States with right-to-work laws shaded in green. (Map via Wikipedia.)
States with right-to-work laws shaded in green. (Map via Wikipedia.)

The racist roots of 'right to work' laws

This week, Republican lawmakers in Michigan -- birthplace of the United Auto Workers and, more broadly, the U.S. labor movement -- shocked the nation by becoming the 24th state to pass "right-to-work" legislation, which allows non-union employees to benefit from union contracts.

While Michigan's momentous decision has received widespread media attention, little has been said about the origins of "right-to-work" laws, which find their roots in extreme pro-segregationist and anti-communist elements in the 1940s South.

The history of anti-labor "right-to-work" laws starts in Houston. It was there in 1936 that Vance Muse, an oil industry lobbyist, founded the Christian American Association with backing from Southern oil companies and industrialists from the Northeast.

As Dartmouth sociologist Marc Dixon notes in his fascinating history of the period [pdf], "The Christian American Association was the first in the nation to champion the 'Right-to-Work' as a full-blown political slogan."

Muse was a fixture in far-right politics in the South before settling into his anti-labor crusade. In his 1946 book "Southern Exposure," crusading journalist Stetson Kennedy wrote:

The man Muse is quite a character. He is six foot four, wears a ten-gallon hat, but generally reserves his cowboy boots for trips Nawth. Now over fifty, Muse has been professionally engaged in reactionary enterprises for more than a quarter of a century.

As Kennedy described, these causes included opposing women's suffrage, child labor laws, integration and growing efforts to change the Southern political order, as represented in the threat of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Muse's sister and associate at the Christan American Association, Ida Darden, openly complained about the First Lady's "Eleanor Clubs" saying they (as related by Kennedy):

...stood for "$15 a week salary for all nigger house help, Sundays off, no washing, and no cleaning upstairs." As an afterthought, she added, "My nigger maid wouldn’t dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!"

Allowing herself to go still further, the little lady went on to say, "Christian Americans can’t afford to be anti-Semitic, but we know where we stand on the Jews, all right.

The Association also suspected Catholics -- which Dixon notes caused the downfall of their crusades in neighboring Louisiana.

But for far-right conservatives like Muse, as well as industry groups like the Southern States Industrial Council, labor -- including black labor -- posed an especially dangerous threat in Texas. Thanks to a burgeoning wartime economy, along with labor organizing drives spearheaded by the Congress of Industrial Organizations and, to a lesser extent, the American Federation of Labor, unions were rapidly growing in Texas. After hovering around 10 percent of the workforce during the 1930s, union membership exploded by 225 percent during the next decade.

Muse and the Christian American Association saw danger. Not only were the unions expanding the bargaining power -- and therefore improving the wages and working conditions -- of working-class Texans, they also constituted a political threat. The CIO in particular opposed Jim Crow and demanded an end to segregation. Unions were an important political ally to FDR and the New Deal. And always lurking in the shadows was the prospect of a Red Menace, stoked by anti-communist hysteria.

Working in concert with segregationists and right-wing business leaders, Muse and the Association swiftly took action. Their first step in 1941 was to push an "anti-violence" bill that placed blanket restrictions on public union picketing at workplaces. The stated goal was to ensure "uninterrupted" industrial production during World War II, although Texas had the fewest number of strikes in the South, and the law applied to all industries, war-related or not.

Their success with the "anti-violence" bill spurred Muse and the Christian American Association to push for -- and pass -- similar laws throughout the South. Mississippi adopted an anti-violence statute in 1942; Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama passed similar laws in 1943. It also emboldened them to take on a much bigger prize: ending the ability of labor groups to run a "closed shop," where union benefits extend only to union members.

In 1945, the Christian American Association -- along with allies cemented in earlier anti-union legislative battles, including the Fight for Free Enterprise and the vehemently anti-union Texas Lt. Gov. John Lee Smith -- introduced a right-to-work bill in Texas. It passed the House by a 60 to 53 margin, but pro-New Deal forces stopped it in the state senate. Two years later, thanks to a well-funded campaign from the Association and industry -- and internal divisions between the craft-oriented AFL and the more militant CIO -- Texas' right-to-work bill was signed into law.

While working to pass right-to-work legislation in Texas, Muse and the Association took their efforts to Arkansas and Florida, where a similar message equating union growth with race-mixing and communism led to the passage of the nation's first right-to-work laws in 1944. In all, 14 states passed such legislation by 1947, when conservatives in Congress successfully passed Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, enshrining the right of states to pass laws that allow workers to receive union benefits without joining a union.

Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw an alliance with labor as crucial to advancing civil rights as well as economic justice for all workers, spoke out against right-to-work laws; this 1961 statement by King was widely circulated this week during Michigan's labor battles:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.

Interestingly, 11 years later, Kansas also passed a right-to-work law, with the support of Texas-born energy businessman Fred Koch, who also viewed unions as vessels for communism and integration. Koch's sons Charles and David went on to form the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity, which pushed for the Michigan right-to-work measure, and is now advocating for states that already have such laws, like North Carolina and Virginia, to further enshrine them in their state constitutions.

And what about Muse? According to the Texas State Historical Association:

Muse died on October 15, 1950, at his Houston home, where his efforts with the Christian Americans had originated. At the time of his death he was working on a right-to-work amendment to the federal Constitution.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story inadvertently cut off two important credits. IMAGE: Map of states with right to work laws (Wikipedia). HAT-TIP: Mark Ames at NSFWCorp who wrote about the same issue, especially for quotes from Stetson Kennedy's Southern Exposure (the inspiration behind the Institute's award-winning journal of the same name.) Other valuable sources on the civil rights/labor connection include Michael Honey's Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, Michael Boston's Labor, Civil Rights and the Hughes Tool Company and Barbara Griffith's The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO.

States with right-to-work laws shaded in green. (Map via Wikipedia.)
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People Referenced:


Having the right to work for

Having the right to work for a company without being forced to join a union is "racist?" Really?

Now tell us how the Republicans were "racists" for ending slavery after the US Civil War. Why not start by claiming that rescinding slavery put millions of African-Americans out of work. Go for it.

What's the relevance? Didn't

What's the relevance? Didn't Davis-Bacon have racist roots? Wasn't the entire labor movement 100 years ago closely associated with xenophobia and anti-immigration? The Bakeshop Act that became well known in the Lochner v. New York case is only example of the blatantly racist union laws that were passed.

This historical mudslinging amounts to NOTHING. If you look at ANY institution revered by either 'side' of the political spectrum, you can undoubtedly discover vestiges of long discarded prejudices. Both sides are encumbered by this.

Right to work goes back to 19th-century North

With all due respect to Chris Kromm and the excellent work of Marc Dixon, the right to work goes farther back and farther North than the Jim Crow South. As I argue in my forthcoming book, The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth Century Chicago (Cornell University Press, May 1, 2015), it is the North that deserves the dubious distinction of originating this brand of antilabor legislation. A description of the book is at

One contribution the book makes is to counter southern exceptionalism, which views the South as an eternal moral backwater. Let's please be willing to admit that the North is just as guilty.

Every human being has a right

Every human being has a right to exchange his/her labor for wages without having to belong to any group.

Do you feel the same about

Do you feel the same about the bar association, medical boards, cpa ceerts, &etc?

You are nothing but selfish

You are nothing but selfish and greedy if you feel you should reap the benefits of those who pay for representation, without paying your fair share. You should not be allowed to take the benefits you do not pay for.

Right to Work (for less) laws are pushed by corporate america in a effort to kill collective bargaining.

If it were not for those who fought and gave their lives for the right to collectively bargain we would still be experiencing to problems Steinbeck wrote about in the Grapes of Wrath.

You would not have weekends off, overtime pay, vacation pay, and many other things most workers enjoy now had it not been for Unions.

And the most important of

And the most important of all, that aaall of us enjoy and take for granted, the eight hour workday.

I agree that these right to

I agree that these right to work laws have racist roots. This is something I had thought about for a long time, even before reading this article. At the same time, I can't agree with Martin Luther King Jr's statement that the purpose of such law is to "destroy labor unions"...That's insane.

That is exactly the intent.

That is exactly the intent. If people are going to get union representation without having to join & pay then eventually no one will join or pay. The union cannot survive without dues. Therefore your employer now has ALL the power because there is no one to bargain for the workers.


There is also a bit of dishonesty in referring to Muse as "Far Right", so as to taint conservatism with racism, sexism and bigotry in general. There is no such thing as "Far Right" and no Left-Right continuum for that matter; there are bigots who could be placed in any part of any political spectrum. Furthermore, it's fallacious to use the origins of RTW in an attempt to discredit anyone who would advocate such a thing. Why not point out the Socialist origins of the labor movement, or the violence and corruption in labor organizations? It would be far more relevant to the discussion and unlike the origins of RTW, it's not fallacious.


Regarding your suggestion that the origins of RTW are fallacious (final sentence): In the 3rd sentence, you observe that "'s fallacious to use the origins of RTW in an attempt to discredit...", by which you confirm that those origins are not fallacious - they're a matter of settled record. You turn the facts inside out in your final sentence. And my goodness, anyone who isn't aware of the Socialist origins of the labor movement - after the amount of money, words, and general animus directed toward illuminating that set of facts by the Conservative FAR RIGHT (way beyond Gen. Eisenhower, thank you, that's the definition) - has been living on another planet. We just don't happen to think that Socialism (correctly understood and defined by facts, not insane, bat-sh*t fantasy-based hate) is really such a bad idea, tempered as it has been by American practical politics. After all, your fire department, the police, the US Military are all examples of social good being implemented on behalf of society at large. The modern conservative FAR RIGHT itself has tainted true Conservatism with racism, sexism and bigotry in general (Geez, please go back and review the videos of the Republican machine during the late Presidential campaign). But - - - this is probably entirely pointless; anyone who can write such tripe has surrendered the capacity for reasoned thought, in favor of reguritating the pablum foisted on you by such (literally) unbelievable lights of modern Conservatism as (Lord, forgive me for even giving him the recognition and credit that comes from an insult) Rush Limbaugh, the original, complete, never-equaled, full-bore, cast-iron, genuine hypocrite of the American media circus. Good luck - you're gonna need it to deal with the resurgence of the real blue-collar America.

racism and rebublicans

You fools crack me up. You try so hard to hurt each others feelings. It's really sad. You might want to consider working on bringing people together. Because you know you lie when you paint half the country with a single racist brush....

We have many more "racists"

We have many more "racists" than just half of us in the USA. Our entire country views our society with a racial lens.

We are a long way from a nation that measures a person by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. It takes conscience work by every individual to not pre-judge another based upon outward appearance. It is only once we as a society become less judgmental in our personal encounters that we can move away from being "racists".

right to work for less laws

The Christian American group was really the Texas ku klux klan by a cleaned up name. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King said no one should be confused by the wrongfully worded right to work (for less) branding of those laws: there was a basic dishonesty in calling the Texas kkk Christian Americans.

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