The Racist Roots of “Right-to-Work”

Posted: December 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

KKKSPECIAL REPORT – The racist roots of ‘right-to-work’ laws*

“By Chris Kromm”

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 [
http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/michigan-governor-signs-work-bill-law/story?id=17934332
] “(see map)” to pass “right-to-work” legislation, which allows
non-union employees to benefit from union contracts (without paying dues or an agency fee).

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 [
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~socy/pdfs/MDD_Limit_Labor_07.pdf ] [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 [
http://www.southernstudies.org/2011/08/voices-stetson-kennedy-and-the-pursuit-of-truth.html
] 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 [ http://projects.newsobserver.com/node/26551 ] and Virginia,
[ http://www.nbc29.com/story/20330810/right-to-work ] to further
enshrine them in their state constitutions.

And what about Muse? According to the Texas State Historical
Association [ http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmu22
]: 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.

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