As racial tensions have risen in recent weeks and even turned violent, one union federation is taking the opportunity to claim that right-to-work has origins in the Jim Crow South.
The California Labor Federation (CLF) argues that right-to-work shouldn’t be overlooked as the nation reflects on the current racial troubles. The federation consists of over a thousand member unions which represent 2.1 million workers across the state. It argues right-to-work has a racist history which continues today.
“If you look back at the history of right-to-work laws they started with a guy named Vance Muse,” CLF communications director Steve Smith told InsideSources. “He was the head of an organization called the Christian American Association which was linked to racist sort of worldviews.”
Muse was a businessman and conservative lobbyist who backed organizations known for racist beliefs. He has also been cited as the founder of the right-to-work movement. Smith argues that Muse used right-to-work laws and other anti-worker policies to prevent minority workers from having an advocate in the workplace.
“He really was one of the first people to take this idea nationally,” Smith said. “Workers should buy into this right-to-work scheme in which no one would have to join a union even though they benefit from a union contract. That’s basically the history there in terms of how that all got started.”
Those in support of right-to-work laws argue the claim is outright ludicrous. Supporters have long argued the policy is about enhancing worker freedom by giving them a choice of whether they want to be in a union. The law doesn’t actually prevent people of any race from joining a union if they so choose.
“Ludicrous claims from left-wing, looney labor show that they’ve really lost grip with reality,” Nathan Brand, press secretary for the conservative nonprofit America Rising Squared, told InsideSources. “Right-to-work laws across the country have helped American workers achieve more freedom and to make absurd claims like this just reveals how desperate they are to keep power in the hands of Big Labor bosses.”
Labor unions would have good reason to be desperate with declining membership and faltering political influence. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has tracked a significant decline in union members in recent decades. President Donald Trump taking office also means an administration that is less friendly to unions.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Perry has examined the question of who was behind right-to-work. His research brought him to Dallas Morning News editorial writer William Ruggles who argued everyone had a “right to work” in a 1941 piece advocating for a constitutional amendment that would allow for voluntary union membership.
But the CLF argues that the spread of the policy was driven in part by Muse’s racial motivations.
“From Muse’s perspective, this legislation he fought for was really a way to keep the Jim Crow South in place and ensure that blacks and other minorities didn’t have equal footing in terms of wages and benefits and other things that white Americans enjoyed,” Smith said.
Many organizations and political movements had racist affiliations at the time. The AFL-CIO has even acknowledged the racist history of the labor movement. Smith notes that right-to-work wasn’t just started as a racist policy, it continues to have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities.
“I don’t think it does have all that different a meaning now because the effects are essentially the same,” Smith said. “The data shows really clearly that one of the few ways that black Americans, Latinos, and others can get ahead is by standing together in a union. There is a huge racial pay gap between those who have the opportunity to join a union and those who don’t.”
The CLF argued in an online most Thursday that it was essential everyone understood the law has a racist origin. The post came days after white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed during a rally in Charlottesville. Smith notes that the tweet was another opportunity to show that racism is still pervasive in America.
“This is something we’ve been talking about for a while since it escapes people that the origins of this law were very much based on racism and white supremacy,” Smith said. “It’s certainly fair to bring that up for the current debate that is going on with these laws.”
The online post also linked an article by the AFL-CIO which detailed the allegedly racist origins of the law. Smith wanted to remind company owners who were denouncing racism that efforts to support right-to-work were counterproductive.
The claim by the CLF comes just a month after a progressive think tank made a controversial accusation that the school choice movement also had a racist history.