by Ellen Isaacs

with major input by Student Worker Solidarity of Barnard College/Columbia University

The Supreme Court may soon rule against workers in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that will determine whether right-to-work legislation applies to the public sector. Contrary to the deliberately misleading framing, right-to-work laws do not give workers the “right to work.” In reality, they are a concerted well-funded effort to strip workers of their rights at work. Right-to-work laws allow workers at a unionized workplace to have the benefits of a union contract, such as higher wages and health insurance, without joining the union or paying the union a service fee for representing them. In other words, the intent is to undermine workers’ organizing and eventually defund, weaken, and destroy unions. This case would impose right-to-work on state and local governments in 23 states, in effect making it nationwide.

Right-to-work laws are not new. The idea behind “right-to-work” originated in a piece by editorial writer William Ruggles published in Dallas Morning News in 1941. His editorial was welcomed by Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a white supremacist, anti-Semite and anti-communist, who also fought against women’s suffrage, the eight hour day and laws banning child labor. Muse and his allies from the south, as well as northern industrialists like Alfred P Sloan and the Duponts, feared the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act, which legalized unionization. They used blatant racism to support right-to-work, knowing full well that multiracial unity would greatly strengthen the union movement. During the campaign for the law’s passage in Arkansas, a piece of literature said, if it failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Another statement promised it would enable “peace officers to quell disturbances and keep the color line drawn in our social affairs” and “protect the Southern Negro from communistic propaganda and influences.” Right to work laws were enacted in Arkansas and Florida in 1944 and in Texas in 1941, and today they exist in 28 states. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, only allows union shops in states without laws to the contrary.

This combination of anti-labor and racist rhetoric was not isolated or uncommon. Because union membership could provide higher wages, increased benefits, and safer working conditions, stifling union membership became an important tool for maintaining racial hierarchies and limiting opportunities for social and economic advancement. In other words, campaigns to undermine or defund unions–such as the advocacy for right-to-work legislation–were simultaneously campaigns to keep workers of color from making economic advances or even achieving equality. Simultaneously, there were federal and local efforts to maintain segregated housing, resulting in segregated schools and hospitals and disproportionate environmental hazards in non-white areas.

Unions have been critical in obtaining a number of rights we often take for granted today. The weekend, the eight hour day, minimum wage laws, health insurance and the ban on child labor are just a few victories for which you can thank the labor movement. The consequences of right-wing attacks on unions, especially pushes to pass right-to-work legislation, are devastating for working people. Right-to-work states have markedly higher levels of poverty, lower wages, higher risks of workplace death, and more uninsured workers than the rest of the United States.

Today only 10.7 percent of US workers are unionized, compared to 20.1% in 1983 and 34.8% in 1954. The union membership rate of public-sector workers (34.4 %) is more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.5 %). Black workers remain more likely to be union members (14.1%) than white (12.8%) workers. Nonunion workers have median weekly earnings that were 80% of earnings for workers who were union members ($829 versus $1,041). Thus the current push for right-to-work laws is most threatening to black and women workers, who are disproportionately employed in public service sector jobs.


Of course American unions themselves have a long history of racism, which has only recently been partially overcome. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) specifically excluded black workers through the 1950s, and its early leader, Samuel Gompers, overtly supported “racial purity.” The Knights of Labor, the International Workers of the World (IWW), and later, the CIO did organize black and white workers together.

In 1919, the AFL led a huge steel strike, shutting down half the steel mills in the country. Management used many dirty tactics, smearing the union leaders by calling them Reds, deriding the striking workers because they were immigrants, and encouraging local militias to harass the strikers. Ultimately they used the race card, bringing in 30,000 to 40,000 African Americans and Mexican-Americans as strike breakers and taunting the locked-out strikers for losing their good “white” jobs. This would be the big business playbook for decades.

In June 1943, when managers at the Packard company in Detroit actually promoted a few black workers, 25,000 white workers went on strike. Similar racial conflicts erupted in mass transit unions in Philadelphia, in steel plants in Baltimore and in the shipyards of Alabama when black workers gained access to production jobs. This time, labor leaders, especially Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leaders, worked hard to suppress “hate” strikes and were fairly successful.

As defense and production jobs opened up to African Americans before WWII, the second half of the Great Migration of black workers from the south to the north exploded. The CIO broke away from the AFL in 1935 because the industrial unions were committed to a broader, more inclusive vision of organizing—white and black; skilled and unskilled and they also went south, recognizing the regressive influence the South had on national politics. However the main union of southern black agricultural workers, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, was not that welcome in the industrially centered CIO and broke away after one year.

In 1962, federal employees won collective bargaining rights, which spurred state and municipal public-sector union organizing just as anti-discrimination rules were opening up public-sector jobs to African Americans and Great Society programs were expanding public-sector jobs. In 1960, only two percent of state and local public employees had the right to bargain collectively; by 1990, more than two-thirds did. The rapid expansion of public-sector unions was a boon to both the labor movement and the growth of the black middle class.


However, in the difficult period for American manufacturing after the Great Recession of 2007, the United Auto Workers (UAW) demonstrated that their ultimate loyalty was to the preservation of large businesses as opposed to the needs of workers. As American auto manufacturers faced increased competition from Asian and European car makers and shifts in production to low wage areas pushed down wages, concessions were sought from the powerful UAW. The result was union sponsorship of contracts that cut pay and benefits for new hires at GM, Ford and Chrysler by two-thirds, taking on health care costs from the bosses, and accepting dozens of plant closings. Of course these massive cutbacks disproportionately affected the more newly hired black workers and contributed to the decline of cities like Detroit and Flint. The precipitous decrease in union membership in private business was accelerated, never to be reversed. And it gets worse. Currently, the UAW is being investigated for taking a $1.5million bribe from Fiat Chrysler in exchange for a contract that cuts wages and benefits and sharply expands the number of low-paid temporary workers.

As the relative position of the US economy falls in relation to China and other rising powers, the pressure on unions and all workers for concessions will increase. The likelihood of larger wars will also mean that more and more cutbacks will be sought from workers as defense spending increases. Therefore there will be more attempts to weaken the bargaining power of unions, as well as make them loyal partners in the elite’s plans for cutting wages, benefits and social services and promoting nationalism. The recent militant strikes by teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, right-to work states, give hope that workers will rise up despite the sorry state of most current unions, and reinvigorate a new empowered working class movement. They will not only have to continue to rebel against cutbacks, restrictive laws and sell-out union leaders, but to consider whether they wish to support the political leaders willing to risk workers’ flesh and treasure in the quest to maintain world supremacy.

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