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House Republicans Can’t Even Tolerate the Word Labor

Date: January 11, 2023

By political columnist for Intelligencer

With all the shenanigans that have accompanied the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, a name change for the Committee on Education and Labor may seem like small potatoes. The shift is drawing even less attention than the new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, a panel devoted to wild conspiracy theories about the deep state persecuting Donald Trump and the sturdy MAGA patriots who follow him.

But the committee’s rechristening as the House Committee on Education & the Workforce reflects a tradition of Republican labor hostility that has grown more remarkable as the GOP has come to think of itself as the party of working people with white non-college-educated folk at the core of its electoral coalition. The GOP’s self-identification with the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil is central to its claim that the Democratic Party is now a vassal of woke coastal elitists with Ph.D.’s, whose ground troops are Big Government leeches and the immigrants who want to join them at the welfare trough. Some GOP politicians like Marco Rubio have made the alleged inversion of the major parties’ traditional class affiliations a constant talking point.

But deep-seated Republican fidelity to the interests of capital, as opposed to labor, keeps bubbling up to the surface, not least in GOP refusal to countenance the very term labor. Just as they did when they took over the House in 2010, and before that in 1995, Republicans immediately got labor out of the committee’s title. And its website (now under the supervision of new chair Virginia Foxx) was pretty clear about why this keeps happening:

“Labor” is an antiquated term that excludes individuals who contribute to the American workforce but aren’t classified as conventional employees. “Labor” also carries a negative connotation that ignores the dignity of work; the term is something out of a Marxist textbook that fails to capture the accomplishments of the full spectrum of the American workforce.

This is another way of saying that people who “work” are fundamentally the same, whether they are minimum-wage employees, billionaires, or smaller employers who believe they must keep wages, benefits, and working conditions for their own hirelings as meager as possible. And historically, this rejection of class conflict — of the idea that people who have to work for wages have distinctive interests that require specific protections — has been a staple of far-right thinking, central, for example, to the “cooperative” organization of industries in fascist Italy. The paternalism of this passage from the Education & the Workforce Committee’s essay on its new name is especially telling:

The Left prefers the term labor because it creates a sense of enmity between employees and employers which union bosses and left-wing activists seek to stoke for political gain. This word also fails to capture how deeply intertwined workers and job creators are in their contributions to our economy. Though the Left likes to treat employers like predators, we know that most job creators have their employees’ best interests in mind. Our economy would not function without the earnest cooperation of both employees and employers.

This sort of flat denial of the very legitimacy of labor rights is not, to be clear, a position that Republicans have always maintained. Well into the late 20th century, GOP politicians and policy-makers typically paid at least lip service to the legitimacy of unions while trying to limit their workplace prerogatives and restrict their political operations. Richard Nixon famously made a bid for union support and succeeded to some extent. The closest most Republicans came to open and categorical rejection of the legitimacy of labor self-representation was in disputes involving public-sector unions; dating back to Calvin Coolidge and his use of government force to break a police strike in Boston, many GOP leaders have argued that collective bargaining and, particularly, strikes are inconsistent with democracy.

But it was truly a departure when South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (often regarded as a “moderate” conservative) devoted a 2014 State of the State address to an attack on the legitimacy of private-sector unions, telling prospective investors and employers that “union jobs” were not welcome in her state. Yes, Haley’s state (along with Foxx’s neighboring North Carolina) has a history of bitter labor relations; South Carolina’s GOP was for many years bankrolled by textile barons fighting unionization. But in this century, this aggressively pro-corporate, anti-labor point of view has swept the GOP nationally. (Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was a particularly influential missionary for a southern-fried politics focused on reducing labor costs for corporations above all else.)

So it’s not really surprising to find House Republicans embracing a vision of the “working class” based on liberating workers entirely from the idea that their interests and those of the economic ruling class might diverge. Indeed, their hostility to the very word labor represents the sort of truth in packaging that the GOP, with its Orwellian language of racism-as-anti-racism and Christian-conformity-as-liberty, usually eschews.

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