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Rubio endorsing Amazon workers’ union push signals a political shift in organized labor’s favor

March 15, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

On Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) published an op-ed in USA Today expressing his support for recent unionization efforts by Amazon workers at the retail giant’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse.

It was an unorthodox move for the Republican senator, whose party is more associated with pro-business policies that have contributed to organized labor’s waning influence in recent decades. But in his piece, Rubio criticized the retail giant for having “waged a war against working-class values” and claimed that “the days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over.

“When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy—I support the workers,” Rubio wrote. “And that’s why I stand with those at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse today.”

Rubio wasn’t unequivocal in his support for organized labor. He knocked Democrats’ proposed Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—which would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize—as legislation that would “mandate adversarial relations between labor and management.” He also characterized the right to form a union as “a requirement that business owners allow left-wing social organizers to take over their workplaces.” While the head of the union conducting the Amazon workers’ unionization drive welcomed Rubio’s support, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka accused the senator of “political pandering” given his opposition to the PRO Act.

And beyond labor concerns, Rubio’s essay also appeared exceptionally concerned with Amazon’s politics. He described the company as “enthusiastic culture warriors,” likely in reference to its recent decision to stop selling books that frame transgender sexual identity as a mental illness—a move that drew scrutiny from Rubio and other GOP senators.

Still, Rubio’s pro-worker stance—which echoed a similar article he wrote for The Atlantic in 2018—could signal a broader political shift in favor of organized labor. After years of declining union membership, recent polling indicates that public support for unions in the U.S. is on the rise. And President Biden has looked to live up to his campaign promise of being “the strongest labor President you have ever had” by broadly backing the Amazon workers’ right to unionize (albeit without naming the company or explicitly endorsing their unionization drive).

But while it’s not uncommon for Democratic lawmakers to offer such support to unions, the backing of a leading Senate Republican is far more surprising, and may hint at changing attitudes toward organized labor on the right. With the GOP increasingly looking to appeal to working-class voters, an embrace of pro-labor policies could prove to be in the party’s interest, given evidence showing that unions played a key role in reducing economic inequality in the 20th century.

Of course, that embrace would run counter to the decades of free-market orthodoxy that has guided the Republican Party’s economic principles and kept it cozy with business interests. But after a decade bookended by two recessions that left millions of working Americans struggling to cope, Rubio’s words may speak to a growing acceptance of what unions represent—on both sides of the aisle.

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