Oren Cassâ€”conÂserÂvÂaÂtive polÂiÂcy wonk, 2012 Mitt RomÂney adviÂsor and execÂuÂtive direcÂtor of the new think tank AmerÂiÂcan ComÂpass (which does not disÂclose its donors)â€”is a surÂprisÂing canÂdiÂdate for labor law reformer. That is exactÂly why his recentÂly launched project to build and define a â€śConÂserÂvÂaÂtive Future for the AmerÂiÂcan Labor MoveÂmentâ€ť is drawÂing so much attention.
In a foundÂing stateÂment titled â€śConÂserÂvÂaÂtives Should Ensure WorkÂers a Seat at the Table,â€ť the group argues that orgaÂnized labor can improve ecoÂnomÂic prosÂperÂiÂty and strengthÂen comÂmuÂniÂties, all while mainÂtainÂing limÂitÂed govÂernÂment. The stateÂment is signed by Cass, MarÂco Rubio, Jeff SesÂsions and othÂer figÂures on the right. As you might imagÂine, the devÂil of this labor reform project is in the details.
We spoke to Cass about secÂtoral barÂgainÂing, labor milÂiÂtanÂcy, and the politÂiÂcal realÂiÂties of conÂvincÂing RepubÂliÂcans that unions deserve to exist.
What made you decide that now was the time to launch this effort to save orgaÂnized labor?
Oren Cass: It fits genÂerÂalÂly with the broadÂer focus of AmerÂiÂcan ComÂpass, which is to ask, â€śWhat has gone wrong in our econÂoÂmy which is leadÂing to poor outÂcomes for many peoÂple? And what would a genÂuineÂly conÂserÂvÂaÂtive response look like?â€ť My view is, what we call conÂserÂvÂaÂtive ecoÂnomÂic polÂiÂcy in AmerÂiÂca is not conÂserÂvÂaÂtive in any meanÂingÂful sense of the word, itâ€™s libÂerÂtarÂiÂan. Itâ€™s a funcÂtion of the ReaÂgan coaliÂtion in which ecoÂnomÂic libÂerÂtarÂiÂans did the ecoÂnomÂic polÂiÂcy, and social conÂserÂvÂaÂtives did the social polÂiÂcy. But if you think about the marÂket funÂdaÂmenÂtalÂism that domÂiÂnates right of cenÂter thinkÂing, itâ€™s in many ways the antitheÂsis of conÂserÂvatism. It puts fairÂly blind faith in a marÂket, withÂout any refÂerÂence to the rules around the marÂket, instiÂtuÂtions supÂportÂing the marÂket, withÂout conÂcern for social strucÂtures or the social fabÂric. Weâ€™ve realÂly been missÂing a genÂuineÂly conÂserÂvÂaÂtive perÂspecÂtive that asks, â€śHow do we ensure that the marÂket is one that is actuÂalÂly delivÂerÂing the outÂcomes that we want for healthy famÂiÂlies, and comÂmuÂniÂties, and the strength and solÂiÂdarÂiÂty of the nation?â€ť
One of the places that strikes me as a huge opporÂtuÂniÂty that has been overÂlooked, if not outÂright denÂiÂgratÂed, by the libÂerÂtarÂiÂan perÂspecÂtive is this idea that, look, orgaÂnized labor is a great thingâ€”that unions as they are operÂatÂing in AmerÂiÂca today are dysÂfuncÂtionÂal in many ways, but the idea that we should want workÂers to be able to act colÂlecÂtiveÂlyâ€¦ is all to the good. Thatâ€™s exactÂly the forÂmuÂla for a well funcÂtionÂing marÂket economy.
How do you disÂtinÂguish what you call the conÂserÂvÂaÂtive perÂspecÂtive on this issue from the libÂerÂal (non-socialÂist) perspective?
Cass: If we talk about traÂdiÂtionÂal libÂerÂals, I think in many ways thereâ€™s a lot of shared ground with respect to the outÂcomes we want. The major point of deparÂture is on two quesÂtions: One, how good are marÂkets at doing things relÂaÂtive to how good is govÂernÂment at doing them? My view at least is that marÂkets are quite effecÂtive and powÂerÂful, and the role that we want for govÂernÂment is in figÂurÂing out what kind of conÂdiÂtions we need to creÂate to chanÂnel that powÂer in the right direcÂtion. WhereÂas the left of cenÂter view, I think, tends to be more, if weâ€™re not hapÂpy with what a marketâ€™s doing, we will just tell it someÂthing else. SecÂondÂly and relatÂedÂly, I think there is a very difÂferÂent view of the role that redisÂtriÂbÂuÂtion can play. I think the libÂerÂal view tends to be, we can proÂvide to whoÂevÂer has been left behind, whereÂas the conÂserÂvÂaÂtive view is that thatâ€™s actuÂalÂly not a good answerâ€”that a govÂernÂment check is not a subÂstiÂtute for a paycheck.
You were a Mitt RomÂney adviÂsor in 2012. Have your views on these issues changed a lot since then? This doesnâ€™t sound like the RomÂney labor platÂform.
Cass: I donâ€™t think my views have necÂesÂsarÂiÂly changed very much. If we were to talk about speÂcifÂic quesÂtions like secÂtoral barÂgainÂing, [that] is someÂthing Iâ€™ve become much more interÂestÂed in over the past year or two, after writÂing in my book that that was exactÂly the wrong way to do labor reform â€¦ But in terms of the bigÂger picÂture quesÂtion of what should the goals of ecoÂnomÂic polÂiÂcy be and what should the levers be, I would say my instincts have always been in this direcÂtion, and as Iâ€™ve had the opporÂtuÂniÂty to do more research and work on it Iâ€™ve been able to flesh out more of the ratioÂnale for that, and what it might mean to give it shape in the real world.
You talk in your stateÂment about subÂstiÂtutÂing colÂlecÂtive barÂgainÂing for employÂment regÂuÂlaÂtions, rather than havÂing both as we do now. How do you take away those workÂplace regÂuÂlaÂtions withÂout exposÂing workÂing peoÂple to perÂilous danÂger in the process?
Cass: I donâ€™t think you take them away, I think you shift them from a baseÂline to a default. The way the sysÂtem we have today works is that everyÂthing estabÂlished in employÂment law is a non-negoÂtiable startÂing point, and if you unionÂize or are othÂerÂwise barÂgainÂing with employÂers, the entire purÂpose of the exerÂcise is to think of new things to add on top of that. But of course, the whole ratioÂnale for needÂing such a robust rĂ©gime of employÂment regÂuÂlaÂtion is that indiÂvidÂual workÂers withÂout colÂlecÂtive repÂreÂsenÂtaÂtion donâ€™t have the abilÂiÂty to safeÂguard their interÂests very effecÂtiveÂly. So at the point where you do have workÂers orgaÂnized and barÂgainÂing colÂlecÂtiveÂly, it seems to me they can just say, weâ€™re adoptÂing as much of the employÂment regÂuÂlaÂtion as we want. They donâ€™t have to agree to anyÂthing. When you think about the scope for barÂgainÂing an agreeÂment that you could conÂsidÂerâ€”havÂing most, not all, of existÂing regÂuÂlaÂtion on the table I think is a realÂly attracÂtive arrangeÂment. I think itâ€™s attracÂtive for workÂers, because thereâ€™s no shortÂage of regÂuÂlaÂtion that they donâ€™t valÂue that highly â€¦
And likeÂwise from the employÂer perÂspecÂtive, this changes the prospect of colÂlecÂtive barÂgainÂing from â€śthe worst thing imagÂinÂableâ€ť to someÂthing that could actuÂalÂly have some upside.
It seems to me that that arrangeÂment would by necesÂsiÂty require workÂers to have a balÂance of powÂer with employÂers theyâ€™re barÂgainÂing with. Do you supÂport a robust right to strike as part of that?
Cass: I do think there should be a right to strike, but I think if you shift to a secÂtoral barÂgainÂing conÂcept then that becomes a very difÂferÂent quesÂtion. Because this adverÂsarÂiÂal barÂgainÂing isnâ€™t going to be hapÂpenÂing between the workÂers and employÂers at a sinÂgle firm, itâ€™s going to be hapÂpenÂing at the secÂtoral levÂel. Do you get secÂtor-wide strikes in secÂtoral barÂgainÂing? Yes, it does hapÂpen, but I think you tend to see a lot less labor strife in that context.
What is the workÂersâ€™ leverÂage, even in secÂtoral barÂgainÂing, besides the right to withÂhold their labor? ParÂticÂuÂlarÂly if you are sugÂgestÂing that employÂment regÂuÂlaÂtions should be on the table.
Cass: That is one form of leverÂage they have, but there are a bunch [of othÂers] that I think are more closeÂly conÂnectÂed to the role that you have govÂernÂment playÂing in a secÂtoral barÂgainÂing sysÂtem. If the fallÂback if no agreeÂment is reached is not â€śemployÂer does whatÂevÂer it wants,â€ť itâ€™s essenÂtialÂly barÂgainÂing is imposed, thatâ€™s obviÂousÂly one fallÂbackâ€¦ AnothÂer thing that tends to play a role is, parÂticÂuÂlarÂly when you have a secÂtoral sysÂtem, unions are actuÂalÂly doing othÂer things that are conÂstrucÂtive. For examÂple, unions are typÂiÂcalÂly playÂing a much more assertive role in trainÂing. There are more facets to that partÂnerÂship that are also at risk if no agreeÂment is reached.
I know some labor leadÂers who would say that the fact that a perÂson like you is advoÂcatÂing for secÂtoral barÂgainÂing is proof of the drawÂback of secÂtoral barÂgainÂingâ€”that it is a way to sap milÂiÂtanÂcy out of the labor moveÂment. What do you say to that?
Cass: I see that attiÂtude as encapÂsuÂlatÂing perÂfectÂly how the Left has manÂaged to totalÂly sabÂoÂtage the labor moveÂment in recent decades, which is to try to use it as a tool of parÂtiÂsan or radÂiÂcal leftÂist priÂorÂiÂties, rather than a tool thatâ€™s actuÂalÂly going to improve things for workÂers. If you think weâ€™re realÂly on the cusp of sucÂcess for a milÂiÂtant labor moveÂment in this counÂtry, then I donâ€™t know where youâ€™ve been, but thatâ€™s obviÂousÂly not the direcÂtion where this is headÂed. To the conÂtrary, the labor moveÂment is slowÂly dying out of its own dysÂfuncÂtion interÂnalÂly, and its own poor design in the statuÂtoÂry frameÂwork itâ€™s operÂatÂing under. Now, my equal frusÂtraÂtion is with those on the right of cenÂter who say â€śhuzÂzah,â€ť and stand aside and shrug or grin as this hapÂpens. To come from the right of cenÂter and say, letâ€™s not have this thing die out, letâ€™s find a way to have a labor moveÂment that works, and achieves valuÂable things for workÂers, is not a plot to defang a milÂiÂtanÂcy that does not exist and has no prospect. That would be a waste of effort.
When you talk about the labor moveÂment being too parÂtiÂsanâ€”what choice do they have? The platÂform of the RepubÂliÂcan ParÂty is to wipe them off the face of the earth.
Cass: If you go back and look at the hisÂtoÂry, thereâ€™s plenÂty of blame to go around â€¦ Dwight EisenÂhowÂer went to the AFL to camÂpaign for their votes in the 50s. Nixon fetÂed labor leadÂers at the White House. The AFL-CIO did not endorse McGovÂern in â€™72. Samuel GomÂpers had politÂiÂcal nonÂparÂtiÂsanÂship as a core prinÂciÂple of orgaÂnizÂing. If you fast forÂward to the â€™90s, when Newt GinÂgrich was SpeakÂer, those more pro-labor repÂreÂsenÂtaÂtives in the RepubÂliÂcan ParÂty were ultiÂmateÂly abanÂdoned by the unions, and in turn abanÂdoned the unions. So it seems to me that itâ€™s sort of a piece of the broadÂer stoÂry of polarÂizaÂtion in our polÂiÂtics. I guess if you wantÂed to have a stratÂeÂgy of reclaimÂing a strong and milÂiÂtant labor moveÂment under the WagÂnÂer Act you would be welÂcome to try, but Iâ€™m not aware of anyÂone othÂer than those whose job it is to say thatâ€™s a good idea who thinks thatâ€™s a good or plauÂsiÂble idea.
Let me ask you about the politÂiÂcal realÂiÂty of these issues. I donâ€™t see any space in the RepubÂliÂcan ParÂty of today for what youâ€™re advoÂcatÂing. Am I wrong about that?
Cass: I think youâ€™re wrong. Thatâ€™s partÂly why we startÂed with this stateÂment, which I think showed an interÂestÂing range of repÂreÂsenÂtaÂtives â€¦ What I found on the Hill in parÂticÂuÂlar, with folks in the House and the SenÂate, is that the overÂwhelmÂing response was, â€śThis is realÂly interÂestÂing, but not someÂthing weâ€™ve ever thought about enough.â€ť Thereâ€™s not a sinÂgle perÂson we talked to where the response was, â€śNo, I donâ€™t agree.â€ť
Weâ€™re at the point where there are a lot of peoÂple interÂestÂed in this disÂcusÂsion. I canâ€™t promise you weâ€™re going to sucÂceed, but I think that a year from now we will have a much broadÂer coaliÂtion that says, actuÂalÂly now I underÂstand this, and this is someÂthing we should be pushÂing forÂward on.
What do you think the legÂislaÂtive first step would be down this path?
Cass: ProbÂaÂbly to find some parÂticÂuÂlar places where it would make sense to try someÂthing like this. One would be to pick a topÂic, like minÂiÂmum wage, where I think all sides would be hapÂpiÂer than the staÂtus quo by sayÂing, minÂiÂmum wage should realÂly be set through more of a secÂtoralÂly barÂgained or wage board type modÂel. On a lot of these things the fedÂerÂal govÂernÂment canâ€™t do more than set up a frameÂwork, but here is a modÂel that states and localÂiÂties and whoÂevÂer else could work from.
AnothÂer posÂsiÂbilÂiÂty is a parÂticÂuÂlar secÂtor. There obviÂousÂly are a numÂber of secÂtors that are excludÂed from the [NationÂal Labor RelaÂtions Act], partÂly for disÂcrimÂiÂnaÂtoÂry and partÂly for pracÂtiÂcal reaÂsons. You could start in either the agriÂculÂturÂal or domesÂtic serÂvice or gig secÂtor and say hey, letâ€™s actuÂalÂly impleÂment this here. Thatâ€™s an approach that could have promise. And a third one is to do it regionÂalÂly and say, weâ€™re going to offer waivers from the NLRA to some state that wants to come forÂward and try a difÂferÂent framework.
What do you think will hapÂpen if no agreeÂment like this for the future of labor is reached, and curÂrent trends continue?
Cass: UnforÂtuÂnateÂly trends can conÂtinÂue for a very long time. EveryÂthing has breakÂing points evenÂtuÂalÂly. I donâ€™t think anyÂone can very effecÂtiveÂly preÂdict where any sort of meanÂingÂful breakÂing point would occur. So I think the best bet in the absence of reform is that, durÂing the near to mediÂum terms, things just sort of conÂtinÂue â€¦ to conÂcenÂtrate the gains towards a small numÂber of winÂners, and then you have an awful lot of folks who donâ€™t get to share in those gains, and who strugÂgle in a lot of ways.
This interÂview has been editÂed for length and clarity.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 30, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writÂing about labor and polÂiÂtics for GawkÂer, SplinÂter, The Guardian, and elseÂwhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.