[dc]“I[/dc]n our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work,’” Martin Luther King Jr. warned. “It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”
Not coincidentally, all 11 ex-Confederate states are right to work states. In the South, right to work has deep racist roots, according to Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, a labor historian and author at Loyola University in Chicago.
The goal of Dixie’s RTW proponents was to help uphold the region’s white supremacist system of Jim Crow segregation, race discrimination and voter suppression, “thereby preserving the agricultural elite’s political and economic power,” she wrote in “Counter-Organizing the Sunbelt: Right-to-Work Campaigns and Anti-Union Conservatism, 1943-1958,” her 2009 Pacific Historical Review article.
She explained that at the end of World War II, the Southern white powers-that-be faced a triple challenge from “a growing industrial class formed out of wartime mobilization, a burgeoning trade union movement, and a new push for racial equality from both African Americans and militant CIO organizers, who believed that the only way to organize was to attack the system of white supremacy that structured the South’s politics, economy, and society.”
Shermer quoted a journalist who wrote that Mississippi plantation owners seemed to despise union organizers as much as they hated foes of segregation: “[W]henever the talk turned to labor unions, the conversation was violent and burdened with hate and fear.”
The reactionary Southern aristocracy and its apologists in politics, the pulpit and the press hated and feared unions because in a union everybody is equal.
Indeed, the reactionary Southern aristocracy and its apologists in politics, the pulpit and the press hated and feared unions because in a union everybody is equal.
Shermer wrote in pushing RTW throughout the South, the agricultural elites made common cause with industry owners “who benefitted from the Jim Crow order the planters had created; sharecropping and tenant farming ensured a reservoir of desperate workers who were willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions in Southern mills and factories.”
Shermer wrote that while Southern mill and factory owners also believed that RTW “would provide competitive advantage in industrializing the region and attracting branch plants,” the main “message in the Southern right-to-work campaigns was preserving the Old South’s racial order.”
Indeed, RTW supporters were quick to play the race card. They told whites that if unions “come in you will share the same restroom with Negroes and work side by side with them” and that unionizing “comes right out of Russia and is pure communism and nothing else.”
In the South, the early RTW proponents were white supremacist Democrats. The almost all-white Republican Party, which dominates Dixie politics today, is as fiercely anti-union as the old segregationist Democrats were. Thus, the South remains solidly RTW.
Southern boosters of RTW in the 50’s and 60’s were among those who most vehemently called for resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark anti-segregation 1954 Supreme Court ruling, and to sweeping federal legislation designed to wipe out the Jim Crow system.
King observed that it was “significant that these ‘right-to-work’ laws are backed by the same reactionary forces which flout the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation” and that “…the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”