By BERRY CRAIG
AFT Local 1360
“Right to work” proponents hate it when somebody exposes the racist roots of RTW.
“These are Jim Crow era laws to divide black against white,” Kentucky State AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan told delegates at the federation’s recent biennial convention in Lexington.
In the 1940s and 50s, ten of the 11 ex-Confederate states were among the first states to pass RTW laws. Segregation and race discrimination were the law and the social order in Dixie.
In a union, everybody is equal. Thus, white supremacist legislators and governors feared unions would undermine the Jim Crow system, so they eagerly hopped on the RTW bandwagon.
Londrigan added that conservative politicians beyond the old Confederacy embraced RTW because the laws “divide everybody at the work site. ‘Right to work’ was an ingenious concept to break down union solidarity.”
Under a RTW law, workers at a union shop can enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying the union a service fee to represent them. The idea is to weaken strong unions, destroy small unions and keep workers from organizing.
Kentucky’s Republican-majority legislature passed a RTW law in January, and GOP Gov. Matt Bevin eagerly signed it.
“‘Right to work is not about economic development,” Londrigan said. “It’s not about individual freedom. It’s about dividing workers.”
Londrigan pointed out that “unions operate, and are founded on, the democratic principle of majority rule and they are one of the last truly democratic institutions in our society.”
In a union, he explained, “all members have an equal voice in voting on union contracts, expenditures and leadership. RTW is another incarnation of tyranny of the minority.”
RTW laws undermine unions by prohibiting union security agreements under which all bargaining unit members belong to the union or pay a service fee. Union and management must ratify such agreements, union members by a majority vote, Londrigan said.
Meanwhile, in the 1940s, the RTW drive got a big boost from Vance Muse, a Texas tycoon and white supremacist who detested “the doctrine of human equality represented by unions,” wrote Roger Bybee in The Progressive. A Klan fan, Muse was “the Karl Rove-meets-David Duke brains behind the whole right to work movement,” wrote Mark Ames in Pando Quarterly online.
The Texas Legislature passed a right to work law in 1947 but changed the measure to its current form in 1993.
Muse, who also was rabidly anti-Semitic, saw “right to work”as a twofer: RTW would help smash unions and help maintain segregation and white supremacy in Texas and elsewhere in the Jim Crow South.
In 1936, Muse started the reactionary, racist Christian American Association in opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Muse allied the group with the KKK. FDR was running for re-election and Muse bitterly opposed him.
The year before, a Democratic Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. Also known as the Wagner Act, the legislation gave workers legal protection to organize and bargain collectively.
“The appallingly racist views of Muse and his Christian American Association coincided with the mentality of corporate managers dedicated to holding down wages and maintaining the tight control over workers dating back to the days of slavery,” Bybee wrote. “The CEOs of the 1930s recognized that Muse’s segregationist ‘right to work’ concept would break up unified worker efforts to claim the rights granted under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also recognized the racist origins of right to work.
“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work,'” he warned in 1961. “It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone….Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”
Also in 1961, Dr. King told the AFL-CIO Convention, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs—decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor.
“That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
RTW laws are “lies by lying liars,” Londrigan said. “They are a focused attack directly on unions.”