The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rubio’s outreach to labor encapsulates his party’s working-class strategy

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gives a thumbs-up, Feb. 13. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
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The news came out of the blue: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was publicly endorsing a unionization effort by Amazon employees in Alabama. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

This is not a traditional Republican approach. For decades, the party has consistently sided with employers against labor, advancing policy which weakens unions and disrupts the ability to organize workers. Rubio’s apparent break with that history by offering his support for the unionization effort is therefore striking.

“The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over,” he wrote in an essay for USA Today. In tone, it mirrored the pronouncement by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Election Day last year: “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.”

But one should not assume Rubio’s embrace of the organizing effort is actually an embrace of empowering employees, any more than one should assume Hawley’s declaration centers on the workers who constitute the working class. As the rest of Rubio’s essay makes clear, his interest is far more in standing against the cultural power of large companies than bolstering the bargaining power of their employees.

There is nonetheless some truth in Hawley’s declaration about the Republican Party. As we wrote in 2019, Gallup polling has shown a widening divergence in party registration between White Americans who do and don’t have a college degree over the past 15 years or so.

That’s reflected in presidential election results, the apparent trigger for Hawley’s comments. As recently as 1996, Whites with or without college degrees were both about 10 points more Republican in their presidential vote preference than the country on the whole. Whites without college degrees, though, became consistently more Republican over time. The advent of Donald Trump and a sharp turn against the GOP by college-educated White women pushed college-educated Whites in the other direction.

Pew Research Center data showed that 70 percent of Republicans had no college degree in 2020, about the same percentage as in 1996. Among Democrats, the percentage with a degree has increased from 22 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2019. This pattern overlaps with other demographics; older Americans, for example, are less likely to have degrees. But as a proxy for “working class,” it’s revelatory.

What animates Rubio here, though, isn’t a dedicated sense that workers should have the right to hold their employers accountable, or that they should have a say in the direction the company takes. Instead, it’s that Amazon is a powerful corporation which, in Rubio’s estimation, advocates a progressive worldview.

The paragraphs before and after Rubio’s declaration of separation from the business community offer critical context.

“For decades, companies like Amazon have been allies of the left in the culture war, but when their bottom line is threatened they turn to conservatives to save them,” he writes. However: “Republicans have rightly understood the dangers posed by the unchecked influence of labor unions.”

“Here’s my standard,” he adds a bit later: “When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy — I support the workers.”

His advocacy for the union isn’t about empowering the workers, it’s about demonstrating opposition to a “culture war against working-class values” conducted by the employer of those workers. Those are very, very different things.

In an interview with New York magazine, Democratic data guru David Shor articulated the real shift to which Rubio is objecting.

“We’ve never had an industrialized society where the richest and most powerful people were as liberal as they are now in the U.S.,” Shor said. “There is now this host of incredibly powerful institutions — whether it’s corporate boardrooms or professional organizations — which are now substantially more liberal than they’ve ever been.” That is itself to some extent a reflection of the increased liberalism among college-educated Whites.

Corporate America has never shied away from leveraging politics to bolster its values. It’s just that, for decades, those values were largely ones with which Republicans agreed. Now, to Rubio’s and Hawley’s consternation, companies are weighing in to support movements such as Black Lives Matter or to express opposition to insurrections. A company advocating for a progressive social value — by, say, pulling ads from a conservative show — is the sort of “culture war against working-class values” which Rubio’s talking about. That phrase begs the question by assuming that working-class values are the cultural values that the Republican Party is so focused on, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

One progressive value which corporations have not embraced, of course, is the right of workers to organize without interference. “Amazon’s opposition to the union effort in its own backyard is also inconsistent with the progressive values it has forced on everyone else,” Rubio writes, correctly.

When he says that corporate America has turned to the GOP to save their bottom line, opposition to unions is the sort of thing he’s talking about. And it’s the sort of thing he’s done: In 2019, Rubio co-sponsored legislation which offers such protection by banning compulsory union membership in some workplaces. Such laws are the bane of organized labor, reinforcing the situational nature of Rubio’s pro-union announcement.

Perhaps Rubio’s shift to endorsing an organizing campaign nonetheless augurs a friendlier relationship between his party and labor. Maybe Rubio’s rationalization for his current position will evolve — even if only to demonstrate consistent opposition to progressive corporations — into serious support for organizing.

There would likely be value to his doing so. As we noted after President Biden explicitly endorsed the organizing effort in Alabama, more than 1-in-10 U.S. workers are members of unions. It’s a group which is disproportionately non-White, providing an opportunity for a party which will need to improve with non-White voters as the density of Whites declines.

Organized labor also provides significant heft to Democratic political efforts, in terms of messaging to members, encouraging field organizing and endorsing candidates. Republicans have benefited from explicitly advocating for one group of organized public-sector employees — police officers — and a broader effort to stand with unions might at least dilute the utility of organized labor for the political left.

But this is unlikely. Rubio doesn’t want workers to have leverage in negotiations with employers as much as he wants leverage for himself in his struggle against the political heft of corporations. Rubio is endorsing the union for the same reason that the workers want one: They both want to change Amazon’s behavior. The difference is Rubio is far more concerned about how Amazon deviates from the conservative cultural orthodoxy he heralds as the essence of the working class than he is in how Amazon actually treats its class of workers.