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Republicans Try to Manufacture Disingenuous Pro-Worker Branding Amid UAW Strike

Those that haven’t stayed silent push a divide-and-conquer strategy that pits organized labor against climate activists.

Jay Alexander of MoveOn calls on Sen. Marco Rubio's office to increase federal taxes to big corporations on May 17, 2021, in Tampa, Florida.

Every few years, the public is force fed another manufactured attempt to rebrand the GOP as a party that is “no longer in lockstep with corporate America” and is “newly focused on winning over more of the working class.” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) triumphantly announced in Nov. 2020 that Republicans “are a working class party now. That’s the future.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has repeatedly heralded the Republican party as the most likely space for a “working class multiethnic party” to converge. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been auctioning off this talking point to any credulous or complicit media platform that will give him airtime. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in 2021 that “the most significant political change of the last decade has been that the heart and soul of the Republican Party — we are a working-class party now. We are a blue-collar party.”

But it’s easy to claim this mantle when the stakes are low and rhetoric is the only currency. It’s when there are actual points of significant class conflict — when history forces one to pick a side, when the chance comes to actually fight for workers, not just say you’ll fight for them — that this self-styled pro-worker branding is put to the test. And after last week’s United Auto Workers (UAW) strike began in earnest — marking the first time in history the union has struck all of the Big Three automakers at once — it’s clearer than ever that this branding is, at best, entirely hollow and, at worst, deeply calculated.

First off: Let’s discuss the working-class warriors who have been suspiciously silent. Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. Ted Cruz haven’t mentioned the strike at all.

But what about the Republicans who have issued statements on the strike? All of them “support” it as an abstract thing in their head, yet they are throwing their backing behind a version of the strike that doesn’t exist. And they offer no support for the actual demands of the strikers or the duly elected representatives of the UAW membership.

The talking point every single Republican has been handed, and all who have spoken on the strike have echoed, centers around a cynical divide-and-conquer strategy that pits organized labor against climate activists and reflects entirely partisan, pro-fossil-fuel grievances that in no way represent the demands of autoworkers.

Let’s start with Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio took five days since the strike began last Friday to finally release a statement. In those five days, though, he apparently had time to introduce a bill that would cut off “’radical gender ideology in healthcare systems,” demand military bases allow screenings of the popular QAnon-adjacent film Sound of Freedom, and pen an op-ed in The Miami Herald on Sept. 14, when the UAW’s contracts with the Big Three expired, about how “American men are falling behind.” That piece laments the decline in good-paying jobs, but somehow manages not to mention the UAW strike, the word “strike,” or even “union” once. How this disillusioned American Man is supposed to achieve economic gains beyond a tax credit and “borrowing” from his own social security fund (a discredited hare-brained right-wing stalking horse) isn’t explained. Rubio’s “working-class” politics don’t have any actual class politics in them, because he is (poorly) trying to fashion a class politics that avoids real class conflict, hence his attempt to indict selected “elites” without indicting the ruling class to which they belong, hence his attempt to subsume the systematic attack on the working class under some ill-defined attack on masculinity and “strong families and cultural values.” He hardly acknowledges class at all. Far from embodying a new political direction for the GOP, Rubio’s schtick is just another example of Republicans finding new ways to launder whatever Heritage Foundation policy points Corporate America approves through political pandering that, if you squint hard enough, vaguely gestures to the material needs of working people before swiftly diverting focus away from the true sources of their material immiseration.

When Rubio finally did say something this morning, it was, like all the other GOP statements, focused mainly on non sequitur complaints about green energy and manufacturing mandates. Beyond simply ignoring the strike, like many of his colleagues, Rubio actually went further and condemned the union. True Friend of the Worker that he is, Rubio went out of his way to admonish the primary instrument of power auto workers have at the most critical juncture of their struggle:

Rubio has claimed for the past three years that Republicans need to “jump start” labor by opposing the actual unions that represent laborers and replace them with company-approved unions. This is a favorite line of the faux-populist GOP set, because it allows them to rhetorically back workers while still being fervently anti-union, which is a requirement of the party and its attendant, ruling-class-serving ideology. Rubio loves to condemn “union bosses” because he’s hoping the average person still lives in 1975 and thinks Jimmy Hoffa is in charge. UAW president Shawn Fain was recently elected to lead the union as part of a reform slate after the UAW held its first truly democratic elections, and the strike itself was voted on directly by the workers last August with 97 percent support. The “union bosses” here were elected by the membership (and the fact that union leaders, unlike bosses, can be voted out by the rank and file is one of many reasons why the term “union boss” makes no sense) and their mandate to strike is virtually uniform. Rubio can’t acknowledge this, though, because it immediately undercuts whatever self-serving point he’s trying to make, so he has to support a group of workers and a slate of worker demands that simply don’t exist in our dimension of time-space.

One need only look at the slimiest of the all of these GOP “populists,” and the one most committed to the bit — Josh Hawley — to see why these ostensibly pro-worker talking points are nothing but vapid partisan pot shots with little to no bearing on the demands of actual workers:

Note how Hawley references “auto workers” here while omitting any mention whatsoever of the union to which they belong. This is deliberate: Hawley doesn’t actually support unions (ie, the tangible, worker-composed organizations that exist in reality right now, fighting for material improvements for the very workers Hawley claims to sympathize with); he only supports an idealized, hardhat-wearing archetype that exists as a branding reference. Hawley continues with vague demands for a “raise,” and “better hours,” but no specific numbers are mentioned. No mention of the 36 percent hike the union is demanding, which would be commensurate with the raises Big Three executives have given themselves since the last contracts were negotiated — a demand that accounts for skyrocketing auto industry profits, inflation and the rising cost of living, and the cuts and concessions the union suffered to keep the industry afloat during the Great Recession. The Big Three have all technically offered “raises” that are still well below the UAW’s demands, and those meager wage increases would seemingly satisfy Hawley’s squishy line about workers deserving a raise. Hawley’s keeping everything deliberately vague because he doesn’t want to upset the automakers that donate to his Super PAC. And he, after all, has a schtick to maintain.

Hawley’s “support” for auto workers then quickly veers into total non sequitur, focusing mainly on “climate mandates.” One is welcome to check UAW press releases, public statements, interviews, and other public-facing material: Nowhere does the union or any of its representatives say anything about them having any issues with climate mandates. What they’ve said, and what they’ve said for years, is that any transition to EVs and green tech must be a “just transition” that doesn’t leave American workers behind. As Sarah Lazare detailed in a recent piece debunking this narrative that is becoming increasingly popular on both the right and center-left, there is no tension between good, higher-paying jobs and saving the Earth. “Our tax dollars are financing a massive portion of this transition to E.V. We believe in a green economy,” UAW president Shawn Fain told Face the Nation on September 17. “We have to have clean water. We have to have clean air. Anyone that doesn’t believe global warming is happening… isn’t paying attention.”

Read Kate Aronoff’s excellent takedown of another faux-populist, Sen. JD Vance (OH-R), which exposes why his talking points, a carbon copy of Hawley’s, are just grafted-on, partisan point-scoring claptrap.

So what the hell are Hawley, Vance, and all the Republicans homing in on “radical climate demands” talking about? Credulous pundits and Beltway rags like Politico take these “Republican concerns” at face value without once mentioning this supposed conflict between labor and environmental requirements attached to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), as Lazare lays out in detail, is a talking point being fed to our media by the CEOs themselves. The Hawleys of the world are repeating a company line crafted to undermine support for the union and presenting it as a pro-worker position. It’s not. The central demands of the union — significant raises, shorter workweeks, an end to the tier system — are ignored by Hawley in favor of a list of petty partisan grievances that are in no way reflective of what workers are demanding, in reality.

This isn’t to say that Democrats’ responses to the UAW strike have been ideal. One public statement of “support” by Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Virginia is genuinely amusing in its equivocation and feigned solidarity:

And who knows if the White House’s own nominal support will amount to anything ground-shifting in the coming weeks. The UAW, for its part, has pointedly stated that it will not automatically endorse Joe Biden’s re-election run to maintain its leverage, leading to an on-air meltdown by MSNBC Morning Joe anchors interviewing Fain the week prior to the strike:

The one thin example Hawley, Rubio, and Cruz like to point to as proof of their working-class bona fides was their vote opposing the Biden administration and Democratic leadership in Congress shutting down rail workers’ right to strike last fall. But their votes came after the passage in the Senate was already a fait accompli — again, it’s easy to vocalize support for workers when the stakes are low, and this oppositional vote was a totally inconsequential and preformative act largely designed to be used as a PR bludgeon later. But Biden and Pelosi’s anti-union, anti-democratic intervention in the rail dispute last year opened the door for Republicans in the Senate to outflank them and rack up a rare, seemingly substantive win for their Republicans-are-the-party-of-the-working-class rebrand. This is what makes the silence — or the bizarre focus on partisan, anti-climate non sequiturs — of Cotton, Hawley, Rubio, and Cruz so illustrative: When the rubber hits the road, when there is a moment of actual class tension and these “populist” senators must choose between the needs of their corporate funders or the working man they allegedly care about, they are either silent or lend support in ways that are superficial and irrelevant. Our media should be pointing this out, making this obvious fact clear, not running another dopey process piece about how the UAW strike is an “opportunity” for Republicans to make gains in the labor movement. Republican support for labor is nonexistent or entirely aesthetic. Reporters should center this fact rather than produce another update on the stale “Republicans are shifting their focus to winning the working class over” trend piece genre that simply, for some reason, just won’t die.

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