The GOP's War Against Unions Is Now Entering the Endgame

| Wed Dec. 12, 2012 11:02 AM EST

Ed Kilgore takes on the Republican Party's latest jihad against labor unions:

It's kind of important to understand that this total hostility to the labor movement—the kind of thing that makes it unremarkable when a Nikki Haley flatly tells unions (who are still, so far as I know, legal everywhere) to stay out of her state as though they were crime rings—is relatively new, and very new outside the Deep South....Lest we forget, in 1976, The Sainted One Himself, Ronald Reagan, chose a man (Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania) with a 91% voting rating from the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education to be his pre-convention running-mate. Yes, this was an audacious move designed to create a mind-bending ideological coalition ticket between opposite wings of the GOP, but the point is there was a pro-labor wing of the GOP that people like Reagan not only had to respect but actually wanted to pull into their tent.

I'm loathe to argue a point of political history with Ed, but I don't think this is quite right. Yes, there was a union-friendly wing of the Republican Party at one time, but that went through a major upheaval in the 70s, and by the time Reagan took office Republicans were pretty uniformly dedicated to destroying labor one brick at a time. And they did.

I think the only thing that's changed recently is that labor passed a tipping point. In the private sector, labor density dropped below 8 percent about a decade ago, and at that point it became so tiny that Republicans simply didn't need to show it any deference anymore. So in 2010, when a tea-partyized GOP took over total control of a bunch of state legislatures, they felt free to go after unions in the most public possible way without fear of paying a political price. Besides, they had already done just about everything they possibly could to weaken unions short of destroying them completely. Their current anti-union efforts were just the obvious next step.

The turning point for Republicans, I think, came in the late 70s. Here's my capsule summary from an essay about labor and liberalism that I wrote last year:

By 1978, a chastened union movement had already given up on big-ticket legislation to make it easier to organize workplaces. But they still had every reason to think they could at least win passage of a modest package to bolster existing labor law and increase penalties for flouting rulings of the National Labor Relations Board. After all, a Democrat was president, and Democrats held 61 seats in the Senate. So they threw their support behind a compromise bill they thought the business community would accept with only a pro forma fight.

Instead, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups declared war. Organized labor fought back with all it had—but that was no longer enough: The bill failed in the Senate by two votes. It was, said right-wing Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), "a starting point for a new era of assertiveness by big business in Washington." Business historian Kim McQuaid put it more bluntly: 1978, he said, was "Waterloo" for unions.

What's happening now is the logical endpoint of a game that started a long time ago. The only thing new is that unions are now so weak that Republicans feel no need to wear even a thin mask of faux respect for labor anymore. Several decades ago the business wing of the party set out to destroy unions, and they're now close enough to total victory that they can smell it.

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