not to touch entitlements and promised trade protectionism, both public policies from which I respectfully dissent but freely concede are quite popular. As for labor relations, Trump did not campaign on the issue much at all and appointed officials to the Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board who would have (and in some cases, had) served comfortably in previous Republican administrations. Trump’s point man on labor issues at the White House was James Sherk, a Heritage alumnus. His last Labor Secretary was Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin. The Trump administration was solidly committed to the Taft-Hartley conservative consensus.

Where union-curious “New Right” Republicans have run on the same ticket as ordinary Old Republicans, the results have not shown an electorate preference for the lunch-pail men. The most committed of the union-aligned conservative elected officials is probably Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio; he won 53 percent of the vote while sharing a ticket with incumbent Governor Mike DeWine (R) in 2022. DeWine is a long-standing Ohio Republican elected official who has held nearly every major office in the state over a career ranging back to the 1970s. He is the definition of “generic Republican” in ideology. DeWine won 62 percent of the vote, or 9 points better than Vance.

But maybe that was caused by Vance being in an open seat and DeWine being an incumbent, or by Vance’s opponent’s fundraising prowess. Well, another prominent labor conservative senator was up in 2022: Marco Rubio, an incumbent in Florida who shared his ticket with controversial Governor Ron DeSantis, who had battled his state’s teachers’ unions over COVID lockdown policies. While both Rubio and DeSantis ultimately cruised to re-election, DeSantis, the union skeptic, led the ticket with 59.4 percent of the vote, and Rubio, the appeasing moderate, trailed with 57.7 percent. (DeSantis celebrated his victory in part by announcing an ambitious package of reforms to government-worker bargaining rules in Florida.)

While a handful of true moderates in the House of Representatives like Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) are pro-union and politically successful, they are explicitly not models of conservative governance. Other candidates who have tried to walk the union-friendly line while affirming conservatism, like Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, failed to win election while being outpolled by both Trump-like populists and conventional old-school Republicans despite having the support of a major financial benefactor.

Meanwhile, the “last survivor” Republican holding a statewide elected office in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Far from a union sympathizer, Sen. Johnson has co-sponsored the Employee Rights Act, legislation advanced by Congressional Republicans to promote the Taft-Hartley consensus.

In the next installment, American Compass has received significant funding from leading left-wing institutions.

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
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