The History of Right to Work

Ideas and Issues

Right+to+Work+signDenver    We are running an interesting piece in the current issue of Social Policy that looks at the historical antecedents of right-to-work legislation in the Midwest in places like Indiana and Michigan. Dan Kaufman, writing of the New York Times Magazine, a couple of weeks ago in a piece largely about Wisconsin called “Fate of the Union,” actually gave a good historical snapshot of the real roots of his ongoing movement against workers and their unions in Texas, Arkansas, and the South.

“In 1941, when the [labor] movement was still ascending, William Ruggles, 40-year-old editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, coined the slogan “right to work.” Ruggles was alarmed by the growing strength of the labor movement, which in his view was intent on forcing all workers into unions. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit workers from having to pay dues to a union in order to hold a job in a ‘union shop.’ ‘ If the country does not want it, let us say so,’ he wrote. ‘If we do want it, adopt it and maintain forever the right to work of every American.’

The day after the editorial was printed, a Houston political activist named Vance Muse called Ruggles to ask permission for his organization, the Christian American Association, to pursue the proposal. Ruggles agreed and suggested to Muse that he call it a “Right to Work Amendment.” Muse, an avowed racist – he told a United States Senate committee in 1936, ‘I am a Southerner and for white supremacy’ – held a special animus towards unions, which he believed fostered race-mixing. In Southern Exposure, a 1946 book about racism in the South, the muckraking journalist Stetson Kennedy quoted Muse’s pitch on the need for right-to-work, in which he said: ‘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.’

But Muse was an effective fund-raiser – he received support from General Motors and the du Pont family, among others – and lobbyist. In 1944, the Christian American Association sponsored the amendment that made Arkansas one of the country’s first right-to-work states. By 1947, 10 more states, most of them in the South, had become right-to-work, embodying the growing national backlash against labor brought on by the Red Scare. That same year, over President Harry Truman’s veto, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which undercut the Wagner Act by placing numerous restrictions on unions, among them a clause granting states the power to become right-to-work. Muse died in 1950, but his campaign had already been taken over by more mainstream proponents.”

Make no mistake when you are hearing about right-to-work for less legislation from its advocate, the history is clear. They hated unions and the prospect of workers organizing, but their hate was broad and ecumenical and their hate and fear of integration of any kind or equality between the races was only seen through the black colored glasses of Southern racism. This civil war is more recent, but the roots seem much the same.