Marco Rubio grabbed headlines today by offering a strange and half-hearted endorsement of the unionization drive in Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama. Don’t be fooled, though: Rubio’s absurd “right-wing economic populism” isn’t serious about fighting for the working class.
Marco Rubio never really pretended to be anything but a standard-issue Reaganite Republican when he ran for President in 2016. When Donald Trump memorably mocked “Little Marco,” the point of the bit was that Rubio was the ultimate establishment stuffed shirt.
More recently, though, Rubio has tried to rhetorically reposition himself as a “populist.” It’s long been unclear what, if anything, that term means when it’s applied to Republicans like Rubio (or for that matter, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, or Josh Hawley) who oppose Medicare for All, oppose the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and even oppose laws like the recently proposed Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act meant to make it easier for working people to organize unions to fight for better wages and conditions. But the media has largely bought the act.
Yet in a new USA Today op-ed, Rubio has seemingly taken a position that’s actually economically populist. At least, that’s how the media has reported it. CNBC’s headline, for example, was “Marco Rubio endorses Amazon unionization effort, bringing bipartisan support.”
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? There’s a unionization drive, and Rubio supports it. But the difference between CNBC’s headline and the more accurate one USA Today put on Rubio’s op-ed is telling.
Rubio isn’t offering any sort of meaningful solidarity with the workers. In fact, the body of his op-ed makes it abundantly clear that he’s still an enemy of labor organizing in general — he is just too angry at Amazon over irrelevant culture war grievances to have their backs in the way he normally would when an insanely profitable corporation was fending off workers who were fighting for decent wages and working conditions.
With Friends Like This…
The word “wages” is never mentioned in Rubio’s op-ed. Nor does he mention the shockingly high rate of injuries in Amazon’s warehouses resulting from demanding quotas enforced by electronic surveillance so omnipresent and degrading that employees in some warehouses have resorted to peeing into bottles so they wouldn’t lose time from bathroom breaks.
Instead, Rubio’s primary complaints about Amazon seem to be that they exclude charities classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center and refused to sell a transphobic book called When Harry Became Sally. He refers to this as a war against “working-class values,” but this is just a way of saying “conservative values.”
In reality, of course, there are plenty of working-class people on all sides of culture war issues. That’s one of the reasons that culture war polarization is an obstacle to class politics. But calling anti-wokeness “working-class values” has the advantage of allowing Rubio to posture as a populist while excluding the many millions of working-class people whose cultural values don’t align with his from being considered culturally “working-class,” while including small business owners and even Republican-friendly plutocrats.
The phrases “working conditions” and “workplace conditions” are used exactly once each, perhaps because Rubio (or his ghostwriter) realized it would look strange if he got to the end without mentioning any issues actually relevant to the warehouse workers’ complaints. Even there, he seems to have trouble staying on topic for an entire sentence.
Uniquely malicious corporate behavior like Amazon’s justifies a more adversarial approach to labor relations. It is no fault of Amazon’s workers if they feel the only option available to protect themselves against bad faith is to form a union. Today it might be workplace conditions, but tomorrow it might be a requirement that the workers embrace management’s latest “woke” human resources fad.
That’s as much as he can be bothered to talk about anything actually happening inside Amazon’s warehouses. Otherwise, the part of his op-ed that has anything to do with economics is about Amazon’s competition, not its workforce. He refers to Amazon as an “oligopolist” company and talks about how it’s “crushing” and “waging war” on small businesses — a traditional constituency for right-wing politics.
Small business owners themselves often fear unionization efforts, of course, so Rubio is eager to clarify that any businesses not guilty of Amazon’s “uniquely malicious corporate behavior” shouldn’t go union. He says several times that “adversarial relations between labor and management” are “generally harmful.” (A “union” that’s not “adversarial” in its relationship to management is, of course, entirely pointless.)
Rubio claims that such “adversarial” relationships hurt “labor and management alike by causing American industry to lose ground to foreign competition.” He even says that “too often, the right to form a union has been, in practice, a requirement that business owners allow left-wing social organizers to take over their workplaces.”
Even when it comes to Amazon, whose allegedly “uniquely” malicious behavior makes it understandable that workers might want a union, he seems to be ambivalent about whether this unionization drive is really different from the ones he would oppose as a matter of course. He follows up the line about “left-wing social organizers” (whatever that means) taking over workplaces by saying “[t]hat’s not what’s going on here,” but he doesn’t explain why not. In another line, he says that it “isn’t unclear” whether the drive to unionize Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer is “primarily driven by complaints from its workers, agitation from Democratic operatives, or just the fact that Jeff Bezos has now become the first person in history worth $200 billion.”
So if “adversarial” labor relations are a terrible thing and unionization allows “left-wing social organizers” to take over workplaces and undermines workers’ interests by making companies less competitive, why does Rubio “stand with” the workers in Bessemer, as he claims to earlier in the article?
It’s clear by the end of the op-ed that he isn’t so much standing “with” the workers as pointedly refusing to support Amazon in the hopes that this will send a message to other companies who take the “woke” side of culture war issues. (It might also be more than a little bit relevant that Bezos isn’t a Republican donor.) He says that “Amazon should understand that waging war against small businesses and working-class values has burned bridges with former allies,” and that “[i]f Amazon thinks that conservatives will automatically rally to do its bidding after proving itself to be such enthusiastic culture warriors, it is sorely mistaken.”
If he takes seriously his stated concern for Amazon’s smaller competitors and truly believes his Reaganite claims about unionization being bad for workers’ interests, the obvious conclusion is that he thinks that unionizing Amazon will be bad for Amazon’s employees but good for those competitors, and that at this point he’s more than happy to watch it burn.
Despite the few sentences about “standing with” and “supporting” the workers, the message becomes abundantly clear by the final paragraphs. In essence, he’s posturing like a gangster with a protection racket, telling companies that support Democrats and take the liberal side of the culture war, “It’s a nice business you have here. It’d be a shame if conservatives didn’t have your back when your workers try to unionize.”
This hardball tactic might have locally good consequences for one group of workers — or it would, if he were actually planning on “standing with” them in any way other than writing a single op-ed. (Don’t hold your breath, for example, waiting for Rubio to become a cosponsor of the PRO Act.) But there’s no sense in which Rubio is an ally of those of us who know that “adversarial relations between labor and management” are the only possible way of advancing the interests of workers in the real world.
This post was originally published on Jacobin.