The new Trump administration announced some disturbing news in February that signaled a growing threat to union members.
Support for anti-union law
On February 1, “right-to-work” legislation (H.R. 785) was proposed in Congress by anti-union Representatives Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Steve King of Iowa. The term “right-to-work” was coined decades ago by anti-union business owners.
Union members are more likely to describe it as “right-to-freeload,” the “right-to-work-for-less” or “right-to-wreck- the-union.”
Trump quickly supports
Trump quickly announced his support for the new legislation through Presidential Spokesman Sean Spicer, who said: “The President believes in ‘right to work.’ He wants…to do what’s in the best interest for job creators.”
To further emphasize strong support from the White House, Spicer added: “Obviously the Vice President has been a champion of this as well.”
The White House didn’t mention that Vice President Pence has been quietly working with a team of Trump advisors who are gathering strategy ideas to weaken unions, based on “right-to-work” laws and similar policies already enacted in many states.
On February 1, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker revealed he attended a January 28 meeting with V.P. Pence and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Washington, D.C. Walker said he advised Pence and Gingrich “how they may take bits and pieces of what we did” with the union law and civil service reform to “apply it at the national level.” Gov. Walker and other anti-union leaders are advising Trump to begin his attacks by going after workers in public unions, something the new President already pledged to do during his campaign.
Divide and conquer
If Trump keeps his promise to attack public union members, it may explain why the President was also holding high-profile meetings with building trade leaders on January 23, and why he met earlier with Teamster President James Hoffa. Those unions have sometimes supported anti-union candidates who cater to narrow interests while ignoring attacks by the same politicians on the broader working class and other union members.
How law hurts workers
“Right to work” laws are designed and funded by big business to weaken unions. They force unions into an impossible position by making them legally responsible for representing all workers in a shop, while stripping the union’s ability to collect enough fees to cover those representation costs. Strong union shops where everyone is a paying member would be outlawed under the proposed law – and replaced with “open shops” where division, disunity and financial hardship weaken the union and leave workers with lower pay, meager benefits and little say over working conditions.
Ugly origins of “right-to-work”
“Right to work” laws were pioneered in 1936 by the Texas-based “Christian American Association,” a racist outfit funded by Southern oilmen and Northern industrialists.
A top associate of the group once explained her hostility toward workers by criticizing what President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, had done to help workers, especially African- Americans, because Roosevelt stood for a “$15 a week salary for all n***** house help, Sundays off, no washing, and no cleaning upstairs,” adding, “My n***** maid wouldn’t dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!”
Start in segregated South
Arkansas and Florida were the first to pass “right to work” laws in 1944, followed quickly by Texas and other Southern states that totaled 14 by 1947 when a Republican majority in Congress passed the notorious “Taft-Hartley” law that stripped unions of powers gained under President Roosevelt, including the right to conduct effective pickets and boycotts. The anti-union law became popular in the South where segregationists warned that union shops and civil rights would lead to “race-mixing and communism.”
Criticized by MLK
The Rev. Martin Luther King warned about the danger of “right-to- work” laws, saying in 1961: “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.”
The “Southern strategy”
Passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 re-shuffled America’s political deck, with Southern whites switching their political loyalty from the Democratic to Republican Party, while African Americans abandoned the Republican Party of Lincoln and Reconstruction to vote predominantly Democratic. Segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was one of the first to change his political affiliation in 1964 – the same year that Republican
Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act and lost the 1964 election, boldly campaigning for “states’ rights” to the delight of Southern segregationists.
Racist code words
Richard Nixon won in 1968 with a “Southern strategy” that used racist code language, including talk about “welfare, less government, violent criminals and “states’ rights” to win white votes in the South – plus blue collar votes from whites in the Midwest and Northern industrial cities.
Nixon’s Chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman explained: “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.” Ronald Reagan’s campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, explained how racist appeals had helped conservatives win white votes: “You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff…”
This is how the term “right-to-work” became one of the many racist code words that white politicians used to communicate bigotry and win elections; beginning in the South, and now throughout much of the country.
Behind the campaigns
Big business is still financing today’s campaigns to pass “right-to-work” laws, just as they have since 1936. Some of the work is being done by the National Right To Work Committee and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), both of which have been passing laws in state legislatures with help from the Koch brothers – using the same oil fortune that funded the racist John Birch Society and other anti-union groups more than a half century ago.
Majority of states
Corporate lobbyists and antiunion politicians have now succeeded in passing “right-to-work” laws in a majority of state legislatures. Kentucky joined the list in early January and Missouri become the 28th “right-to-work” state on February 6. Similar laws have been enacted in the former industrial union strongholds of Wisconsin and Michigan – states which also account for Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory. Efforts to pass similar laws in California, Oregon and Washington have failed – but a federal law or court decision could supersede pro-union laws at the state and local level.
Supreme Court decisions
The Supreme Court has the power to change federal labor laws. With one unfilled vacancy that President Obama was prevented from filling, the Supreme Court deadlocked with 4-4 votes on several cases involving issues related to “right-to-work,” including the ability of unions to collect representation fees. If Trump nominates a conservative anti-union member to the Supreme Court, the new anti-union majority could change national labor laws without passing any legislation.
Promises or betrayal?
Many promises were made by politicians during the election, claiming they wanted to help America’s working class. The coming months will reveal how sincere those promises were, and whether the ones made to the working class will be honored over the demands of big business, billionaires and Wall Street executives. Those forces have already taken control of the government’s most powerful jobs where they will make decisions felt by every worker and family in America.
Only way for workers
“Workers and unions have never gotten anything handed to them on a silver platter because progress only gets made by pushing the powerful to do what’s right,” said ILWU President Robert McEllrath. “That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s what we need to be doing now and in the future.”