“GOP voters are working class Americans and they are changing the party.”
That’s the message that Marco Rubio emphasized when we spoke on the phone a few days ago. But the line could have just as easily come from a host of Republicans—Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley, J.D. Vance—who believe that their political future and that of their party is dependent on embracing the working class.
Of the many ways that Donald Trump drove a bulldozer through the party of Ronald Reagan, the one most likely to reshape the GOP for decades to come was his embrace of populism. The 45th president walked into the party of the Laffer curve and announced that it would henceforth be the party of “craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers.”
Critics from the right and the left insist that Trump’s economic populism was, like so many things about the president, just bluster. But the message of economic populism he hammered on the stump has now become a litmus test for any Republican hoping to win over the party’s base—and possibly the White House.
Marco Rubio—the son of a Las Vegas bartender and a maid—is one of them.
Last week, the Florida senator, together with Congressman Jim Banks of Indiana, introduced a new bill that would require companies with profits over $1 billion—think Amazon and Google and Walmart—to give workers the opportunity to elect a representative to serve on their corporate boards. The bill, called the Teamwork for Employees and Managers (or TEAM) Act, would also allow the formation of voluntary organizations with employers and employees “for the purpose of discussing matters of mutual interest, such as quality of work, productivity, efficiency, compensation” and more. In other words, a collective voice without the clout—or baggage—of a union.
“Federal labor law prevents workers from organizing outside of the formal union process,” Rubio said when I asked him what the TEAM act would look like in practice. “The TEAM Act creates the legal framework to allow them to do that.”
For some, the bill is—at best—little more than a symbolic gesture. At worst it’s “union busting with a friendly face” as New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie put it.
Indeed, the bill is an updated version of a 1995 bill proposed by Republicans that was vetoed by President Bill Clinton, on the grounds that such organizations came at the expense of formal union organizing. Critics of the TEAM Act point out that these voluntary organizations do not have the power to enter into collective bargaining agreements and thus lack the teeth of a real union.
But others see Rubio’s bill as an important step in the right direction for workers and for the GOP.
“A place at the table, and a defined place for parties to voice concerns, put forward ideas, and solve problems is real power. And we shouldn’t sniff at that,” says Brian Dijkema, a vice president of Cardus, a nonpartisan Canadian think tank, who worked in labor relations for a decade. “Particularly when the alternative is one worker vs. the whole company, this is a step up,” he said, with the caveat that the devil would be in the details.
Rubio’s bill, like much of what happens on the populist right, is navigating the Scylla of the pro-corporate Right and the Charybdis of the progressive-union Left, opening a new lane that casts itself as both pro-business and pro-worker. If the capital L labor movement has traditionally put workers in an adversarial relationship with management, and the pro-business right has historically ignored the plight of workers altogether, new populists like Rubio are seeking a way to give workers more power while circumventing the unions that are often aligned with the Democratic Party—and without succumbing to the big business pressures of the Republican donor class.
“We focus so much on things like what is the stock market today? Is it up or is it down? What are the statistics on the unemployment rate, and things of that nature,” Rubio told me. “Those are not meaningless, but they don’t really capture the most important thing an economy does. The most important thing an economy does for a country is create stable, good paying jobs so that people can start families, get involved in their communities and retire with dignity. And so the question becomes: What can we do at the federal level to encourage that kind of economy?”
Over the past half-century, blue collar workers across the country have seen their plants shutter, their salaries stagnate, and a whole way of life upended. That’s because of automation, globalization, China, and the rising cost of American labor tied up with all of the above.
Alongside this, the Democratic Party has gradually abandoned its historical commitments to the working- and middle-classes: good schools, safe neighborhoods, and, most important, social mobility. Instead it has embraced a progressive politics that jibes with the sensibilities of wealthy coastal elites—and has alienated pretty much everyone else.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of everyone elses are rushing toward the GOP.
A Bloomberg News analysis from 2020 found that truckers, construction workers, carpenters, builders, electricians, cops, mechanics, and maintenance employees were among the occupations most likely to give to Trump. (By contrast, Biden got the lion’s share of teachers, professors, therapists, lawyers, HR department staff, finance professionals, and bankers.)
At the national level, union staffers—especially on the political and public policy sides of things—are very likely to be part of what one longtime union leader called “a subsidiary of the Left wing of the Democratic Party and the philanthropically-funded Left.” And they have often been guilty of subordinating core working-class interests to what he called “the permanent culture of progressive college educated coastal elites.”
The divide is sharp and growing sharper, with a workforce that is suspicious of government overreach and socially more conservative, and a leadership class that puts pronouns in their email signatures. (A YouGov/American Compass survey of 3,000 workers found that “excessive engagement in politics is the number one obstacle to a robust American labor movement.” Among those who said they would vote against a union, the top reason cited was union political activity.)
“You see the head of the AFL-CIO tweeting about Roe v. Wade and packing the Supreme Court and at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, they were putting up Stacey Abrams signs,” Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass and author of The Once and Future Worker told me. ”But when you survey workers, which is what we did, what you find is that this is the thing that they most hate about unions.”
Enter the populist right.
“Donald Trump’s campaign basically was one that challenged all of the orthodoxies that have defined Republican primary politics for 20 years,” Rubio told me. “The people hosting the big fundraisers and the people giving a lot of money to Republican causes don’t necessarily have a lot in common with the people who turn out to vote for Republicans. And I think Trump exposed that divide between our voter base and our donor base.”
Rubio isn’t the only one who’s noticed. Senators Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton introduced a bill in February 2021 that laid out a path to a $10 minimum wage. Senator Josh Hawley proposed a bill that would mandate that 50 percent of all critical goods be manufactured in the U.S. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis of Florida have both used the pandemic to brand themselves as populists. And Rubio has been scathing in his criticism of Amazon, recently putting out a letter calling for a federal investigation into the company’s labor practices.
All of this would have been unthinkable not two decades ago.
For a sense of where things might go from here, and perhaps faster than we think, look north. For the past two weeks, truckers from every corner of Canada have gathered in the country’s capital to protest the country’s vaccine mandate. They call themselves the Freedom Convoy, and their demand is simple: give us our freedom. Give us the rights that we—we who two years ago were celebrated as essential workers—deserve.
The workers of the world are literally uniting. And yet these truckers have not been embraced by the left. Instead they have been tagged as fascists and racists by progressive pundits, activists, and politicians—those who tweeted “Stay Home! Slow the Spread!” while truckers delivered their Amazon Prime packages.
This spectacle—of workers fulfilling Marx’s fantasy, only to be smeared by the very people who claim to prioritize the working class—captures in stark relief the split emerging between the working class and the left that used to represent them.
“The reason why they are protesting is because they want to be allowed to work,” Rubio said of the truckers. “And [in exchange] they are treated in the media as if they were a dangerous group.” He contrasted press coverage of what’s happening in Canada with that of the Black Lives Matter protests, some of which turned into riots where buildings were burned to the ground—taking with them hundreds of small, often family- and minority-owned businesses. Those protestors were defended; their behavior justified by the media. Vice President Kamala Harris even contributed to their bail funds.
It’s part of a larger contrast that is creating a surprising opportunity for conservative economic populists, who see the opportunity to transform a GOP once seen as the party of the boss into the party of the worker.
“Just think about it: The guys that are trying to work are treated as criminals, and the people burning things down are treated as justified and bailed out and not prosecuted,” Rubio said. “It tells you everything about how they view the working class.”