Voters, according to the national polls, are not being stirred by any of the presidential candidates. But one significant shift is showing up in political reports from several industrial states: More blue-collar workers are listening to the Ronald Reagan rhetoric and liking it.
This phenomenon—observed eight years ago on the Wallace campaign—should concern organized labor. But the unions, like much of the press, are letting the Ronald Reagan bandwagon roll on without much of a challenge. It could be that the AFL-CIO is waiting until after the nominating conventions before taking on the darling of the old and new Right. By then it may be too late to change the Reagan appeal—fixed in the minds of workers who have decided to switch to the Republican Party.
These Reagan impressions decidedly are not reflective of the Reagan record. Coming on as a determined tax-cutter, Reagan carefully avoids telling his audiences that as California governor he joined the largest tax increase with the highest real growth in government spending in that state’s history. Similar disparities persist between Reagan campaign speeches now and his gubernatorial performance earlier on such matters as welfare and state employee levels.
But it is Reagan’s callousness toward worker health and safety which joins the grinning candidate’s words and deeds. As governor he opposed the federal worker safety law and seriously weakened the state enforcement of its workplace safety rules.
On the campaign trail he ridicules OSHA and signals to corporate interests that, as president, he would fix that meddler. He opposes almost the entire agenda of the unions and when challenged gives his stock reply that he has been a member of the actors’ union for decades.
Reagan really is much more of a corporatist than a conservative. In his verbal repertoire on the need to cut back federal spending, he routinely excludes any mention of the annual multibillions of subsidy dollars doled out to corporations and the waste of billions in the military contracting business.
During a debate five years ago with Reagan, I asked him whether he was worried about those subsidy programs and corporate welfare cheaters. He replied that he was and that he tells his business friends not to be so prone to going to Washington for handouts. Noting. that there were dozens of corporate subsidy programs in Washington I asked him to name specifically the ones he would abolish.
Asking Ronald Reagan to be specific makes him choose between corporatism and conservatism. It makes him uneasy because his political expediency begins to show through his facile facade of homilies and slogans. After a pause he said he would repeal the Jones Act—a law requiring inter-coastal shipping between U.S. ports to be conducted only by U.S. flagships. Not since that time has Reagan spoken out against any of the scores of subsidy programs for business.
Consumer groups long have known about Reagan’s contempt for consumer protection laws and reasonable ways for consumers to participate in regulatory proceedings as before the California State Utility Commission.
Waking up late to Reagan may become a nightmare for progressive worker interests. Union leaders who care should waste little time in providing the rank and file with the facts about Reagan. For as long as the working press continues to view Reagan with a “So, what else is new?” attitude and to neglect pinning him down on specific issues, the glittering generalities campaign of the Californian actor requires a systematic exposure by organized labor.