Mark Twain famously noted, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The current efforts to roll back the ability of working people to counterbalance the corporate domination of America's politics is firmly rooted in the initial corporate opposition to the Wagner Act of 1935 that finally assured American workers the right to organize and bargain for wages and working conditions. Among those early efforts to reduce the strength of unions was an effort led by Vance Muse.
Muse, a Texas oil man, didn’t like unions and he really didn’t like the shape the union movement was taking in the 1930s. Large industrial unions like the UAW and the United Steelworkers were growing with white and black workers. Turns out Muse represented the old-line plutocrats’ views on economics and race. His view of this new-found economic “brotherhood” was: “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.”
In 1946, his extremism led to an expose by journalist Stetson Kennedy. He reported in Southern Exposure that Mrs. Muse drove home the couples’ views on race when she addressed “Eleanor Clubs.” Rumors had circulated throughout the South of Eleanor Clubs—supposed organizations of Black domestic servants seeking better wages and working conditions, named after Eleanor Roosevelt for her leadership on race and worker justice. The clubs never existed—they were just figments of racist imaginations like Mrs. Muse’s. She said:
"$15 a week salary for all ni--er house help, Sundays off, no washing and no cleaning upstairs." As an afterthought she added, "My ni--er maid wouldn't dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!"
Muse led the efforts of the “Christian Americans” to pass state-level legislation to limit the growth and strength of unions, first in his native Texas, and then throughout the South.
To make it sound more modern and familiar, the movement went to Kansas in the 1950s, where the “right to work” movement was led by Fred Koch, a co-founder of the John Birch Society, and precursor of the Koch brothers. Kansas passed its right to work law in 1958.
The result has been two America’s when it comes to the right of workers to organize and have an organized voice in the political process: one free, the other fettered and chained to one-sided politics. But for African Americans, it has been another hurdle to decent pay and work conditions.
The America that is hemmed in by right to work laws is home to more than half the African American workforce. Those states have the lowest share of workers in unions, much lower than the national average. Yet because African Americans are the group most likely to belong to unions, it is clear the lower union density for African Americans in right to work states reflects legal barriers, not workers’ wishes.
African Americans are strong supporters of unions because of the gains they enjoy through union membership. Work by Janelle Jones and John Schmidt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research highlights that compared with similarly educated workers in the same industry and state, black union members receive 15.6% higher pay than nonunion black workers; they are also 36.7% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 49.1% more likely to have an employer-provided pension plan.
The weaker position of unions in right to work states means generally lower labor standards. All eight of the states with state minimum wages lower than the federal minimum wage are right to work states. Less voice for workers, more voice for corporations means an economic playing field tilted to corporate greed. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that the wages of otherwise similar workers are 3.2% less in right to work states.
The nefarious nexus of racism and right to work laws cannot be easily dismissed. Researchers David Jacobs and Marc Dixon find a strong link between racial divisions among workers and politicians feasting on this to pass right to work laws. Researcher Gilbert Gall analyzed the voting patterns in Missouri’s 1978 attempt at right to work and found a strong opposition vote in urban, black districts. So the division is not necessarily a divide on how black workers see unions, as much as it is whether votes are driven by the same plutocratic ploys of subliminal racism linking conservative plutocrat “values” to right to work.
In its modern form, this is often an appeal to Libertarian individualism, unions being the antithesis, while corporations (organized capital) somehow embody individualism. It’s an old trick. And falling for it only dooms one to ignore history.