Don't Trust Marco Rubio's "Pro-Worker" Rebrand

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Yesterday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio appeared in the pages of The Atlantic magazine announcing that he, quite suddenly, loves "workers." The senator, who has been accused of being a metaphysical vehicle through which rich business tycoons launder bad ideas, is now apparently a big fan of labor unions. He thinks the republic cannot stand if the American working class continues to erode. He dislikes the 2017 Republican tax cuts for needlessly lining the pockets of rich people and corporations — even though he voted for the cuts last year. He even criticizes trickle-down economics and globalization!

"One of my earliest political memories is of marching the picket line with my father, a casino bartender in Las Vegas at the time, in a Culinary Workers Union strike," Rubio wrote yesterday. "I didn’t fully grasp the issues involved then, but I knew my father and the workers at the other hotels were asking just to be treated fairly for their work. This concept—that they created value for the hotel and had a right to share in that value—is not radical."

If we didn't know better, we'd say Marco was starting to sound positively socialist with all this rhetoric about the "dignity of work" and the value of labor unions. He damn near name-checked Karl Marx's theory of surplus-labor value in yesterday's op-ed. Those are pretty radical words for a member of the conservative movement that lionizes Ronald Reagan and has been angling to destroy American labor since about 1900.

But we do know better: Rubio's poll numbers have fallen lately — even among Republicans — and he has been trying to rehab his image for the last half-year or so to gin up support among the people who elected Trump in 2016. In reality, Rubio's seemingly "populist" turn during the last year is an ideologically empty attempt to put a working-class veneer over what are essentially the same politics he's always espoused. He seems to be trying to curry favor with working-class Trump voters who rejected his presidential campaign in 2016.

In reality, Rubio's new "ideas" come from the same sources that have always driven the mainstream Republican Party: namely, the Heritage Foundation and a Mitt Romney adviser named Oren Cass.

Rubio's rhetorical shift appears to track pretty closely with a new hire in his office. In February 2018, just after his disastrous appearance at CNN's Parkland-massacre town hall, Rubio's Gallup poll numbers hit an all-time low. Only 65 percent of Republicans said they liked him — a frighteningly low total. (Trump's approval among Republicans has hovered around 90 percent all year.) He has been a punch line on websites such as Breitbart for years — the pro-Trump right thinks he's a joke. (Likely because he's not racist enough for them, but we digress.)

So, in April 2018, Rubio brought in a political operative named Mike Needham to work as his new chief of staff. Needham previously worked for the Heritage Foundation's political action committee and has long been known as one of the most psychopathically far-right policy analysts in the entire Washington, D.C., think-tank-o-sphere.

Rubio's messaging changed pretty quickly after Needham came onboard. Gone were the paeans to free trade. (Rubio used to give speeches in favor of “globalization.”) He is an economic "protectionist" now — only one month after he announced Needham's hire, the senator admitted publicly that the 2017 tax cut he voted for was not going to help the working class. That sounded like Trump, just without the explicit racism and overt financial crimes. It's not hard to imagine Rubio's trying to fill an intellectual void that might exist if, say, Trump were to resign or get indicted in the next few years, as much of a longshot as that might be.

Rubio is now testing out his new persona in speeches and op-eds. Yesterday's Atlantic piece was a perfect example of this hollow, shallow, and ultimately meaningless exercise. The allegedly "pro-work" and "pro-labor" ideas Rubio floated were nothing of the sort. Here's an example, emphasis ours:

To have labor organizations that represent workers’ interests again, we should go back to the basics. As my father understood then, and as most workers understand today, workers are productive for their employers. They can organize to ensure that their compensation is commensurate to their value, like my father’s union did in that strike, but also to increase their value, like by providing a good American community for my immigrant family, or in building the skills of young workers.

Labor organizations could still serve these valuable roles today, if only we would abandon an old model of regulation that doesn’t. The backbone of labor law remains the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and many of the law’s major provisions have remained unchanged since 1947. It enshrines a model of labor relations that pits worker against manager, in which government regulation tells workers what they should value and success is defined as gaining power over the other side, without regard for the value workers and employers might create together.
Rubio is pulling a few ideological tricks here. For one, he doesn't explain what is ideologically "wrong" with the current state of American labor organizations or why they've lost power over the years. He makes zero mention of his own party's pathological fight to wipe out union representation for decades now — Rubio himself has pushed federal "right-to-work" laws and other anti-labor bills that expressly weakened the power, reputation, and bargaining ability of labor unions, but he fails to note that. Unions are just magically weaker these days!

The only solution Rubio then proposes is stripping away portions of the National Labor Relations Act, the law that gives you the legal right to unionize, collectively bargain, or strike at your job. Such a move has been private capital's dream since the NLRA was enacted during the throes of the Great Depression. Rubio nonsensically says it is labor law that "pits worker against manager" — as opposed to the basic reality of work, where your bosses keep you around as long as they can squeeze extra money from your labor. In Rubio-land, unions are somehow overregulated; if those annoying "regulations" weren't in place, your bosses would be nicer to you and stop stealing your wages. This is a joke.

Here's more:

Federal labor law should be reformed to make possible a more productive relationship between workers and employers. As Oren Cass proposes in his book The Once and Future Worker, this could take the form of new labor “co-ops” in the model of Germany’s sectoral workers’ groups, which negotiate wages and benefits, and provide training and apprenticeships for their workers.

These voluntary, dues-paying organizations and their associated worker representatives could receive federal charters that would allow them to administer benefits such as unemployment insurance and worker-training programs. They would be banned from the kind of institutional political organization Big Labor has become bogged down in and would have the flexibility to negotiate beyond the extent of federal labor law in some areas.

Rebuilding the dignity of work means fighting for a work life that suits the needs of our workers. By recognizing the legitimate value of labor organizations and embracing creative ideas for restoring their importance in workers’ lives, we can better align the interests of our economy with the dignity of workers.
Check out what Marco is doing here: The words "reform" and "voluntary" are signs he's not actually making a populist turn. Those are Republican code words for stripping away labor regulation and making America a "right-to-work" country where unions can't force you to join or pay dues. (Rubio has already promised to "reform" Medicare and Social Security by cutting the programs back and/or privatizing them.) Notice how he slips in a line in about banning unions from political organizing, too.

Many of the ideas Rubio is proposing have been propagated by the right-wing Heritage Foundation for years. The "excessive labor laws" Rubio wants to reform are, in fact, the rules that ban employers from "dominating" or "interfering" with unions. The "German" style of unionization, in which owners and employees often sit on a single board, is currently illegal under the NLRA because it constitutes an "owner-dominated" union.

It's even more telling who Rubio cites by name: Oren Cass, a former adviser for the Bain Capital private-equity firm and Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Cass has been advertising himself lately as a "pro-work conservative," and Rubio appears to have adopted Cass' entire platform. In fact, Cass could credibly argue Rubio just plagiarized his 2018 book, The Once and Future Worker. Cass' book — which has gained steam among right-wing D.C. types in the Trump era — sounds positively leftist at times, and comes across as an attempt to rewrite Marx's Capital to appeal to people who love Ayn Rand. Cass rails against neoliberalism and the global manufacturing sector, and says the United States should do more to "valorize" blue-collar workers.

Those seem like good ideas! The problem is that the "solutions" Cass proposes are insane. He thinks environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, are hurting workers. He has downplayed the severity of climate change. He most notably thinks social-safety programs "encourage" the poor to be unemployed and lazy, and believes welfare programs, including Medicaid, should be defunded. Cass argues the United States should spend $200 billion to "subsidize" wages — that is, pay workers more — to "incentivize" work. (This did not work when it was attempted in Germany.) That idea relies on circular logic — if you need social services because you lost your job, you first need to find a job to get social services.

When it comes to labor regulations, Cass is positively conservative: He believes workers should be able to collectively bargain but thinks unions should be allowed to give away things like "excessive safety regulations" or basic overtime packages.

On the flip side, Rubio has proposed little regulation on employers, corporations, and the American rich. He seemingly has no interest in regulating anyone's wages, taxing capital gains, or regulating working conditions. He's still trying to cripple the Affordable Care Act. His paid-family-leave proposal would actually wind up defunding what's left of one part of the Social Security program. He's still fine with taking corporate campaign donations. He’s still pushing to dismantle the federal government and the social safety net. He’s still endorsing the nation’s barbaric immigration policies and isn’t proposing much to help undocumented workers, who are unquestionably the most exploited segment of the labor population. That Rubio's new persona is slightly more tame than Trump-branded ethnonationalism isn't a reason to celebrate.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.