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In many ways, politics is about scoring points and, right now, there are a lot of points on the table up for grabs. While Republicans and Democrats quibble about minutiae—does Trump have the power to declare a national emergency? Is the president responsible for the shutdown or does the blame fall on Democrats in Congress? Do voters really support the wall?
President Trump, if he had the political will, could begin the process of triggering the biggest political transformation in modern American history. No, this would not be a Nixon “Southern Strategy,” nor would it be a Bush-style Hispanic strategy. Instead, it would be a pro-worker labor strategy.
Labor unions get a bad rap in conservative circles—and, to some degree, for good reason. Economists, especially libertarians and conservatives, often derisively refer to unions as labor cartels. Labor unions function in the same way other economic cartels do: they restrict the supply of a thing (in this case, labor) in order to elevate its cost (in this case, wages) above what it would be in an otherwise competitive marketplace. While this is good for union members, it can harm non-members who are pushed out of the labor market due to union interference. Most modern Republicans, like former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, take pride in kneecapping unions.
Changing Dynamics, New Thinking
Republicans can no longer afford to oppose unions, at least not the private-sector kind. Why? Demographics.
As much as many in the conservative establishment wish to bury their heads in the sand and ignore reality, the fact is, demographics are not on our side. Since at least the 1930s, African-Americans have been voting overwhelmingly for Democrats. Hispanics have been voting for the Democrats for as long as we have been maintaining such data, and Asians have been voting Democratic since at least the 1990s.
This wouldn’t be a problem for conservatives, of course, if these groups were small minorities. But these groups are in fact growing as a percentage of the population—and fast. According to the Brookings Institution, U.S. Census data suggests whites are slated to become a minority in this country by 2045. Pew Research puts the date at 2055. The exact date when whites become an absolute minority is irrelevant; what matters is that it’s coming.
Many people do not care about demographic trends; they do not think it will affect them. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, for example, says: “Color doesn’t matter. Ideology does.” That’s the problem, though. Nonwhites hold significantly more liberal political views than the average white American. Over 70 percent of Hispanics, almost 60 percent of African Americans and 55 percent of Asians want bigger government. White Americans, by contrast, want smaller government by a margin of 62 percent to 27 percent. Whites are the only racial group that favors gun rights over gun control, while minority groups are much more likely than whites to favor restricting what they perceive to be hate speech.
This is not the only reason minorities vote for leftist policies or liberal candidates, however. As enthusiastic as Candace Owens is for mobilizing what she calls a #Blexit (i.e., an exodus of black voters from the Democratic Party) both self-described moderate and conservative African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Even if we somehow convinced every minority of the merits of broadly conservative policies, it seems as though they would still be reluctant to back Republicans.
Immigration Is Key
With these facts in mind, President Trump can, and should, leverage the current fight over immigration in order to make the Republicans a worker’s party. As much as the phrase “worker’s party” might make conservatives cringe, it may be the only path forward if the GOP wants to win elections.
Securing the labor vote would put many states into play. States like New York (with 23 percent labor union participation), Washington, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, and even California would become more competitive. True, California would not likely flip red even with a labor strategy—at least not in presidential years. However, getting union support could, at least in theory, give Republicans a fighting chance in many local, state, and House races. It would also strengthen Trump’s—and the GOP’s—influence in the Rust Belt, which was vital to the Republican electoral victory in 2016.
Conservatives may wonder: How does this happen without reneging on core principles?
For starters, unions used to be extreme immigration hawks. Leveraging the sentiment means unions can help accomplish an important policy goal: a strong immigration reform. This historical sentiment has changed somewhat in recent years. Indeed, many contemporary unions toe the Democratic Party line and are de facto supporters of illegal immigration, even though it undermines workers’ interests and wages. Unions work by restricting the supply of labor. But mass migration, according to 18 out of 22 studies reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, depresses wages by inflating the size of the labor force. The reason unions support immigration despite the costs it inflicts upon workers is simple: the only allies they can find in the political sphere are in the Democratic Party, so they go along with Democratic activism that is steeped in identity politics and historical grievance mongering. For that reason alone, Republicans should seize opportunity to appeal to regular working-class voters whose paychecks shouldn’t be decided by the whims and caprices of the latest twist in intersectional politics.
Rethink the Minimum Wage, Too
Republicans would not have to equivocate on too many other political issues, either, in order to win union members’ support. Republicans could start by supporting a modest minimum wage hike—to maybe $9 or $10. Most of the Republican base actually supports this and the empirical evidence no longer supports the vociferous opposition from the Chamber of Commerce that minimum wage hikes “kill jobs.” It depends on the hike. Fact is, employment effects for small minimum wage hikes are negligible. Economist Lyman Stone, writing for the center-right Manhattan Institute, argues “[t]here simply isn’t any empirically-based academic support anymore, even among free market economists, that modest minimum wage hikes create measurable net losses to the economy.”
Apart from that, research shows moderate wage hikes reduce income inequality, improve infant health, and reduce the incidence of miscarriage. A minimum wage increase, by boosting wages at the low end of the wage distribution, may also reduce the use of government funded social services, saving billions. Not a bad trade.
Build on Trump’s Trade Policies
Speaking of trade, Republicans can support policies to help American workers harmed by unfair trade deals. President Trump has taken up this mantle with gusto; the Republican establishment lags significantly behind and needs to catch up. Much to the chagrin of neoconservatives, the president’s tariffs are working. Trump and the GOP might consider pushing to improve labor standards and perhaps even expand the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
Further, the decline of voluntary private sector unions and the rise of mandatory public sector unions has been a persistent problem for the American middle class. Unions significantly reduce male wage inequality, and increasing voluntary union membership could be an important part in reversing the decline of marriage in our country. When union membership was at its peak in the 1940s, private union membership was around 33.9 percent, whereas public union membership was closer to 10 percent. Today, these numbers have reversed, with public-employee union membership becoming more common than private union membership.
This trend, in large part, is due to the globalization our unfair trade deals have wrought. Collective bargaining may be good for workers’ standard of living, but it puts unionized firms at a disadvantage compared to non-unionized firms who would more easily be able to compete with low-wage foreign labor. In a globalized world, unionized firms in the long-run face strong economic headwinds, which is bad news for the workers who benefit from the high wages and labor standards unions provide to their members.
A Major Caveat
Public-employee unions on the other hand, have not faced such pressures, as they represent the interests of government workers, and have thrived rather than withered thanks to a symbiotic relationship with the elected officials who negotiate their contracts and benefits.
Government-supported public unions have no vested interest in the broader health of a middle class that has been left behind by today’s economy. Their interest is in ever-expanding government, and would likely remain well ensconced in and among the Left. Public unions will always benefit from a larger, more inefficient government. A Republican labor strategy should focus on the wooing and expanding private sector unions, not public ones.
Many market-oriented conservatives and libertarians inevitably will reject such a pivot by the GOP. But what other options does the Republican Party have? Big business is not our friend, if it ever was. “Woke” corporations such as Nike, Gillette, and Dick’s Sporting Goods pour millions of dollars into left-wing causes. Big tech firms such as Google and Facebook use powerful algorithms to tailor what users see and don’t see. Who will speak for the little guy? With the conservative voter base demographically disappearing, the labor strategy would be an efficient and effective way to win more votes.
A pro-labor GOP also would be more loyal to what conservatism traditionally stands for: protecting the cultural traditions that keep us together and no longer catering to the interests of the financial elite. Tucker Carlson’s recent monologue captured what many of us have thought to ourselves for a long time: conservatism is not, and never has been, about a religious devotion to the free market. Conservatives have always respected free markets and should continue to do so, but we mustn’t be slaves to it. First and foremost, our focus must be on maintaining and strengthening the social bonds that keep Edmund Burke’s little platoons—community organizations, families, and the nation state—alive and well. Unions, for all of their flaws, promote all of those things. It is time conservatives recognized this and stood up for the American worker.
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