The racist past and present of right-to-work leglislation

Jim Crow Laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States. Enacted after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, these laws were in force until 1965.
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Of all the language-twisting political slogans of our time, few have had so long a lease on life as the phrase “right-to-work.” Right-to-work laws (RTW) are rooted in the quest for super-exploited labor. They are used to justify racial exclusion, destroy established collective bargaining agreements, and derail workers’ right to organize a workplace.

What follows is a history of RTW laws and their legacy of going after labor unions, communities of color, and the working class. This history shows the race and class repression that drives RTW legislation and serves as powerful ammunition in the movement to defeat these laws.

Until 2012, RTW laws have been a fairly fragmented effort of employers and legislators, which organized labor and its allies have managed to hold off.

In fact, of 26 states with these laws, 19 put them on the books during the Jim Crow era. In all the states where Jim Crow once ruled, RTW rules now — with the exception of Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky (and the District of Columbia).

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only two states went right-to-work during the next 37 years. In 2001, Oklahoma joined the list.

Then, in 2008, when the U.S. economy dived, the right wing revived its right-to-work campaign. It’s no coincidence that economic crisis and falling profit margins would parallel renewed efforts by deep-pocketed right-wing forces to push these racially biased union-busting laws.

RTW laws are now spreading to union strongholds. Michigan fell in 2012. Washington state is seeing the first serious effort to impose RTW since the 1950s.

Rooted in slavery. After the Civil War, former Confederate states whose entire economy was based upon free slave labor immediately transitioned from slavery to convict leasing laws. This is because the newly passed 13th amendment that outlawed slavery also gave states the ability to use free convict labor. This legal loophole, along with peonage laws which force labor to pay off debt, led to African-Americans being arrested and imprisoned as a new brutal form of state-sponsored slavery.

The intersection of unions and convict leasing started early. Many examples exist of convict-leased prisoners being used to break union strikes or to drive down wages. In 1877, in Monseratt, Mo., striking miners formed an anti-convict group to protest convict leasing. In 1892, in Grundy, Tenn., miners thwarted multiple attempts by employers to replace their paid labor with prison labor. They were inspired by miners in Anderson, Tenn., who, one year earlier not only stopped an effort to be replaced, but overpowered and destroyed the convict camp and set the prisoners free.

There are other clues as to the intent of RTW. In, Mark Ames and Moshe Marvit wrote about Texan Vance Muse who coined the term “right-to-work.” Muse was a lobbyist, political strategist, and white supremacist who used racial stereotypes and slurs to gain support for his legal strategy of spreading RTW laws state-by-state.

Ames and Marvit share Muse’s infamous quote, “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.” Muse was appealing to the racially biased culture of the day and not to anti-union sentiment.

Changing the conversation. Every worker does better with a union, but today a Black worker with a union makes more in wages than a white worker without one. Add negotiated benefits to that equation and union membership has a life-changing economic impact. That’s a big deal for all low-income families, especially for families of color. Never before has there been such a clear path to equity and economic justice as having a union. But it is not just Black workers who do better with a union, it is workers of all races and both genders. Because union members directly experience the benefits of social and economic equality with more regularity than those workers not in a union, right-to-work laws widen income inequality.

According to the Census Bureau, 2014 average U.S. household incomes were $78,890 for white families, $51,230 for African-American families, and $57,534 for Latino families.

Median household incomes in RTW states are an average of $6,568 lower than in states where all workers in union-represented shops are required to pay an “agency fee.” This is a substantial hit on all family incomes, but right-to-work laws are especially devastating to communities of color.

RTW laws, like the convict leasing and peonage laws that followed the Civil War, continue the legacy of using “legal” means to gain free labor from workers of color.

Yet these numbers also show unions still have power. Even with historically low membership there’s still more equality for workers with a union. And as long as workers can build power in the workplace they can and do use that power to create social change.

But to win, unions have to change the conversation. Discussions about RTW can’t be solely focused on unions and union-busting. The discussion should extend to ending systemic racism and all the laws that prop it up, including RTW. Just like in Anderson, Tenn., unions and communities of color can be great allies in the struggle for racial and economic equality.

Changing public opinion helped to end racially motivated convict leasing laws, peonage laws, and Jim Crow laws. As more people become aware of the racially biased impact of RTW laws, public opinion will change again, and together workers of all colors will take back our “right-to-work” with dignity.

John Boyle is Labor Educator at the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center, at South Seattle College. Michael Hureaux, a teacher and poet, currently works in pre-apprenticeship training with several unions in the Puget Sound area. Send feedback on this story to

Also see: Stopping Friedrichs

Also see: Labor Weather Report

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