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The Far Right
and Their 'Right to Work' Laws

Vance Muse (left) consults Texas lumber baron John Henry Kirby. They formed the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution in 1934 to try to stop Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election. Muse would later conceptualize and champion the right to work laws that dominate 26 US states..

"Right to Work" laws have a shocking and extremist origin story. Their legacy of harm persists to this day.

Right-to-work laws, designed to weaken labor unions and workers' rights, are rooted in America's history of racial discrimination. Present in 26 states, these laws are marketed as a means to attract businesses and create jobs. But a closer look at their history reveals that they were crafted to maintain the Jim Crow era racial hierarchy and suppress workers' rights. As nefarious interests lobby to expand these laws, understanding their origins is crucial to combat their negative effects on workers today.


The Man Behind the Curtain: Vance Muse

Vance Muse, a Texan oil lobbyist, popularized the term "right-to-work" in the 1940s. A staunch advocate of segregation and white supremacy, Muse actively campaigned for laws that would weaken organized labor. His efforts were aimed at maintaining racial segregation and exploiting the labor of African Americans and other minority workers. He feared unions would help topple the Jim Crow racial hierarchy by bringing African American and white workers together in solidarity.

"Right to Work" laws were crafted to maintain the Jim Crow era racial hierarchy and suppress workers' rights.


Vance Muse on labor unions. Source: AFL-CIO

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947: A Turning Point

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, undercut workers' rights to unionize and eased restrictions on corporate union busting by repealing key protections from the National Labor Relations Act. Most consequently, the act allowed states to ban closed shops, leading to the birth of right-to-work states. The law was pushed through at a time when unions were gaining momentum and accelerating progress toward racial equality. "Right to Work" efforts were viewed by segregationists like Muse as a powerful means of hampering these efforts.


Impact on Workers: A Legacy of Harm

Right-to-work laws have had a detrimental impact on all workers. Research shows that these laws result in lower wages, fewer benefits, and decreased job security for workers. But they have been particularly damaging to African-American workers, who gain outsized benefits from union membership. In fact, black households with a union member have amassed staggering 348% more wealth than their non-union counterparts. Right to work laws were conceived as a way of holding African-Americans back, and they are still having that effect today.


William Ruggles of the Dallas Morning News, came up with the phrase “right-to-work” to label the set of initiatives that would effectively squelch unions. In 1961, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’…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."


A poster from the AFL-CIO illustrates the true effect of Right to Work laws on the working class.

Fighting Back: Solidarity

As a result of intense lobbying by big-moneyed interests, over half of US states are now right-to-work. We must draw the line there, and start fighting back. By raising awareness about the truth behind these laws, we can join forces to dismantle systems that perpetuate racial disparities and guarantee fair wages, benefits, and working conditions for everyone.


One simple thing all New Yorkers can do is ask their real estate agent “who built this building.”


Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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