From the moment it was declared, the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) strike has presented Republican politicians with something of a dilemma. The immediate reason is that public opinion is firmly and overwhelmingly behind the union and its demands. More broadly, the GOP has in recent years gone to great pains to rebrand itself as a party of the working class. That’s always been nonsense, of course, and the rhetorical gymnastics offered by leading conservative politicians over the past few days is an excellent case in point.
Quick out of the gate was Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who remarked, “Auto workers deserve a raise — and they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich.” As media critic Adam Johnson pointed out, Hawley’s superficially pro-worker statement contained a number of revealing evasions and omissions. Most obviously, it referred to autoworkers without actually mentioning their union. And while Hawley did endorse an unspecified raise, that position is by no means in tension with the current posture of management at the Big Three automakers — all of whom have offered raises significantly below what the union has demanded.
Particularly emblematic, and equally disingenuous, was Hawley’s attempt to represent the strike as a regrettable by-product of the Biden administration’s (rather moderate) green policies while invoking geopolitical rivalry with China. Donald Trump, for his part, has triangulated in much the same way: issuing statements vaguely supportive of “autoworkers” while openly attacking the UAW and misrepresenting the dispute as a case of liberal green quackery run amok. Florida governor Ron DeSantis and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum both offered variations on the same themes, with the former blaming “Biden’s push for electric vehicles” and the latter commenting, “The union workers are going, wow, we’re gonna switch to all EVs, we’re going to have less jobs, we’re gonna switch to all EVs, you know, we’re shipping our future and you are going to be dependent on China for our transportation needs.”
Statements like these all express the rather challenging predicament of right-wing politicians keen to brandish their workerist credentials without actually supporting the aspirations of workers themselves. Needless to say, the act is unconvincing.
The recent interventions of Republican senator Tim Scott therefore stand out for their ideological clarity and candor. Asked during a recent campaign stop if he would intervene in labor disputes as president, Scott — who has evidently not received the post-2016 memo directing conservative politicians to at least feign sympathy for workers — was unequivocal in his response: “I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you’re fired. Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.”
At a policy roundtable in South Carolina a few days earlier, Scott not only took aim at the UAW but also made clear his belief that workers are a subordinate class whose waking lives should be subject to the whims of management:
We’re seeing the UAW fight for more benefits and less hours working. . . . More pay and fewer days on the job. It’s a disconnect from work, and we have to find a way to encourage and inspire people to go back to work. That’s one of the things that, as your president, we would have. We would have a nationwide, sea-to-shining-sea focus on . . . you pick the type of work. But if you’re able-bodied, you are going to work.
Sen. Scott on auto workers strike in comments at policy roundtable in South Carolina, “…We’re seeing UAW fight for more benefits and less hours working. More pay, fewer days on the job. It’s a disconnect from work and we have to find a way to encourage…ppl to go back to work" pic.twitter.com/yuQ5qKwgPz
— Eva McKend (@evamckend) September 15, 2023
It’s refreshing, in a grotesque sort of way, when conservative politicians are this candid about their hierarchical view of society and their contempt for the working majority.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the advent of mass democracy and universal suffrage often compelled the Right to cloak its arguments in the language of fairness and equality. However fraudulent, the gesture was an implicit concession to the reality that democratically empowered citizens and workers were unlikely to vote for the kinds of policies favored by capitalists. The great innovation of figures like Margaret Thatcher and Scott’s hero, Ronald Reagan, was to represent the likes of crushing unions and trickle-down economics in popular terms. The underlying project remained the same, but it now came packaged in quasi-democratic rhetoric of individual autonomy and collective uplift.
Scott’s various statements, however, usefully strip the right-wing project of everything but the barren moral vision at its core. Hope to work less? Forget about it. The essence of life, at least for all but a few, is to work and be subordinate to someone else. Want higher pay? Not a chance. The market alone should set prices, and the function of wages is to keep people desperate enough to accept work regardless of the conditions. Go on strike? The state will smash you to pieces and replace you like an engineer replaces a defective part in a machine. Even Scott’s conclusion is phrased less as a descriptive statement than a commandment from above issued to people outside the room. You are going to work.
It’s a succinct summation of what the Right, beyond its deflections and unconvincing workerist appeals, really thinks about the UAW strike — and how it actually regards so many of the ordinary people for whom it claims to speak.