'Right-to-work' laws and their roots in racial segregation

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Ontario Progressive-Conservative leader Tim Hudak has made no secret of his wish to assault organized labour if elected premier, something which could happen as early as this spring. The most significant of his proposed reforms is the promise to enact so-called "right-to-work" legislation.
 
Despite its Orwellian name, right-to-work has nothing to do with providing full employment, but rather is an attempt to denude the province's labour movement. The legislation would repeal the Rand formula, which ensures stable union financing by requiring all those covered by a collective agreement to pay dues to the union that is legally required to represent them regardless of whether or not they are union members.
 
Hudak's key talking point is that right-to-work legislation is a way to "modernize" Ontario's labour laws. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. An examination of the history of right-to-work reveals both that it is many decades old and that its origins lie in one of the "liberal democratic" world's most despotic, repressive and racist political regimes.
 
Right-to-work laws are largely a product of the U.S. South in the era before the repeal of formal legal racial segregation. The link between the two is not at all coincidental. The conservative Southern political and economic elite felt threatened by both labour and civil rights activism, and above all feared that the combination of the two, along with other left activist currents, would topple its stranglehold on power.
 
Labour and the fight against Jim Crow

The white Southern elite in the segregationist period was both virulently racist and strongly conservative. Economically it had a quasi-feudal element, with its wealth concentrated in large landholdings. Politically, it was united under the banner of the Democratic Party, whose Southern wing represented a decisive part of that party's coalition. Democrats comprised the vast majority of the Southern House and Senate delegations, and typically won serial victories at the state level.

In other words, the structures of the U.S. South looked more like a one-party state than anything resembling a democracy. The elite's hold on power rested on the massive, violent economic and political repression of the South's African-American population.

By the end of World War II, the civil rights movement was gaining steam. Brutal police repression remained part of daily life for Southern blacks, but they nevertheless engaged increasingly in forms of defiance and resistance. The political regime, while stable, felt less secure than in the past.
 
At the same time, strikes and labour organizing picked up rapidly across the U.S. A huge strike wave swept the nation in 1945 and 1946 as the tight postwar labour market boosted workers' confidence. Unions were organizing new members particularly rapidly in the South, which was beginning to industrialize as the North had much earlier.
 
Most dangerously for the Southern segregationists, many unions -- especially those in the industrial trade union confederation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) -- were organizing across racial lines.

As Farhand and Katznelson noted in Southern Imposition: Congress and Labor in the New Deal and Fair Deal, industries like tobacco and steel employed both black and white workers, and successful organizing and strikes required interracial solidarity. In other cases, black workers formed their own unions as tools of economic and political resistance -- like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, organized by the socialist A. Philip Randolph.
 
We should be very careful not to whitewash this history, as plenty of trade unions remained covertly and/or overtly racist and some supported segregation. We should also avoid narratives that paint white workers as the saviours of their African-American counterparts, for it was largely the actions of black workers and activists both inside and outside unions that brought segregation to an end. Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss the significance of black and white workers politically cooperating in the workplace in a region characterized by a long history of deep-seated, brutal racism.
 
The fraud of "right to work"

In response to the surge in labour activism, Southern Democrats allied with Republicans in Congress to override the opposition of Northern Democrats and President Truman's veto to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which remains to this day the most significant piece of federal anti-union legislation in the United States. It included provisions outlawing closed shops, banning secondary picketing, and preventing Communists from holding union office, among others. Most significantly, the Act allowed states to pass right-to-work laws.
 
The Democratic-led states of the Deep South immediately began using their new powers. Segregationist states like Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina wasted no time in enacting right-to-work statutes, with many others following suit shortly. The laws had the effect of seriously arresting union progress in the Deep South in the years following 1947. Massive state repression of democratic movements -- and the African-American population in general -- sustained the Jim Crow system in the U.S. South for nearly two more decades.
 
As Martin Luther King explained in 1961

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. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. 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. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped.
 

Fight for jobs and freedom

The segregationist regime in the U.S. South that deprived the area's large black minority of legal and political rights -- including voting rights -- ended in the 1960s with a series of legal rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and legislative acts by the U.S. Congress. That is not to say all forms of state-sponsored racism in the region ended at that time -- far from it -- but the end of formal legal discrimination based on race was nevertheless an enormous victory.
 
Of course, the judicial and legal action that finally ended segregation did not occur due to the courage or benevolence of the country's political elites, but because of decades of struggle by African-Americans and their allies, both of whom increasingly participated in the labour movement.

As Bayard Rustin, socialist and organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, explained:

Integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation and public accommodation will be of limited extent and duration as long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists. When a racial disparity in unemployment has been firmly established in the course of a century, the change-over to 'equal opportunities' does not wipe out the cumulative handicaps of the negro worker. The dynamic that has motivated negroes to withstand with courage and dignity the intimidation and violence they have endured in their own struggle against racism may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice.
 

The struggle today

The context today in Ontario is different in fundamental ways from the segregationist U.S. South, of course, and this analysis should not be seen as an attempt to equate the two historical junctures. The purpose of examining right-to-work's history is not to say that it is solely a tool to advance racial segregation. It is, however, important to highlight that its purpose is inevitably to suppress one of the main forces in society capable of fighting social injustice if it chooses to -- organized labour.
 
In order to impose austerity, the ruling class is attacking workers through racism and attacks on unions -- and Hudak epitomizes both. Last election he attacked "foreign workers," and if he wins this election he wants to push through "right to work" laws. We must cut through the Ontario Tories' misleading rhetoric to reveal that the true intent of their agenda is to protect elite power from democratic challenges.
 
We also need to resist reducing this challenge to the ballot box, and instead expand it to fighting racism and rebuilding unions. As Martin Luther King reminds us:

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society."

On February 24, join the public forum "Yes to $14/hr, No to Hudak: the fight to raise the minimum wage and rebuild unions," 7pm at OISE, Toronto.
On March 1, join the conference "HIgh debt. Low wages. No future? Is there an alternative to capitalism?", 12-6pm at York University

Alex Hunsberger is a doctoral student in political science at York University, specializing in comparative left and labour politics.

This piece originally appeared on The Socialist and is reprinted with permission.

Photo: flickr/Kheel Center, Cornell University

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