'Right to Work': Keeping Workers Down Since the 1930s


Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — now treated as a serious contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination — and his Republican colleagues are seemingly intent on trying to repeal the 20th century.

They have rammed through the Legislature a “right-to-work” law for Wisconsin workers. The Assembly on March 6 passed the bill 62-35, after the Senate narrowly passed it 17-15 a week earlier. After Walker signed the bill on March 9, Wisconsin became the 25th “right-to-work” state in the nation and represent another major victory over workers for Walker in the eyes of his ultra-conservative donors and political base.

Walker crushed public employee union rights in 2011, and although the epic battle helped to ignite the massive Occupy movement, it also raised Walker to national popularity among the Right and corporate executives. Since then, two Midwestern states, Indiana and Michigan, have become “right-to-work” states.

While Walker and his allies are claiming that a “right-to-work” bill is a prescription for  job growth, the pro-RTW forces are actually promoting a fatal “cure” for Wisconsin’s private-sector workers whose wages are already 15% below the national average.

Martin Luther King, Jr. accurately captured the impact of right-to-work laws in undermining economic justice and genuine democracy back in 1961: “Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights.”

While “right-to-work” advocates among business elites claim to be generously protecting the individual freedom of workers to avoid paying union dues, this display of  concern is simply “a fraud,” King declared. “Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.”

Recent data bear out King’s conclusions. The Congressional Research Service concluded in a December, 2012 report that states like Wisconsin, which permitting “fair-share” or “union-security” provisions showed sharply higher median wages: $50,867 compared with $43,641 in right-to-work states, a 16.5% differential amounting to $7,226 per year. Workers in “right-to-work” states are much less likely to have healthcare and pension benefits as well.

A right-to work law would thus reinforce powerful trends which are already decisively transforming Wisconsin into a low-wage state. Wisconsin’s private-sector wages are now substantially below the national average, as noted above. All of the net job growth occurring between 2010 and 2013 in Wisconsin has been concentrated in low-wage jobs paying under $12.50 an hour, according to a recent study by Prof. Marc Levine of the University Of Wisconsin Center on Economic Development.

“Right-to-work laws” have driven down wages through dividing workers and weakening unions. Under “right-to-work” laws — contrary to many media accounts—workers are not protected from “compulsory unionism,” as US law prevents anyone from being compelled to join. Instead, right-to-work laws exempt workers from being required to pay any fees for the representation unions are legally required to provide to every single worker, whether they pay anything or not. At an Assembly Labor Committee hearing March 2 on RTW, Jennifer Hall of Madison, the wife of a union steamfitter in Madison, argued that unions are unfairly singled out by the right-to-work bill.

“Fees for services are a norm in our society,” she said. “If you want the services of a gym club, a country club, or even the Boy Scouts, you have to pay a fee. So why would you stop unions from doing this?” When her explanation drew no defense of their bill from the implacable Republican majority on the committee, she added tartly, “So when ALEC [the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council] typed up this bill nicely [the Wisconsin right-to-work bill was taken virtually verbatim from an ALEC model bill] and handed it to you, did you really think hurting unions and pushing down wages would be good for the state?”

Even the anti-RTW arguments of numerous building contractors, who almost invariably introduced themselves as lifelong Republicans, left the Republican legislators unimpressed. The contractors stressed their dependence on well-trained union construction workers who were qualified to do their jobs effectively and safely.  “When we go down South where there aren’t many unions, like to Miami, we don’t know that we can count on the workers to do the jobs right,” a contractor stated.

The Republicans at the hearing also seemed unimpressed by the sharp differences in worker safety between unionized work settings and those in right-to-work states. One study found that “the occupational-fatality rate in the construction industry — one of the most hazardous in terms of workplace deaths — is 34% higher in right-to-work states than in states without such laws.”

Testimony for the “right-to-work” bill came almost exclusively from organizations funded by the Koch brothers or the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, such as the National Right to Work Committee, Wisconsin Institute on Law and Liberty, the Michigan-based Mackinac Centre, and the Heritage foundation. But despite their tight organizational networks and lavish funding, the hired guns often miss-fired. For example, Greg Morauf of the NRTWC testified that RTW produced higher wages and economic growth. He resorted to citing the case of Indiana, which has had a “right-to-work law in effect for under two years. “Pay goes up, like in Indiana. When you adjust for cost of living, pay is higher in right-to-work states,” a claim contradicted by the most authoritative studies.

But at the Wisconsin State Senate hearing, James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation proudly stated that the “right-to-work” bill would “‘drive down labor costs.”

In Missouri, one prominent right-to-work advocate also departed from the script that RTW would produce economic gains for all. State Sen. and ALEC co-chair Ed Emery responded to charges that a similar RTW bill in his state would drive wages down: “Sure they go down.” Most workers, Emery stated, won’t earn $25 per hour “because they’re worth $20, or they’re worth $17, or they’re worth $12.” But the bill would offer employers “more freedom.” 

The new push for the imposition of “right-to-work” laws is building upon the racist foundations of the “right-to-work” laws which began to spread across the former slave-holding states of the Deep South in the 1930s. 

The drive for such laws was fueled by Texas businessperson and white supremacist Vance Muse, who despised the doctrine of human equality represented by unions.

Muse argued that the only solution for maintaining segregation was to make union membership or any payment of union dues or fees voluntary. Without such “right-to-work” laws, whites would be “forced” to mingle with blacks: “From now on, 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,” he warned. The rhetoric was helpful in building alliances with the Ku Klux Klan.

The appallingly racist views of Muse and his Christian American Association coincided perfectly with the mentality of corporate managers dedicated to holding down wages and maintaining the tradition of tight control over workers dating back to the days of slavery. The CEOs of the 1930s era recognized that Muse’s segregationist “right-to-work” concept would serve to break up unified worker efforts to claim the rights granted under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

Some major corporations directly fused the segregationist and anti-union appeals. As late as 1944, wrote Diane McWhorter in her book Carry Me Home, “U.S. Steel set up a League to Maintain White Supremacy to spread ‘the white supremacy gospel of Simpson [Jim Simpson, an anti-New Deal politician in Alabama] among the grassroots (that is, its workforce) … to baldly promote racial strife.”

As a result of such efforts to promote racial divisions, other brass-knuckled anti-union tactics by corporations and local law enforcement used to stop organizing drives, and the impact of “right-to-work” laws, union membership in South plummeted and remain at near-microscopic levels.

While the methods of Walker and the forces on the Right in Wisconsin are less crude (although Walker’s strategies are heavily racialized), they share the same goals of the Southern elites who sought to destroy unions, drive down wages, and eliminate any significant political counterweight to corporate power. For the moment, at least, they appear to be winning this round.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. He edited The Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email winterbybee@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2015


Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652