Culture war has been declared.
On Monday, Google fired an engineer named James Damore for circulating an anti-diversity manifesto that claimed Google was too blinded by left-wing political bias to see that its women engineers were limited by their inferior biology. His dismissal alarmed conservatives who are now calling Damore’s firing an assault on political speech.
Right wing publications say that firing Damore is Google’s “warning shot” across the bow of democracy in an attempt to instate totalitarianism, and that the whole debacle proves that the goal of the left, according to the National Review, is that “the white male must lose.”
But there’s no need for a culture war when there are concrete legal and institutional methods of solving this alleged crisis directly. If conservatives are convinced there is an escalating assault on their ability to express their opinions in the workplace, they could start by ending their war on the most powerful mechanism for protecting them: unions.
“The union, as an institution, is the most effective mechanism for guaranteeing a certain basic level of workers rights,” labor advocate and historian Bill Fletcher Jr. told Mic on Wednesday. “What a union does by establishing collective bargaining and a grief procedure is say that if employers get rid of a worker, they need to follow certain procedures and guarantee fairness in your process.”
Fletcher is describing a common union tool called “just cause.” This is a clause in a union contract wherein firing someone without proving that they failed to perform essential, work-related duties — say, for expressing a political opinion — is a breach of contract.
Without a just cause agreement in place, employees could be fired for wearing a pin supporting a presidential candidate, talking politics at the water cooler or even failing to support a superior’s re-election campaign.
Unions have protected marginalized workers for a century. After the 1930s, unions protected LGBTQ workers from hiring discrimination and partnered with leaders like Mayor Harvey Milk to coordinate boycotts. Unions have been an essential tool for African-American and female workers seeking workplace equality.
“As the workforce became more heavily comprised of women, unions began taking up issues that were very specifically raised by women,” Fletcher said. “And that might have been anything from childcare to pay discrepancy.”
This is not to say that firing Damore constitutes a crackdown on conservatives. As ex-Googlers and tech leaders by the dozens have pointed out, there is a difference between holding conservative viewpoints and circulating a viral memo calling thousands of your fellow employees genetically inferior. Unions can protect employees from political crackdowns, but not from creating what former Google principal engineer Yonatan Zunger called in an open letter to Damore “a textbook hostile workplace environment.”
Nevertheless, if conservatives believe in a systemic war on their workers rights based on their politics, unions provide a systemic solution.
But rather than embracing unions, the right wing has been slowly chipping away at unions for decades, working largely at the state level to pass legislation that erodes union power.
“Anti-unionism is the primary feature of the business-led right,” Elizabeth Shermer, historian and Loyola University Chicago professor, told Mic. “Some scholars argue that when conservatives take control at the state, local or federal level, the first things they go after are Planned Parenthood and unions because it placates both the socially conservative base and the business interests.”
President Donald Trump has made fighting for the “working class” a central part of both his campaign and his presidency. But even now, Republicans in Congress are trying to pass a federal right-to-work bill, which would significantly erode unions nationwide by allowing workers to opt out of supporting their union even as they reap the rewards of a unionized workplaces.
On Monday, Damore, who is giving interviews almost exclusively to ring-wing YouTubers, filed a complaint over his firing from Google with the National Labor Relations Board. Fletcher doesn’t think he has a leg to stand on, but Damore is entitled to his complaint under the Wagner Act of 1935.
He can thank the union movement for that, too.