Home > Essays > “Right-to-Work” Laws, Rooted in Racism, Beloved by Business, Exacerbate Inequality

“Right-to-Work” Laws, Rooted in Racism, Beloved by Business, Exacerbate Inequality

May 31, 2021

Today’s Valley News features an informative op ed by Michael Honey and Gail Kinney on the racist roots of “Right-to-Work” laws, offering it as a reason New Hampshire voters should call their legislators to stop them from enacting a bill that would make our state one the only one in New England to provide employees with such “rights”. The op ed focuses on Martin Luther King Jr’s commitment to unionization as a means of helping Blacks working in the public sector to secure the kinds of middle class wages and working conditions, and it explains why the word “rights” is placed in quotation marks in the earlier sentence: 

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his work to overturn legal segregation in the South. The struggle of King and others won passage of the Civil Rights Act’s guarantees of equal rights in public accommodations, education, and at work. We still struggle to make those rights real. King felt that to change America’s racial inequalities and reduce poverty, weneeded something more: union rights.

He resisted powerful people and institutions opposing unions and workers’ collective action, especially across racial lines. During the Jim Crow era, a wealthy Texas industrialist, Vance Muse, was a prime architect of socalled “right to work” legislation. His clear purpose was to divide workers so they would have weak bargaining power, ultimately resulting in lower wages, fewer benefits and compromised working conditions.

Muse made no effort to hide the racism at the core of “right to work.” He declared that if such laws were not passed, “white women and white men will be forced into organizations (meaning unions) with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

King argued long and hard to stop these laws. “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right-to-work.’ It is a dishonest twisting of words with the aim of making a vicious law sound like a good law. It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

Alas, opposing a bill because of its racist roots will not persuade today’s pro-business libertarians in the GOP, as their embrace of school vouchers indicates. ANY law that prevents workers from gaining power, ANY law that prevents groups from coalescing against shareholders for ANY reason, ANY law that diminishes the voices of individuals is opposed by those in control. 

The only way to push back against vicious laws that sound like good laws is to get citizens to understand the real intent of this legislation: which is to continue funneling money upward to those who own vast numbers of shares of various businesses while suppressing the wages of those who do the actual work. MAYBE the overreach of the New Hampshire legislature will backfire when gig workers see that their “right to work” 80 hours driving for Uber pays less than those in unions who work 35 hours per week, get vacations and sick leave, and have their retirement contributions matched by their employer. 

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