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'Right to Work' Laws Have Racist Origins

Last week, after Michigan became the latest state to pass "right to work" legislation, many began to dig into the history of such laws and discovered that one of the earliest pushes for "right to work" came from an extreme right-wing activist Vance Muse, who was staunchly anti-communist, anti-integration and anti-union. Muse was the leader of the Christian American Association, an organization that fought to pass "right to work" in more than a dozen states in the 1940s.

Muse was a Texas conservative activist in the 1930s and 1940s who founded the Christian American Association, the first notable organization to push for "right to work" laws. Prior to the big push for "right to work," he was involved in opposing women's rights, child labor laws, integration and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Muse and the Christian American Association ramped up their activism in the 1930s as Texas saw massive growth in union membership. Working with conservative business leaders and segregationist groups, the Christian American Association first pushed for so-called "anti-violence" laws that were designed to clamp down on picketing by unions. After they successfully passed that law in Texas and in other Southern states, they moved on to "right to work" in 1945, passing the first such law in Texas in 1947. In Florida and Arkansas, the Christian American Association used messaging that compared union growth to race-mixing and communism. 

By the end of 1947, 14 states had passed "right to work" and Congress passed the Taft–Hartley Act, which significantly weakened the rights of working families. "Right to work" was opposed at the time by leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., who said:

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.

Other supporters of the push for "right to work" laws included Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David Koch, key figures in the passage of "right to work" in Michigan. 

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