With the approach of another Labor Day, it is clear that American workers could use some help. There are jobs to be had—but without a living wage or the workplace protections that are more necessary than ever in this pandemic age. The federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 an hour, no higher that it was in 2009. And working people who want to form unions and bargain for better pay are constrained in the majority of states by so-called “right to work” laws that empower multinational corporations like Amazon to thwart organizing drives.
To a greater extent than in any country with which the United States would choose to compare itself, our policy-makers have tipped the balance against the working class. Why?
Let’s start with the Republican Party. Ever since Ronald Reagan broke a legitimate and necessary strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization 40 years ago this summer, the Republican Party has positioned itself as an explicitly and aggressively anti-labor party. Reagan’s progeny—conniving political careerists like former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Ohio Governor John Kasich—took the GOP’s war on workers to the states and attacked teachers and their fellow public employees. Now, at the federal level, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy are using their positions to obstruct even the most basic efforts to improve the conditions of working Americans.
In March, when the House voted on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021, 220 Democrats supported the proposal to make it easier for workers to secure collective bargaining rights. Two hundred and five Republicans voted against it. Despite the overwhelmingly GOP opposition to the measure, the Democratic support was sufficient to send the bill to the Senate. Unfortunately, McConnell and his colleagues are using their filibuster powers to prevent consideration of a measure that Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat and one of the few union members currently serving in Congress, says is designed to allow workers to “fight back against corporations and anti-union special interests that have attacked and eroded the labor movement for decades.”
“It is interesting that Republicans lately have been trying to falsely rebrand themselves as the party of working people while opposing the strongest bill in Congress to give power to workers,” Pocan said during the House debate in March. “The same Republicans who fought tooth and nail to reduce stimulus checks and unemployment insurance, championed union busting, and prevented an increase in the minimum wage from being included in COVID relief. They claim they are the party of the working people. Their idea of helping working people is voting for a $2 trillion tax cut for corporate donors and billionaire friends but refusing to vote for a $1.9 trillion investment in the American people.”
Pocan’s right: Just as today’s Republicans have abandoned their party’s historic commitment to civil rights and voting rights, they have also abandoned their commitment to worker rights.
The great union organizer and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Victor Debs used to delight in pointing out: “The Republican Party was once red. Lincoln was a revolutionary.”
That was not a casual claim. Debs knew a lot more about the first Republican president than does Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy. Lincoln was a fervent reader of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which featured regular columns by European correspondent Karl Marx; and he worked closely with the immigrant socialists who were among the founders of the Republican Party.
So passionate was Lincoln about the issue that he raised it in his first “annual message” to the Congress in 1861. The 16th president took time away from discussing challenges posed by the Civil War to raise what he referred to “a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.” This, he explained, was “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.”
Lincoln rejected that view as blasphemy:
It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
That higher consideration was recognized by Republicans in Lincoln’s day, and through much of the GOP’s first century. The Republican platform of 1960 reflected on the need “to enhance and not impede the processes of free collective bargaining” and declared: “Republican policy firmly supports the right of employers and unions freely to enter into agreements providing for the union shop and other forms of union security.”
Today’s Republicans have abandoned not just Lincoln’s prioritization of labor but also his pursuit of “a more perfect union.” They have “rebranded” themselves as the very embodiment of the greed and cruelty that “the Party of Lincoln” once sought to upend.