“Right to Work For Less” Built on Racist Foundations
On February 12th, West Virginia became the nation’s 26th state to pass a Right-to-Work-For-Less (RTWFL) law prohibiting work contracts that require employees to pay union dues as a condition of their employment. The measure was part of a raft of right-wing laws introduced by the legislature in the midst of the state’s budget crisis. Initially passed February 4, the Republican-controlled state legislature overrode Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomlin’s veto to implement the law that will take effect on July 1st.
Overall, 12.4 percent of workers (83,000) in the Mountain State are still unionized, a slightly higher than the nationwide rate of 11.1 percent¹. It is characterized by extreme poverty, with per capita income of $22,714, and high inequality². As a matter of fact, states with RTWFL laws have been shown to have lower wages, lower rates of health coverage, higher poverty rates, and higher workplace fatalities (see graphic below).
While most discussions have focused on the political and economic effects RTWFL laws, it is also important to remember the ugly racial history of RTWFL legislation. A key driver of the RTWFL movement beginning in the 1930s was Texas businessman, oil industry lobbyist, conservative activist and white supremacist Vance Muse who hated labor unions in part because they promoted the brotherhood of workers across racial lines. Muse also founded the anti-union Christian American Association which first pushed for so-called “anti-violence” laws that were designed to clamp down on unions’ picketing. Backed by the Association, conservative business leaders, and segregationist groups, a RTWFL bill was introduced in Texas in 1945 and signed into law two years later.
While working to pass RTWFL bill in Texas, Muse and the Association took their efforts to Arkansas and Florida where they used messaging that compared union growth to race-mixing and communism. By 1947, 14 states have passed RTWFL legislation. In 1958, Kansas passed RTWFL with the support of anti-union businessman Fred Koch, whose sons Charles and David went on to form the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity which pushed for the passage of RTWFL in Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia. The ultra-conservative Koch brothers are also connected with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Right to Work Committee, both of which are aggressively pushing RTWFL legislations.
Built on racist foundations, RTWFL legislation has nothing to do with providing rights or work. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said back in 1961, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right-to-work.' It provides no 'rights' and no 'works.' Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining…. We demand this fraud be stopped.”
- Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 28, 2016)
- 2015 Census ACS Survey