Right-to-Work Laws Built On Racist Foundations


Roger Bybee Scott Walker and his Republican allies are on the verge of ramming through “right-to-work” legislation designed expressly to divide workers, weaken unions, and force down wages. In crafting their bill that ban unions from collecting fees from all workers that they are legally obligated to represent, the Republicans borrowed virtually word for word from the model legislation drafted by the Koch-funded America Legislative Exchange Council. But much more disturbingly, Walker and his crew are building upon the racist foundations of the right-to-work laws, which began to spread across the former slaveholding states of the Deep South in the 1930s. The drive for such laws was fueled by Texas businessperson and white supremacist Vance Muse, who despised the doctrine of human equality represented by unions. Muse argued that the only solution for maintaining segregation was to make union membership or any payment of union dues voluntary. Without such “right-to-work” laws, whites would be “forced” to mingle with blacks: “From now on, 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,” he warned. Muse’s hardcore racism led to alliances with groups like the Ku Klux Klan. 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. 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. Some major corporations directly fused segregationist and anti-union appeals. As late as 1944, wrote Diane McWhorter in her book Carry Me Home, “U.S. Steel set up a League to Maintain White Supremacy to spread ‘the white supremacy gospel of Simpson [Jim Simpson, an anti-New Deal politician in Alabama] among the grassroots (that is, its workforce). . . to baldly promote racial strife.” As a result of such despicable efforts, other brass-knuckled anti-union tactics by corporations, and the impact of “right-to-work” laws, union membership in South plummeted and remains at near-microscopic levels. Flash forward to Wisconsin in 2015. We see Scott Walker and his allies deepening their commitment to shortsighted Southern-style economic policies. In his budding race for the Republican presidential nomination, Walker is also pursuing an updated, distinctly racialized version of Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy” designed to capitalize on white racial resentment and fears, relying on dog whistle code words rather than outright racist appeals. Throughout his political career Walker has skillfully relied upon a stance of playing to affluent white suburbanites mobilized by rightwing talk radio. Walker has taken positions that weaken public services—like allowing Milwaukee’s parks system to deteriorate, rejecting federal aid for expanded healthcare coverage for the uninsured, and spurning $810 million for a job-generating rapid-transit line between Milwaukee and Madison. Walker’s positions have disproportionately harmed low-income people of color—in pushing through a new voter ID law and other restrictions, in opposing a higher minimum wage, cutting back on public transportation, and advocating for longer and longer prison sentences that build up the state’s prison-industrial complex. It is no wonder that former Nixon aide John Dean labeled Walker as “more Nixonian than Nixon.” Nor is it surprising that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s view on “right-to-work” laws contrasts sharply with that of Scott Walker. He observed that they “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.” Right-to-work legislation fits right in with Walker’s racist policies. Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor and longtime progressive activist and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years. Section: News Topics: Civil Rights Criminal Justice Courts Prisons Culture Voting Economy Labor Politics Republicans Rightwing Race / Ethnicity African Americans Unions Wisconsin Wire


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