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Working Class Party

Maybe it’s because Kentucky and Barkley dams--two of the largest hydro dams in the country--are near my old Kentucky home.

But “If b------t were electricity, you’d be a powerhouse” is a common expression hereabouts.

The Senate vote on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill—plus recent Republican claims that the GOP has morphed into a "working class party" reminded me of that old saw.

Not a single Republican voted for the pro-working class legislation. The bill included $1,400 checks for workers struggling to make ends meet and extended unemployment benefits that will run out this month.

The GOP's attempt to rebrand itself as a blue collar party is the latest sucker play in a 40-year-old con on working people.

It started in 1980 when Ronald Reagan, the proto-Trump, ran for president. He and the Republicans knew that by word and deed they'd been the anti-worker and anti-union party since Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. 

So Reagan hammered on abortion, guns and school prayer. Now it's also "cancel culture," Dr. Seuss, the Muppets and Mr. Potato Head.

From Reagan through Trump and beyond, the idea has stayed the same: use controversial cultural issues to distract working class voters from the GOP's overtly anti-worker agenda

From Reagan through Trump and beyond, the idea has stayed the same: use controversial cultural issues to distract working class voters from the GOP's overtly anti-worker agenda—big tax breaks for the rich at the expense of everybody else, curbing government regulations that safeguard workers, consumers and the environment, opposition to the minimum wage and busting unions.

You’d think it would be mission impossible to trick very many working folks—especially union members—into voting against their own jobs and livelihoods. But with the cultural issues, or "social issues," it’s largely been mission accomplished for the GOP. 

Fiercely anti-union, Reagan nonetheless collected votes from 45 percent of union households in 1980 (President Jimmy Carter got 48 percent.), according to Roper exit polling. Reelected in 1984, Reagan received 46 percent of union household votes to 54 for Democrat Walter Mondale.

The Republicans use these social issues to turn our members away from economic issues that unions have been built on,” said veteran Kentucky labor leader Kirk Gillenwaters, a United Auto Workers retiree and president of the Kentucky Alliance for Retired Americans.

“It’s sad to see so many of our people buy into their spin.”

Sad indeed.

Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Rep. Jim Jordan (not a single Republican representative voted for the the House-passed stimulus bill and they're expected to do likewise on the Senate bill.) are at the forefront of trying to bamboozle the country on the Trump GOP as the “working class party.”

“The great dream of conservatives ever since the thirties [when FDR was president] has been a working class movement that for once takes their side of the issues, that votes Republican and reverses the achievements of working-class movements of the past,” Thomas Frank wrote in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Published in 2004, the book is as timely as ever.

Added the author:

“Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”

You could substitute my native Kentucky or any other red state for “Kansas.”

A phony populist like Reagan, Trump, who praised "right to work" laws on the campaign trail, rivaled the Gipper as a union-busting president. Click herehereherehere,herehere,herehereherehereandhereAnd herehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.) 

In 2106, the union household vote broke 51-43 for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump, according to Roper. Last November, union households went for Biden over Trump 57-40, according to

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"...The gap between Trumpism in theory and practice remains enormous," Samuel Hammond wrote in The Guardian soon after last November's election, "Despite campaigning on a rejection of conservative economic orthodoxies in 2016, once in office Trump pursued an agenda of tax cuts and deregulation that was almost comically conventional. And by the final days of the 2020 campaign, Trump scarcely talked about policy at all, much less his core issues of trade and immigration."

Writing in the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell noted that "The GOP has lately tried to rebrand itself as the party of populists. It’s for the little guy, not the big bullying corporation; the working class, not Wall Street.

"If that’s true, though, wow, do congressional Republicans have a weird way of showing it."

On his MSNBC show last month, Chris Hayes challenged Cruz, Hawley and Jordan to put up or shut up by endorsing the union drive at that Alabama Amazon warehouse.

So far, mum's been the word from the trio who stand squarely in the front ranks of GOP union-busters. They're like the Kentucky horse trader of old, glad to show you their teeth, not the horse's.

Cruz has voted the union position on issues just 6 percent of the time since he came to Washington, according to the latest AFL-CIO legislative scorecard. Hawley and Jordan score 5 percent each. (Kentucky's Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul tie at 12 percent.)

Cruz and Jordan have co-sponsored national “right to work” legislation. Hawley backed RTW when he was Missouri attorney general.

On election night, Hawley tweeted, “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.”

"But since then," Trip Gabriel wrote in The New York Times the other day, "Republicans have offered very little to advance the economic interests of blue-collar workers."

At the recent CPAC Trump lovefest, Cruz, Hawley and other potential 2024 GOP hopefuls "scarcely mentioned a blue-collar agenda," Gabriel added. "They used their turns in the national spotlight to fan grievances about 'cancel culture,' to bash the tech industry and to reinforce Mr. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election."

History teaches that Republicans—with few exceptions—have never offered anything to "advance the economic interests of blue-collar workers." 

Most Republicans ferociously opposed the Wagner Act of 1935, which gave workers the right to join unions, required employers to recognize the unions and legalized strikes.

Republicans pushed and passed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Aimed at weakening the Wagner Act, Taft-Hartley enabled states to pass RTW laws. 

Like Republicans in other states, Republicans in Kentucky enacted a RTW law—and they repealed the state's prevailing wage law. Since, GOP lawmakers have been going after the state's unemployment insurance, workers compensation and worker safety and health programs. (In other states, the Republicans are rolling back, or have curbed, the same kind of programs.)

Indeed, Republicans are trying to wipe out unions in every other statehouse where they have majorities, too.

Okay, history also teaches that not every Democrat--in Washington and state legislatures—has been consistently pro-union. White conservative southern Democratic senators and representatives opposed much of FDR's New Deal, including labor legislation. (They hated and feared unions as dire threats to segregationist Jim Crow laws because in a union everybody is equal.)

In addition, Southern Democratic governors and lawmakers—the antecedents of the current Dixie GOP—eagerly passed RTW laws to keep unions at bay.

At the same time, at age 71, I'm old enough to remember a few Republicans who were pro-union or at least not knee-jerk anti-union. Sens. Jake Javits of New York and Mac Mathias of Maryland come to mind. (Javits voted against Taft-Hartley when he was in the House.)

“History will tell you that the Democrats ramrodded every meaningful piece of legislation for the benefit of working people,” said J.R. Gray of Benton, a former Democratic state representative, Machinists union official, and Kentucky labor secretary.

He's right. 

Anyway, Rampell also posited, "Whatever populist bona fides Republicans claim now, their policies have consistently deprioritized working families....Of course, helping 'the little people' might mean something different to a party that believes corporations are people too." 

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A footnote: While union leaders like Gillenwaters are right to be concerned about so many union votes going to union-busters—he included McConnell and Paul—it's important to point out that if everybody voted like union households, Reagan would be remembered as a less-than-talented B movie actor who once co-starred with a chimpanzee and Trump would be known as a boorish, born-to-wealth TV huckster, high-roller, less-than-faithful husband and a serial bankrupter of his own businesses.

Berry Craig