The "Middle Class" as a Union-Busting Rhetorical Tool

By: Carson Taylor

The Republican Party Platform, re-adopted in 2020, takes care to heap praise on the working class, proclaiming that its policies are centered on promoting “workers’ freedom.” In the next sentences, it bemoans the existence of the National Labor Relations Board, the scarcity of “right-to-work” laws, and the activities of labor unions. Politicians regularly do the same, playing lip service to the “middle class” and “blue-collar workers” while simultaneously advocating legislation that systematically dismantles any leverage workers have over the corporations and capital that make enormous profits from their labor. There is no question that unions built the middle class, and that their decline has helped undo that progress. Since 1950, union density has decreased 20% while the top earners collected a share of American wealth comparable only to the Gilded Age. Minimum wages, the weekend, and an end to legal child labor are all results of union activism and work. So why is demonizing these vital organizations so popular among politicians who claim to represent the working class? The answer is clear: workers are not being advocated for, they are being used as an aesthetic tool by the powerful to cynically push policy that furthers class divides and consolidates power.

Nearly all of the most virulent anti-worker policy comes hidden beneath a sheen of elitist paternalism towards working Americans. “Right to work” laws claim to exist for the “freedom” of workers, but the underlying message of these laws is patently manipulative. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) claims to exist to protect workers against “coercive union power.” They claim unions are undemocratic and unrepresentative of workers. This rhetoric only works if the question of how to empower workers’ voices in the workplace goes unanswered. The NRTW does not protect workers’ rights to influence their working conditions. If it did, they would propose an alternative to unions that gives workers democratic power over working conditions and wages. But they do not present these alternatives, because there are no suitable alternatives. They did not support the “one member, one vote” policies in unions like the UAW which make unions more democratic, and the reason for that is that they do not want workers’ voices to actually be heard. They simply prop up the same employment-at-will system that created historic income inequality, allows vast amounts of wage theft, and leaves millions of workers in poverty, without healthcare, and reliant on unsafe living conditions.

Republican politicians like Mike Pence and Scott Walker have long made careers attempting to break the power of labor. In this era of Republican politics, however, those same politicians have had to contend with an increasingly populist base and widespread support for unions. The game, therefore, shifts away from confrontation with labor and towards obfuscation of the conversation entirely. Republicans are still incredibly anti-labor, as the Trump-era NLRB and Supreme Court have demonstrated, but they have prioritized building a narrow vision of the “middle class” working population that they can pretend to support.

So what are the characteristics of the Republican “middle class?” One could argue they are hand-selected to fit Republican narratives and policies without addressing either the underlying problems facing those workers or any legitimate economic problems. As such, conservatives have used coal workers as bulwarks against climate change legislation, farmworkers as rhetorical fodder for anti-immigrant policies, and certain manufacturing workers as justification for xenophobic foreign policies. There are simpler, effective policies that actually could help these workers, like higher wages and fairer standards, but these policies run contrary to their economic message, so they are ignored. Conservative policy aims to elevate these workers above others in national conversations, but not to implement the changes these workers need.

Ultimately, it is clear that the “middle class” in contemporary American politics is a prime example of politicians constructing a public to advance their interests. If conservatives can paint the middle class as a group of fossil fuel workers threatened by climate change solutions, farmworkers threatened by humane immigration systems, and manufacturing workers threatened by international trade, they can reframe their solutions as “helping the middle class” when all they really do is advance their own interests. They can co-opt pro-worker sentiment for anti-worker causes, and take advantage of workers who lose hope in organized labor. Make no mistake, the middle class in America has been losing ground for years. But the solution to this is good-paying, union jobs, and any attempt politicians make to characterize the “middle class” in their favor must be considered in the context of systematic limitations to the right to form and join unions. The American public must not allow the concept of the “middle class” to be weaponized by the very people who are responsible for destroying it.