Josh Hawley is right.
That’s not a sentence I type very often. Senator Hawley (R-Mo.) has views on most subjects ranging from “right-wing” to “extreme right-wing.” When he was Missouri’s attorney general, he joined a lawsuit aimed at overturning the Affordable Care Act. When he first ran for the Senate, he opposed a modest initiative to raise his state’s poverty-level minimum wage. On foreign policy, he’s a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-China hawk. On social policy, he baldly stated earlier this year that the Obergefell decision extending marriage equality to gay couples was “wrongly decided.” And he was a big proponent of overturning the will of the voters in the 2020 presidential election.
But in an op-ed for Compact magazine, Hawley gets something important right. He assails Biden and the Democratic Party for selling out rail workers by using the hideously anti-union Railway Labor Act to stop a strike.
And hey—when he’s right, he’s right. Democrats have made a mockery of their pro-labor rhetoric by robbing the rail workers of their right to strike. And in his Compact piece, he responds to that betrayal with an entirely justified level of indignation and contempt.
Hawley is notorious for raising a clenched fist of solidarity to the anti-democracy rioters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But it’s nice to see him raise one in solidarity with workers fighting for paid sick days.
I am a little confused, though, about why I don’t see Comrade Hawley’s name on the list of Senate cosponsors of the PRO Act—which would make it far easier for workers to organize unions. Perhaps it’s an oversight.
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What Hawley Gets Right
The Railway Labor Act is a pre–New Deal law designed to crush labor militancy. The original justification, and the one used this time around by “Amtrak Joe” Biden, is that rail strikes can cause what politicians consider to be unacceptable levels of economic disruption.
Of course, the power of an organized working class lies precisely in the fact that workers can cause such disruption. As the lyrics of the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” put it, “Without our brain and muscle / Not a single wheel can turn.”
Without workers’ being able to exercise that power to stop the wheels of the economic machine from turning, there’s no particular reason for the capitalist class to grant them any concessions whatsoever. It’s not a coincidence that, even after the uptick in recent years, strike activity is down dramatically from the level that was routine in decades past—and that we live in a hellscape of stagnant wages and extreme economic precarity.
A successful rail strike would be a dramatic demonstration of worker power. Who knows what that would have led to—if Congress hadn’t put a stop to it?
The vote to invoke the act flew through the House and the Senate over the course of two days—a minor miracle given how long Congress usually spends before deciding to do anything. Most journalists described what happened as Congress “acting to avert” a rail strike, but this is misleading.
The easiest way to “avert” a strike would be for rail companies to offer workers a contract they found acceptable. Instead, Biden brokered a tentative deal that was voted down by the rank and file of the unions representing the bulk of the workforce—and then he successfully urged Congress to use the Railway Labor Act to take away the workers’ option to go on strike to see if they could get a better deal.
A major sticking point was that the tentative deal didn’t grant workers their modest demand for a handful of paid sick days. As things stand now at rail companies like the Warren Buffet–owned BNSF, workers can be penalized for taking even unpaid sick days. Miss a day of work for any reason, even if you’re coughing up blood, and you’re docked “points” in BNSF’s system. If your point balance goes to zero, you’re suspended. If it happens again, you’re fired.
As Hawley points out, politicians take their own right to stay home when they’re sick with no financial penalty as something like a “divine right.” No one would dream of telling a representative or senator worried about catching Covid, for example, that their income would be docked by so much as a dollar for failing to show up to an in-person vote.
Hawley connects this with cultural contempt felt by the “professional-managerial types” dominating the Democratic Party for those who do blue-collar work. “More and more of our leaders,” he says, “embrace the idea that blue-collar labor is low-status, even embarrassing.”
There, too, he has a point. In Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Frank makes a compelling case that the version of liberalism that’s dominated Democratic Party politics for the past several decades flows from the meritocratic worldview of well-educated professionals. Instead of defining social justice in terms of the conditions of the working-class majority of society, contemporary liberals define it as the removal of racist, sexist, or other arbitrary barriers preventing the best and the brightest of each demographic group from rising to the top.
Hawley says that the “professional and political class” wants everyone in the country to be like them—that everyone should “go to an expensive college” and get “an office job,” for example. He rejects this as elitist. A deeper objection he doesn’t make is that it’s structurally impossible for everyone to trade educational credentials for a ticket into the professional-managerial class, for the obvious reason that there are only so many slots to go around.
President Obama once said that the “best anti-poverty program” ever devised is a “world-class education.” But education can’t play that role for the majority of the population, for depressingly obvious, mathematical reasons. If everyone went to college, going to college wouldn’t give anyone a comparative advantage in the labor market. If everyone learned to code, the skill couldn’t be parlayed into higher wages. Education and professional advancement can be a way out of poverty for the lucky few, but for everyone else, the only way to get a bigger slice of the pie is to band together and exercise the collective power to stop the economic wheels from turning until their demands are met.
Which Side Is Hawley On?
Hawley rightly pours contempt on various powerful people who joined forces to stop rail workers from exercising that power: “Management. The White House. Nancy Pelosi and her cadre of House Democrats. And, of course, the Senate—with the help of too many Republicans.”
That phrase “too many Republicans” is more than a little misleading. The plain fact is that even most allegedly “populist” Republicans are well to the right of even the corporate-centrist leadership of the Democratic Party on economic issues—and that fact made itself apparent during this set of votes.
After the Democratic majority in the House voted to rob the rail workers of the right to strike, they tried to soften the blow by adding an amendment to toss the workers a few sick days—and nearly every Republican in the House voted “nay.” So talking about what the Democrats and “too many Republicans” did paints a misleading picture. But this is a relatively minor objection. Let’s put it aside. We’ll put aside, too, the various ways in which Hawley can’t restrain himself from pausing in the middle of his indictment of the vote to suppress the rail strike to score culture-war points on unrelated subjects like student loan debt and cosmopolitan liberals deferring child-rearing until later in life. These are flies in the ointment, but the overall thrust of the article is spot-on. If he keeps this up, perhaps someday he might write for The Nation.
Given his newfound zeal for the cause of organized labor, though, I expect Hawley to start doing things a bit differently in the future.
Donald Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board relentlessly sided with management against workers, often overturning labor-friendly precedents from Obama’s NLRB. Presumably, Hawley didn’t know that when he not only supported Trump in the 2020 election but also supported efforts to overturn the results. I expect he’ll campaign against The Donald this time around.
And he’ll certainly lend his support to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—a piece of legislation that would finally undo some of the most outrageous ways that American labor law is stacked against unions—for example, by banning the practice of “captive audience” meetings where workers are forced to sit through anti-union propaganda during organizing drives, and making it harder for employers to fire workers who try to organize. Right now, there isn’t a single Republican senator among the Act’s 46 cosponsors.
I’m sure Josh Hawley will be the first.
Any day now.