April 12, 2024

Republicans Are No Friends to Working People

If you work for a living, or if you know and love people who do, there’s a lot on the line in this year’s election.

Rebecca Gordon
Trump Carrier Factory

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tour a Carrier factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, on December 1, 2016.

(Reuters / Mike Sega)

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Recently, you may have noticed that the hot weather is getting ever hotter. Every year the United States swelters under warmer temperatures and longer periods of sustained heat. In fact, each of the last nine months—May 2023 through February 2024—set a world record for heat. As I’m writing this, March still has a couple of days to go, but likely as not, it, too, will set a record.

Such heat poses increasing health hazards for many groups: the old, the very young, those of us who don’t have access to air conditioning. One group, however, is at particular risk: people whose jobs require lengthy exposure to heat. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 40 workers died of heat exposure between 2011 and 2021, although, as CNN reports, that’s probably a significant undercount. In February 2024, responding to this growing threat, a coalition of 10 state attorneys general petitioned the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement “a nationwide extreme heat emergency standard” to protect workers from the kinds of dangers that last year killed, among others, construction workers, farm workers, factory workers, and at least one employee who was laboring in an unairconditioned area of a warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee.

Facing the threat of overweening government interference from OSHA or state regulators, two brave Republican-run state governments have stepped in to protect employers from just such dangerous oversight. Florida and Texas have both passed laws prohibiting localities from mandating protections like rest breaks for, or even having to provide drinking water to, workers in extreme heat situations. Seriously, Florida and Texas have made it illegal for local cities to protect their workers from the direct effects of climate change. Apparently, being “woke” includes an absurd desire not to see workers die of heat exhaustion.

And those state laws are very much in keeping with the plans that the national right-wing has for workers, should the wholly-owned Trump subsidiary that is today’s Republican Party take control of the federal government this November.

We’ve Got a Plan for That!

It’s not exactly news that conservatives, who present themselves as the friends of working people, often support policies that threaten not only workers’ livelihoods, but their very lives. This fall, as we face the most consequential elections of my lifetime (all 71 years of it), rights that working people once upon a time fought and died for—the eight-hour day, a legal minimum wage, protections against child labor—are, in effect, back on the ballot. The people preparing for a second Trump presidency aren’t hiding their intentions either. Anyone can discover them, for instance, in the Heritage Foundation’s well-publicized Project 2025 Mandate for Leadership, a “presidential transition” plan that any future Trump administration is expected to put into operation.

As I’ve written before, the New York Times’s Carlos Lozada did us a favor by working his way through all 887 pages of that tome of future planning. Lacking his stamina, I opted for a deep dive into a single chapter of it focused on the “Department of Labor and Related Agencies.” Its modest 35 pages offer a plan to thoroughly dismantle more than a century of workers’ achievements in the struggle for both dignity and simple on-the-job survival.

First Up: Stop Discriminating Against Discriminators

Current Issue

Cover of May 2024 Issue

I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that the opening salvo of that chapter is an attack on federal measures to reduce employment discrimination based on race or sex. Its author, Jonathan Berry of the Federalist Society, served in Donald Trump’s Department of Labor (DOL). He begins his list of “needed reforms” with a call to “Reverse the DEI Revolution in Labor Policy.” “Under the Obama and Biden Administrations,” Berry explains, “labor policy was yet another target of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) revolution” under which “every aspect of labor policy became a vehicle with which to advance race, sex, and other classifications and discriminate against conservative and religious viewpoints on these subjects and others, including pro-life views.”

You may wonder what it means to advance “classifications” or why that’s even a problem. Berry addresses this question in his second “necessary” reform, a call to “Eliminate Racial Classifications and Critical Race Theory Trainings.” Those two targets for elimination would seem to carry very different weight. After all, “Critical Race Theory,” or CRT, is right-wing code for the view that structural barriers exist preventing African Americans and other people of color from enjoying the full rights of citizens or residents. It’s unclear that such “trainings” even occur at the Labor Department, under CRT or any other label, so their “elimination” would, in fact, have little impact on workers.

On the other hand, the elimination of “racial classifications” would be consequential for many working people, as Berry makes clear. “The Biden Administration,” he complains, “has pushed ‘racial equity’ in every area of our national life, including in employment, and has condoned the use of racial classifications and racial preferences under the guise of DEI and critical race theory, which categorizes individuals as oppressors and victims based on race.” Pushing racial equity in employment? The horror!

Berry’s characterization of CRT is, in fact, the opposite of what critical race theory seeks to achieve. This theoretical approach to the problem of racism does not categorize individuals at all, but instead describes structures — like corporate hiring practices based on friendship networks—that can disadvantage groups of people of a particular race. In fact, CRT describes self-sustaining systems that do not need individual oppressors to continue (mal)functioning.

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The solution to the problem of discrimination in employment in Project 2025’s view is to deny the existence of race (or sex, or sexual orientation) as a factor in the lives of people in this country. It’s simple enough: If there’s no race, then there’s no racial discrimination. Problem solved.

And to ensure that it remains solved, Project 2025 would prohibit the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, from collecting employment data based on race. The mere existence of such “data can then be used to support a charge of discrimination under a disparate impact theory. This could lead to racial quotas to remedy alleged race discrimination.” In other words, if you can’t demonstrate racial discrimination in employment (because you’re enjoined from collecting data on the subject), then there’s no racial discrimination to remedy. Case closed, right?

By outlawing such data collection, a Republican administration guided by Project 2025 would make it almost impossible to demonstrate the existence of racial disparity in the hiring, retention, promotion, or termination of employees.

Right-wingers in my state of California tried something similar in 2003 with Ballot Proposition 54, known as the Racial Privacy Initiative. In addition to employment data, Prop. 54 would have outlawed collecting racial data about public education and, no less crucially, about policing. As a result, Prop. 54 would have made it almost impossible for civil rights organizations to address the danger of “driving while Black”—the disproportionate likelihood that Black people will be the subject of traffic stops with the attendant risk of police violence or even death. Voters soundly defeated Prop. 54 by a vote of 64 percent to 36 percent and, yes, racial discrimination still exists in California, but at least we have access to the data to prove it.

There is, however, one group of people Project 2025 would emphatically protect from discrimination: employers who, because of their “conservative and religious viewpoints…including pro-life views,” want the right to discriminate against women and LGBTQ people. “The President,” writes Berry, “should make clear via executive order that religious employers are free to run their businesses according to their religious beliefs, general nondiscrimination laws notwithstanding.” Of course, Congress already made it clear that, under Title VII of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, “religious” employers are free to ignore anti-discrimination laws when it suits them.

But Wait, There’s More

Not content with gutting anti-discrimination protections, Project 2025 would also seek to rescind rights secured under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, which workers have enjoyed for many decades. Originally passed in 1938, the FLSA “establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments,” according to the Department of Labor.

Perhaps because the federal minimum hourly wage has remained stuck at $7.25 for a decade and a half, Project 2025 doesn’t launch the typical conservative attack on the very concept of such a wage. It does, however, go after overtime pay (generally time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours of work a week), by proposing that employers be allowed to average time worked over a longer period. This would supposedly be a boon for workers, granting them the “flexibility” to labor fewer than 40 hours one week and more than 40 the next, without an employer having to pay overtime compensation for that second week. What such a change would actually do, of course, is give an employer the power to require overtime work during a crunch period while reducing hours at other times, thereby avoiding paying overtime often or at all.

Another supposedly family-friendly proposal would allow workers to choose to take their overtime compensation as paid time off, rather than in dollars and cents. Certainly, any change that would reduce workloads sounds enticing. But as the Pew Research Center reports, more than 40 percent of workers can’t afford to, and don’t, take all their paid time off now, so this measure could function as yet one more way to reduce the overtime costs of employers.

In contrast to the Heritage Foundation’s scheme, Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed a genuinely family-friendly workload reduction plan: a gradual diminution of the standard work week from 40 to 32 hours at the same pay. Such proposals have been around (and ridiculed) for decades, but this one is finally receiving serious consideration in places like The New York Times.

In deference to the supposedly fierce spirit of “worker independence,” Project 2025 would also like to see many more workers classified not as employees at all but as independent contractors. And what would such workers gain from that “independence”? Well, as a start, freedom from those pesky minimum wage and overtime compensation regulations, not to speak of the loss of protections like disability insurance. And they’d be “free” to pay the whole tab (15.3 percent of their income) for their Social Security and Medicare taxes, unlike genuine employees, whose employers pick up half the cost.

Young people, too, would acquire more “independence” thanks to Project 2025—at least if what they want to do is work in more dangerous jobs where they are presently banned. As Berry explains:

“Some young adults show an interest in inherently dangerous jobs. Current rules forbid many young people, even if their family is running the business, from working in such jobs. This results in worker shortages in dangerous fields and often discourages otherwise interested young workers from trying the more dangerous job.”

The operative word here is “adults.” In fact, no laws presently exclude adults from hazardous work based on age. What Berry is talking about is allowing adolescents to perform such labor. Duvan Tomás Pérez, for instance, was a 16-year-old who showed just such an “interest” in an inherently dangerous job: working at a poultry plant in Mississippi, where he died in an industrial accident. The middle schooler, a Guatemalan immigrant who had lived in the United States for six years, was employed illegally by the Mar-Jac Poultry company. If there are “worker shortages in dangerous fields,” it’s because adults don’t want to take the risks. The solution is to make the work less dangerous for everyone, not to hire children to do it.

We’re Gonna Roll the Union Over

Mind you, much to the displeasure of Project 2025 types, this country is experiencing a renaissance of union organizing. Companies that long thought they could avoid unionization, from Amazon to Starbucks, are now the subject of such drives. In my own world of higher education, new unions are popping up and established ones are demonstrating renewed vigor in both private and public universities. As the bumper-sticker puts it, unions are “the folks who brought you the weekend.” They’re the reason we have laws on wages and hours, not to speak of on-the-job protections. So, it should be no surprise that Project 2025 wants to reduce the power of unions in a number of ways, including:

  • Amending the National Labor Relations Act to allow “Employee Involvement Organizations” to supplant unions. Such “worker-management councils” are presently forbidden for good reason. They replace real unions that have the power to bargain for wages and working conditions with toothless pseudo-unions.
  • Ending the use of “card-checks” and requiring elections to certify union representation. At the moment, the law still permits a union to present signed union-support cards from employees to the National Labor Relations Board and the employer. If both entities agree, the union wins legal recognition. The proposed change would make it significantly harder for unions to get certified, especially because cards can be collected without the employer’s knowledge, whereas a public election with a long lead time gives the employer ample scope for anti-union organizing activities, both legal and otherwise.
  • Allowing individual states to opt out of labor protections granted under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

The measures covered here are, believe it or not, just the highlights of that labor chapter of Project 2025. If put into practice, they would be an historically unprecedented dream come true for employers, and a genuine nightmare for working people.

Meanwhile, at the Trumpified and right-wing-dominated Supreme Court, there are signs that some justices are interested in entertaining a case brought by Elon Musk’s SpaceX that could abolish the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal entity that adjudicates most labor disputes involving federal law. Without the NLRB, legal protections for workers, especially organizing or organized workers, would lose most of their bite. Despite the court’s claim to pay no attention to public opinion, its justices would certainly take note of a resounding defeat of Donald Trump, the Republicans, and Project 2025 at the polls.

A New “Contract on America?”

The last time the right wing was this organized was probably back in 1994, when Newt Gingrich published his “Contract with America.” Some of us were so appalled by its contents that we referred to it as a plan for a gangster hit, a “Contract on America.”

This year, they’re back with a vengeance. All of which is to say that if you work for a living, or if you know and love people who do, there’s a lot on the line in this year’s election. We can’t sit this one out.

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Rebecca Gordon

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes (Hot Books, April 2016). Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

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