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The racist roots of ‘right to work’ laws
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.
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-Hartley 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.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story inadvertently cut off two important credits. HAT-TIP: Mark Ames at NSFWCorp who wrote about the same issue, especially for quotes from Stetson Kennedy’s Southern Exposure (the inspiration behind the Institute’s award-winning journal of the same name.) Other valuable sources on the civil rights/labor connection include Michael Honey’s Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, Michael Boston’s Labor, Civil Rights and the Hughes Tool Company and Barbara Griffith’s The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO.
- Editor's note: This story originally published at SouthernStudies.org and used under the creative commons license. If you appreciate these stories, please support their work by making a donation at SouthernStudies.org.
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