The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to tell if Republicans mean what they say about working people

CSX Transportation freight trains are parked in a railroad yard ahead of a potential freight rail workers union strike in Louisville on Sept. 14. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)
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“The uniqueness of this party today,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last year, is that “we’re the American workers’ party.” Any Republican will say the same thing: They’re the ones fighting for reg’lar Joes and Janes, the party of blue-collar folks with dirt under their fingernails, the tribune of real Americans.

If you point out that their highest legislative priorities are still tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation for corporations, they’ll say you have it all wrong. Just look at how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went after Disney for being too “woke”! That’s the rebellious, anti-corporate spirit that animates the new GOP.

Here’s how to judge whether Republicans are really taking the side of working people against corporations: When it’s time to do something, and there’s a genuine conflict between corporate interests and those of workers or consumers — and not just an opportunity for culture-war posturing — whose side are they on?

Look closely at cases where Republicans say they’re demonstrating their anti-corporate bona fides, and you’ll find anything but. They may cheer when Elon Musk attacks Apple, but whose life does that affect? For most Republicans, the concern about the power of technology companies goes no further than whether far-right trolls are being allowed on social media platforms.

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The same is true of their new bugaboo, ESG, which is investment-speak for “environmental, social, and governance.” It’s a set of considerations some Wall Street firms have begun applying to their investments, gauging whether the companies they put money into are poisoning the environment, have boards that aren’t all White men, and so on.

Republicans are enraged by this development, and are loudly threatening to use state power to punish firms that use ESG in making investment decisions. This is an extension of the rest of their efforts to combat “woke” corporations, which are focused on the culture war: You can despoil communities, steal your workers’ wages, or violate labor standards, and the GOP won’t mind. But if you send out a tweet paying lip service to LGBTQ rights or try to contribute less to global climate change, they are coming for you.

You’ll find few clearer examples than the potential railroad strike the Biden administration and Congress are trying to avert. When unions representing rail workers rejected a deal worked out earlier this fall, the strike loomed, and Congress stepped in. The sticking point is paid sick days, which workers are denied, meaning they can be punished for going to the doctor or staying home when they’re ill. The large railroads, which are swimming in profits, don’t want to give workers any additional sick days.

Not long ago, it seemed as if some Republicans might stand on the workers’ side on this question. Senators such as John Cornyn (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) made noises in that direction, without saying where they’ll stand. Cornyn has already changed his mind, and the others might follow.

To see how they spin the contrast between their words and deeds, consider what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said on his podcast this week. Cruz said the Biden administration is taking the side of management in this conflict, which is partially true, or at least it was as of early in the week. Then he waxed rhapsodic about the GOP’s commitment to working people:

I think one of the most consequential political shifts of the last decade is that Republicans have become a blue-collar party. We are the party of workingmen and -women. We are the party of truck drivers and steel workers, and we are the party of the railroad union workers.

Great! So that means Cruz and his Republican colleagues will be voting in favor of more sick days for railroad workers, right?

Wrong. The workers, Cruz said, “ought to negotiate with management and resolve it,” and he made clear that he opposes the effort to require sick days as part of the contract. Supporting workers is all well and good as a piece of rhetoric, but when it comes to doing something to help them, Cruz won’t lift a finger. He is as enthusiastic about helping railroad workers as he is about raising the minimum wage, improving worker safety or making sure workers have secure health care.

Cruz will get a chance to go on record, because Wednesday the House passed two bills, one requiring workers to accept the negotiated deal that included no paid sick days, and another bill requiring seven paid sick days per year to rail contracts. The latter bill passed because all 218 Democrats present voted for it. Yet virtually all House Republicans — 204 of the 207 voting — opposed it.

We’ll see if any of their Senate colleagues decide that seven sick days a year isn’t too much to ask, or if instead they stay true to form and side with the corporations. It’s moments like this one — in a conflict between the interests of workers and the interests of hugely profitable corporations trying to squeeze more profits out of those workers — when you reveal which side you’re really on.