The 2020 election might provide a golden opportunity for the working class — Americans without a four-year college degree who tend to work in blue-collar and service industries such as construction and retail. Though partisan control of Congress and the presidency will keep the government divided, there’s a possibility that initiatives like pro-union policies and infrastructure spending might reach a bipartisan consensus.
Encouraged by their gains among Hispanic voters and their continued strength among Americans without a college degree, Republicans are eager to rebrand themselves as, in the words of Sen. Marco Rubio, “a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition.” Meanwhile, establishment Democrats, including President-elect Joe Biden, will need to fend off a vigorous challenge from a socialist wing of the party that’s intent on displacing them. That will probably require economically focused policies.
Republican skepticism of government benefits will keep some ideas off limits, such as national health insurance, which would remove a huge source of risk from Americans’ lives. But policies that emphasize the value of work — something conservatives and liberals have both traditionally valued — have a better shot.
One surprising example is pro-union policies. Although unions were traditionally a Democratic constituency, they developed into a bulwark against radical leftism. More than a century ago, American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers told socialists:
I am not only at variance with your doctrines, but with your philosophy. Economically, you are unsound; socially, you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.
Private-sector unions have been declining for decades in the U.S.
As former Assistant Labor Secretary Martin Manley has noted, the biggest reason for the decline is the fact that U.S. unions are forced to organize shop by shop. This not only vastly increases the amount of time and money that unions have to spend organizing, it also puts any establishment that unionizes before its competitors at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
The solution, as many labor advocates have noted, is sectoral bargaining. Under this system, all of the establishments in a certain industry within a certain area — for example, all the fast-food restaurants in Jacksonville, Florida — have to abide by the wages and other labor standards determined in a single negotiation. This can be handled by extending union-negotiated labor standards to nonunion workers, as in France, or by using wage boards, as in Australia. Either way, sectoral bargaining means that no business has to fear that union contracts will allow their competitors to muscle them out of the market. It would be especially beneficial for beleaguered U.S. service sector workers, who form a large and increasing percent of the country’s workforce:
Sectoral bargaining was floated by centrist Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. But it has also received support from Michael Lind, who writes for the conservative think tank American Compass. So bipartisan interest exists.
A second potential area of cooperation is in infrastructure. Under Trump, “infrastructure week” became a famous joke, as the President refused to follow up on one of his signature pledges from his 2016 campaign. But the fact remains that U.S. infrastructure needs upgrading, and that this would provide a bonanza of jobs in construction and other blue-collar occupations.
Repairing the country’s extensive road network is obviously one priority. But there are also new types of infrastructure that the country needs. One of these is rural broadband. Currently, the economics often don’t favor extending cable lines, fiber or other broadband lines to sparsely populated, low-income areas. But just as rural electrification allowed new towns to develop and thrive away from existing metropolises, rural broadband might allow small towns in declining regions to grow and thrive. And laying those cables and fibers will mean blue-collar jobs.
But even rural broadband pales in comparison to the building of a new electrical grid. As the fossil fuel age rapidly transitions to the age of solar and wind energy, the U.S. will need ways to relocate electric power from place to place depending on where the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. A new national power grid can do that. Even local modernized grids can help a lot. And while the private sector can do much of this work, big government spending will be needed as well. The Department of Energy estimates that the build-out of this electrical infrastructure would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, most of them blue-collar, and many of them permanent.
Republicans have traditionally been shy about opening the federal purse-strings for such monumental spending sprees, but this time might be different. Former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, recently offered rural broadband as an alternative to socialism, and a modernized electrical grid might be sold the same way.
So the time may be right for government policies that boost jobs and reward work more highly. Unions and infrastructure don’t exactly fulfill the small-government libertarian dreams of previous decades, but they could represent a centrist alternative to the growing popularity of socialism — and one that helps Republicans burnish their credentials with the working class they now claim to represent.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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