April 29, 2024

Roll the union!

 The United Autoworkers strike against the Big Three car companies in late 2023 gained national attention and enthusiasm. That might have just been the beginning. 

Following the successful strike, which linked issues related to class and climate, the UAW turned its attention to organizing the unorganized. Those efforts have recently been crowned with success by the overwhelming vote of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  

The vote was 2,628 in favor of joining the union and 985 against, meaning around 73% supported the drive. Earlier efforts to unionize the facility failed in 2014 and 2019. Next month, workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama will also vote on joining the union. 

If this trend continues, this win in the traditionally anti-union South could be as historic as last year’s victory—or the epic organizing drives of the 1930s. 

It’s no secret that for decades corporations have been shifting production to southern states, where the power of unions has traditionally been thwarted by so-called “Right to Work” (RTW) legislation. I call it “Right to Work for Less.” 

RTW laws lower labor standards, undermine the democratic process, weaken unions, and allow free riders to benefit from collective bargaining agreements without providing dues to support the process. And unfortunately, these laws have spread beyond their southern origins. 

Many people may not be aware, however, of the vile and explicitly racist origins and motivations of RTW. 

The person who came up with the name and launched the movement to enact it as law was a Texas businessman and politico named Vance Muse, who lived from 1890 to 1950. An unabashed racist and anti-Semite, he bitterly opposed the labor law reforms of the New Deal, which he referred to as “the Jew Deal.” 

At the time, the labor movement was making huge advances and helping to build working-class power. However, it faced serious obstacles in the South, where a racial caste system divided workers and kept wages low for everyone. 

Vance and his allies in the “Christian American Association,” an organization he founded to promote RTW, were opposed to unions not only for their promotion of better wages and conditions but also for their potential threat to the system of racial segregation. But they soon gained powerful supporters beyond the South and began to win major victories. 

According to Dartmouth historian Marc Dixon: “The Christian American Association out of Houston was the first to champion Right-to-Work as a full-blown political slogan in 1941. The organization stood out in a crowded field for its fiery rhetoric against President Roosevelt and especially labor. But Right-to-Work quickly moved from the fringe to the mainstream. After the war, organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers championed the laws with great effect. By the early spring of 1947, fourteen states had adopted Right-to-Work, and the Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress later that year, solidified the rights of states to pass and enforce these laws.” 

Muse was able to play on racial biases to promote RTW with considerable success — but not a lot of subtlety. Some of his anti-Black and antisemitic remarks are too inflammatory to include here. Suffice it to say that he believed anti-labor laws and repression were necessary to “keep the color line drawn in our social affairs” and “protect the Southern Negro [sic] from communistic propaganda and influences.” 

When union organizers with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) dreamed of launching “Operation Dixie” in the 1940s to organize southern workers and overcome segregation, Muse’s wealthy backers of millionaires, corporations, business associations, and demagogic politicians were able to largely neutralize the effort. 

It won’t be easy, but perhaps this most recent UAW victory will be a major step toward undoing that shameful legacy of racism and greed. 

I don’t know of anyone who spoke the truth about RTW—and the connection between the struggles for racial and economic justice—more clearly than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work’” he said. “It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.” 

King elaborated that RTW’s “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.” 

Amen to that. 

(This appeared on the AFSC website. The UAW has won another victory since this came out.)