Will We Remember 2023 as The Year of Big Labor?
Plus commentary on the new GOP coalition, Geert Wilders, Comic-Con, Ted Cruz
Welcome back to The Transom, and I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving. I found myself in the frustrating position of getting a nasty chest cold from a small child on Thanksgiving Eve. Having already dry brined the bird and measured the seasoning for all the dishes, that meant I had to put faith in the power of food science measurements, because by the time dinner time rolled around I had thoroughly lost my sense of smell and taste. I literally couldn’t taste the food I’d spent days preparing, which was its own kind of torture. But everyone assures me it was the best ever, and the bird was reduced to a carcass, so I will have to have faith in them. Back to the regular order of things…
Was 2023 The Year of Big Labor?
In the fourteen years since the Detroit bailout, scores of UAW executives, including two presidents, have been sentenced to prison time on federal embezzlement and corruption charges. Normally that sort of news would lead politicians to disavow their campaign donors, but politicians were tripping over themselves to get in on the most recent UAW strike. Joe Biden’s handlers escorted the president from the beach to Wayne County, Michigan, and made sure the press trumpeted that it was the first time a sitting president had ever joined a picket line.
What made the moment notable, however, was that no one from the White House had to clarify Biden’s comments — you got the sense that for once Biden knew where he was and why. More historic was the fact that Republicans wanted in on the action. Senator Josh Hawley and former president Donald Trump were out front trying to stand with the UAW even as union brass rejected their endorsements.
You can forgive Big Labor for its bewilderment at Republican support. The GOP has spent decades cracking away at unions, which in turn have spent billions cracking away at the GOP. This is 2023, the Year of the Rabbit, not the Rat, and it may go down as one of the more consequential moments in the history of organized labor.
Everyone from autoworkers to nurses, pilots and hotel concierges seems to be walking off the job these days. The public discovered how unlovable and unfunny celebrities are after writers staged a 148-day strike. UPS drivers won major concessions after threatening the same, while Starbucks baristas and Amazon warehouse workers are filing petitions to organize en masse. There is a common thread undergirding all of this: these are the workers hit hardest by the pandemic — either because of extended layoffs or, paradoxically, because they were deemed essential. The American public may have soured on unions during the Great Recession, but they are more supportive than ever following the pandemic, and unions’ favorability rating stands at thirty-eight points today.
Public perception plays a large role in any union’s decision to go on strike. In 2009, only 12,500 workers walked out on the job — more than 300,000 have done so in 2023. The difference between these two eras is not just material, but practical. The most high-profile strikes during the Obama and Trump eras were initiated by teachers’ unions from deep blue Los Angeles and Chicago and GOP-dominated West Virginia. Such walkouts would once have been unthinkable, particularly in an era in which both parents work. Despite the disruptions and the scramble for childcare, poll after poll taken amid these walkouts showed that citizens supported striking teachers — at least before parents discovered what those unionized teachers were forcing upon the student body.
The pandemic supplied the goodwill, and the teachers the proof of concept, but the urgency with which the labor movement has been waging these fights reflects a well-founded sense of desperation. Unions are facing an existential crisis caused by plummeting membership, which has remained in single digits for more than a decade, as well as a legal framework that threatens to erode that number further.
Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has been revisiting decades of liberal interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act which had increasingly granted considerable leeway to the labor movement as a necessary step to preserving labor peace. These legal efforts culminated in the 2018 Janus decision, in which the court held that mandatory union fees charged to government workers violated the First Amendment. Money talks, as the court concluded in Citizens United; and if money talks then any fee unions deduct from the paychecks of government workers amounts to compelled speech.
There is a real fear in the labor movement that the Roberts court will not stop at government workers and may soon extend the compelled speech prohibition to the private sector. Lower courts have already drawn such a conclusion. Southwest Airlines and its union found this out the hard way after a Christian stewardess was fired over her pro-life Christian views and criticism of union leadership. She won a multi-million-dollar retaliation suit and a federal judge ordered her reinstated and required the company to undergo religious liberty training.
Patrick Ruffini on the GOP’s New Coalition
Q: I imagine a lot of liberals who might pick up your book will say, “How do we lose Hispanics on immigration?” This is an issue where we've seen actual policies described, stories quoting Stephen Miller, saying we're going to deport a bunch of people, and putting that in economic populist terms, as in that will be good for American workers. I'm curious whether or not action on policy in immigration does make an impact on Hispanic voters, or whether they are sort of more trending toward the middle? Is there still some immigration policy that they would respond to electorally?
A: The polling I've done along the border shows just a much higher level of concern there, right in these areas that did shift pretty strongly towards Trump in 2020. I think the politics has just shifted dramatically with the situation along the southern border. So I think the policy that Republican Republican elites were responding to after the 2012 election with the autopsy was a sense that, okay, the Republican base was very activated on this question of illegal immigration.
The average Hispanic voter is kind of longer-tenured in the United States. So their priorities and policies change, or their policy preferences change, as a result. One thing I would say here is that, you know, the debate (in 2012) was about what we do with the 12 million people who are already here, primarily Mexican-American. You can see how the politics of that were not that great for Republicans; now, the policy debate has shifted to, what are we going to do to stop the flood at the southern border, which is just a very different question.
Q: You write that the Republicans might struggle to appeal broadly to Black Americans based on the history of Black Americans in the United States. You even suggest maybe some sort of apology might even be in order. And I'm curious, essentially, what part of the Republican Party does that come from? Who would be the logical leaders of that kind of conversation?
A: We may or may not see this. Particularly on what I'm referring to as perhaps something that kind of acknowledges the Southern Strategy or acknowledges that at some point, the parties flipped and Republicans benefited from, let's say, a more racially conservative, racially resentful vote in the South. That said, do I think we're likely to see something like that? Probably not from the current leadership.
Q: You write about the sustained political loyalty of Black Americans to the Democratic Party, and the ways in which Republicans might trim away at the margins. Why has that been so difficult?
A: There is a professor at the University of Maryland named Chryl Laird who co-wrote a book called Steadfast Democrats that really talked about this phenomenon and talks about it in terms of, it really doesn't seem to be rooted in any kind of policy. What seems to be the real impetus behind this incredible political unity are social forces, social pressure to conform, and I'm putting that in a more negative and putting a more negative spin on it, then maybe I actually think about it. I mean, it makes sense, from the standpoint of, if you're a group that's discriminated against, as Black Americans, we're in the south, that it makes sense to try to pool your resources together, pool your votes together to try to elect candidates who will stand up for your interests.
Ethnic politics has always been a feature of American democracy. But I think that there's a uniquely strong relationship; [Laird] really demonstrates this with a lot of experiments. It's just one of the strongest pieces of social science I read in the last few years. When you have people who are part of a dense network of civil society, in Black America, even people who have very conservative views on issues like abortion, guns, tend to vote Democratic. The moment that folks kind of leave the community in some sense, if they move out to a more racially integrated community, if they report having more non-Black friends, all of a sudden, if you're a Second Amendment, pro-life voter, you start voting Republican. Now, there's not necessarily that much of that happening, but that is sort of the mechanism that I think she brilliantly outlines in her book.
Just like we saw in some counties along the U.S.-Mexico border that shifted by 55 points, 38 points, like things like that. Where there too, there was a huge kind of social stigma attached with the Republican Party, people didn't vote in Republican primaries, all of a sudden, when people kind of saw just a little bit of an uptick in activity that triggers this huge preference cascade. So that's the possibility I talked about. As a Republican, I'm not counting my chickens before they hatch here.
Elites Still Shocked by Populist Victories
Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders win has shocked Europe’s elites. At this point, one has to wonder why they continue to be surprised when voters absolutely frustrated with bickering and incompetence turn to someone who has never held political power. Wilders’s win is much less of an endorsement of his views than it is yet another rejection of the elites’ business as usual.
Voters in the Netherlands have been signaling they want change for many years now. Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV in Dutch) led polls until the last days before the 2017 election. It faded when Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Holland’s mostly Muslim immigrants to “act normal or go away”. Despite leading the government for the ensuing six years, Rutte was unable to actually make much headway to tackle the concerns many Dutch have about migration.
The strange disconnect of Rutte’s party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), from its voters was summed up unintentionally on election night by its current leader, Dilan Yesilgoz. When the exit poll showed the unexpectedly large defeat, she complained that “the people in the country have not been listened to enough”. That’s an odd statement given that VVD had led the government for the previous thirteen years.
VVD’s lost ten of its thirty-four seats, but it was actually the big winner among the four governing parties. The center-left liberal Democrats 66 lost fifteen of its twenty-four seats while the once dominant Christian Democratic Appeal was pummeled, dropping ten of its fifteen. Even the tiny Christians United party lost proportionally more than VVD, losing two of its five seats. The government in all lost thirty-seven of the seventy-eight seats it had won in 2021, one of the worst results for any Dutch government in history.
This should have been especially unsurprising given the tumultuous events of the last four years in Dutch politics. First a right-wing competitor to PVV, Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy, won the 2019 Senate elections. It then took Rutte a record 299 days to put together his fourth cabinet after the 2021 elections. Farmers erupted in protest in 2022 when the new government persisted in pushing its plan to reduce nitrogen emissions on farms to combat climate change, a policy that would have devastated agriculture. A rural-based protest party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) swept the field in this spring’s Senate vote, easily becoming the largest party in the powerful upper chamber. Voters were clearly tired on the out-of-touch, urban-centric agenda the government was pushing long before Wednesday.
Items of Interest
“TURKEY, n. A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.”
— Ambrose Bierce