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The Racist Roots Of ‘Right To Work’ Laws

December 15, 2012

This article by Chris Kromm is re-posted from ZNet.

This week, Republican lawmakers in Michigan — birthplace of the United Auto Workers and, more broadly, the U.S. labor movement — shocked the nation by becoming the 24th state to pass “right-to-work” legislation, which allows non-union employees to benefit from union contracts.Picture 1

While Michigan’s momentous decision has received widespread media attention, little has been said about the origins of “right-to-work” laws, which find their roots in extreme pro-segregationist and anti-communist elements in the 1940s South.

The history of anti-labor “right-to-work” laws starts in Houston. It was there in 1936 that Vance Muse, an oil industry lobbyist, founded the Christian American Association with backing from Southern oil companies and industrialists from the Northeast.

As Dartmouth sociologist Marc Dixon notes in his fascinating history of the period [pdf], “The Christian American Association was the first in the nation to champion the ‘Right-to-Work’ as a full-blown political slogan.”

Muse was a fixture in far-right politics in the South before settling into his anti-labor crusade. In his 1946 book “Southern Exposure,” crusading journalist Stetson Kennedy wrote:

The man Muse is quite a character. He is six foot four, wears a ten-gallon hat, but generally reserves his cowboy boots for trips Nawth. Now over fifty, Muse has been professionally engaged in reactionary enterprises for more than a quarter of a century.

As Kennedy described, these causes included opposing women’s suffrage, child labor laws, integration and growing efforts to change the Southern political order, as represented in the threat of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Muse’s sister and associate at the Christan American Association, Ida Darden, openly complained about the First Lady’s “Eleanor Clubs” saying they (as related by Kennedy):

…stood for “$15 a week salary for all nigger house help, Sundays off, no washing, and no cleaning upstairs.” As an afterthought, she added, “My nigger maid wouldn’t dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!”

Allowing herself to go still further, the little lady went on to say, “Christian Americans can’t afford to be anti-Semitic, but we know where we stand on the Jews, all right.

The Association also suspected Catholics — which Dixon notes caused the downfall of their crusades in neighboring Louisiana.

But for far-right conservatives like Muse, as well as industry groups like the Southern States Industrial Council, labor — including black labor — posed an especially dangerous threat in Texas. Thanks to a burgeoning wartime economy, along with labor organizing drives spearheaded by the Congress of Industrial Organizations and, to a lesser extent, the American Federation of Labor, unions were rapidly growing in Texas. After hovering around 10 percent of the workforce during the 1930s, union membership exploded by 225 percent during the next decade.

Muse and the Christian American Association saw danger. Not only were the unions expanding the bargaining power — and therefore improving the wages and working conditions — of working-class Texans, they also constituted a political threat. The CIO in particular opposed Jim Crow and demanded an end to segregation. Unions were an important political ally to FDR and the New Deal. And always lurking in the shadows was the prospect of a Red Menace, stoked by anti-communist hysteria.

Working in concert with segregationists and right-wing business leaders, Muse and the Association swiftly took action. Their first step in 1941 was to push an “anti-violence” bill that placed blanket restrictions on public union picketing at workplaces. The stated goal was to ensure “uninterrupted” industrial production during World War II, although Texas had the fewest number of strikes in the South, and the law applied to all industries, war-related or not.

Their success with the “anti-violence” bill spurred Muse and the Christian American Association to push for — and pass — similar laws throughout the South. Mississippi adopted an anti-violence statute in 1942; Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama passed similar laws in 1943. It also emboldened them to take on a much bigger prize: ending the ability of labor groups to run a “closed shop,” where union benefits extend only to union members.

In 1945, the Christian American Association — along with allies cemented in earlier anti-union legislative battles, including the Fight for Free Enterprise and the vehemently anti-union Texas Lt. Gov. John Lee Smith — introduced a right-to-work bill in Texas. It passed the House by a 60 to 53 margin, but pro-New Deal forces stopped it in the state senate. Two years later, thanks to a well-funded campaign from the Association and industry — and internal divisions between the craft-oriented AFL and the more militant CIO — Texas’ right-to-work bill was signed into law.

While working to pass right-to-work legislation in Texas, Muse and the Association took their efforts to Arkansas and Florida, where a similar message equating union growth with race-mixing and communism led to the passage of the nation’s first right-to-work laws in 1944. In all, 14 states passed such legislation by 1947, when conservatives in Congress successfully passed Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartly Act, enshrining the right of states to pass laws that allow workers to receive union benefits without joining a union.

Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw an alliance with labor as crucial to advancing civil rights as well as economic justice for all workers, spoke out against right-to-work laws; this 1961 statement by King was widely circulated this week during Michigan’s labor battles:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ 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.

Interestingly, 11 years later, Kansas also passed a right-to-work law, with the support of Texas-born energy businessman Fred Koch, who also viewed unions as vessels for communism and integration. Koch’s sons Charles and David went on to form the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity, which pushed for the Michigan right-to-work measure, and is now advocating for states that already have such laws, like North Carolina and Virginia, to further enshrine them in their state constitutions.

And what about Muse? According to the Texas State Historical Association:

Muse died on October 15, 1950, at his Houston home, where his efforts with the Christian Americans had originated. At the time of his death he was working on a right-to-work amendment to the federal Constitution.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian York permalink
    December 15, 2012 7:56 pm

    Aw, I thought little Jeffy believed in freedom of speech. Obviously not. He has removed the three posts that disagreed with him. Took his marbles and went home. Pathetic.

  2. SitInvertn permalink
    December 15, 2012 9:56 pm

    For the record my PST indicate a very strong aversion, to pseudo constitutional conservatism/libertarianism. I disagree only 4-5 % with Jeffs positions/postings, alas all is details though. Anyway I hope popular energy abounds in the spirits of both democracy and liberty, at the moment, as that is historically the ingredients win previously mixed, that gave rise to our countries formation. May the revolutionary spirit be with you all, always.

  3. Josh permalink
    December 15, 2012 9:59 pm

    There’s a difference between removing posts that are inflammatory and anything that disagrees with you. A thorough examination with show a wide array of opinions expressed in the comments on this

    Aside from the fact that the first amendment has little to do with the comment section of blogs.

  4. SitInvertn permalink
    December 15, 2012 10:09 pm

    Yeah this website is private property—– smile Damn it:)

  5. Brian York permalink
    December 15, 2012 10:27 pm

    But Josh, how would you even know whether my post was inflammatory? It’s not here to read. And you say the first amendment has “little to do with the comment section of blogs”? Really? Americans who write a public blog and invite comments don’t have to respect the first amendment? Really? They should delete comments that present an opposing point of view?

    Here’s my two posts again,combined into one as best as I can recall writing them. Please tell me what is “inflammatory” about it? Please tell me why it should be deleted? OR — tell me if it presents an articulate response to the author’s mention of Americans for Prosperity and adds valuable information to readers on the backstory of how right-to-work legislation came to fruition in Michigan, which is where the author’s article ends.

    It went something like this:

    I wish Americans for Prosperity, mentioned in the last paragraph of this article, the best of luck in promoting right-to-work legislation throughout the remaining 26 states. Because right-to-work legislation attracts business and investment, and lowers unemployment — something desperately needed here in Michigan. I was sorry to see those union thugs in Lansing tear down the Americans for Prosperity tent during the protests last Tuesday — even while there were women and elderly inside. I’m also sorry they repeatedly punched reporter Steven Crowder in the face. Video here:

    I live in Michigan. This whole thing started when the unions tried to pass Proposition 2 this year. This proposition was crafted by the unions and would have amended the state’s constitution to guarantee public and private-sector employees the right to organize and collectively bargain. Labor spent $21.5 million promoting it, and yet it lost by a margin of 58% to 42%. The people spoke. The unions lost. THAT’S what brought this issue front and center. And THAT’S what prompted Governor Snyder to do an about face on passing right to work legislation after pleading with the unions not to proceed with proposition 2. The only reason it was passed in a lame duck session was because Republicans had to wait to see whether or not Prop 2 would pass on November 6th.

    In essence, the unions were hoisted by their own petard. As for Michigan labor vowing 2014 election year revenge against Snyder and other Republicans, may they have as much success as they did with Proposition 2, and may they spend another $21.5 million of their members dues in the process. It will help encourage members to stop paying dues altogether.

    Neighboring Indiana became a right-to-work state on Feb. 1st. Since the start of the year, the state has welcomed many new employers and added 43,300 jobs, while Michigan has lost 7,300. One example is Caterpillar, which announced shortly after Indiana’s decision that it would move its London, Ontario, plant to Muncie. Indiana. Indiana is not alone. Between 1980 and 2011, total employment in right-to-work states grew by 71%, while employment in non-right-to-work states grew 32%.

    Btw, Governor Snyder has lead Michigan out of the deep dark deficits that were commonplace during the Democratic Governor Jennifer Grandholm’s tenure. In fact, he has created a $457 million surplus here in Michigan. God bless him.

    Is my post inflammatory, Josh? Or is it simply something the author didn’t want to hear, and/or didn’t want his readers to hear?

  6. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 1:15 am

    Let the synthesis begin.
    First let me be clear that I am of many minds regarding the information you’ve posted, both positive and negative. I assume you value civil political discourse, due the manner in wich you’ve voiced your position, furthermore I wholeheartedly believe your understanding in supporting this measure, is that the people have spoken, the action will stimulate economic growth, and hence it’s execution is just(popular) and necessary. I have faith that the statistics you’ve provided regarding economic growth are correct, as I’m sure you do aswell. Indeed these are trying times in terms of economic growth(1), and require swift far reaching actions. Regarding the popular mandate you’ve alluded to, the popular rejection of Prop.2. Well that’s seems to me just that, a negative into that question alone, and could be nothing more. So that leaves parliamentary Democratic retaliation, or opportunism, as the alternatives for giving impetus to enact this policy, wich is undoubtedly unjust, regardless if there is a general enthusiasm for such a policy, if the enthusiasm is strong enough than surely the measure can be brought forward, considered and debated by both the representatives and the people, and voted on after all parties have voiced the grounds of their approval or disapproval, alas this is merely an appendage of the problem of government separated by degrees from the people, in that it does not allow, nor does it require,and itself lacks popular reflection. With that being said , again I agree that economic growth is desperately needed, and will recommend some transpartisan solutions that would address the havoc wrecked on both small and large businesses, as well as the every day citizen, but I gotta gotta some food real quick so bear with me.

  7. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 2:00 am

    One more thing on the “Just nature of enactment” line of thought. If support for RTW can be extrapolated from the popular rejection of prop.2, then the reenactment of the EFM law after it was explicitly rejected by the same means, in a manner witch bars the popular veto should be considered a travesty. Sense the governor owes the privilege of his office to will of 51% ( the most demotic office of state, and the people’s lone voice where one of the only two direct Democratic powers of the people is constantly exercised on their behalf for their convenience, the veto/referendum ), to put into execution legislation beyond the foundations of his power, out of reach from the majority witch he serves at the pleasure of, is an act of betrayal magnitudes beyond the the measure of bounds exceeded in adopting policy of this nature.

  8. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 2:05 am

    Also the very definition of tyranny..assumed, usurped power.

  9. Jane from that show Daria permalink
    December 16, 2012 2:10 am

    Clearly that person should’ve concealed their identity before punching that journalist in the face. That’s my only critique. Everything else about that was awesome.

  10. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 2:37 am

    Yeah it’s America, shits corrupt, the more the state is wielded in an unjust manner, and the public kept in a spectator capacity of their governance, the more common actions like this will become, sign of the times.

  11. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 2:57 am

    Yo I’m kinda pissed now…That’s definitly political tyranny, a mechanism the state and any tyrant willing to facilitate it’s usage , may dissolve a functional capability of the body witch gives the state it’s life. That’s like a kid telling one his parents, your full of shit, I don’t have to listen to you. Contain. this beast.

  12. Elaida permalink
    December 16, 2012 3:47 am

    ok, honestly, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

  13. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 4:18 pm

    I can’t tell my only experience is carrying other people’s water and a quarter of my weight.

  14. SitInvertn permalink
    December 16, 2012 7:22 pm

    3 dominant ideological views on basic human nature. 1:Fascists view human nature as infinitely gullible. 2:Communists(Stalinst /Statist ) view human nature as infinitely malleable . 3 Libertarians view human nature as general benign, relative to resource scarcity.

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