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Right to Work and the Apartheid State

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As I’ve argued many times, there are plenty of reasons why people who believe in human freedom and free markets should oppose so-called “right-to-work” laws. And University of Arkansas Professor Michael Pierce, in a recent article for Labor Online (“The Origins of Right-to-WorkVance Muse, Anti-Semitism, and the Maintenance of Jim Crow Labor Relations,” Jan. 12), now gives us some new ones.

“Right-to-work” laws are, as I have argued before, fundamentally opposed to free market principles. To begin with, at their core they are a restraint on freedom of contract. They prohibit an employer from signing a contract with the representative of a bargaining unit requiring new hires to join the union.

That doesn’t stop a lot of self-proclaimed “libertarians” of the Right from enthusiastically supporting them, of course. These are people who can’t write the word “union” without “bosses” attached to it — never mind that “bosses” has a long-standing negative connotation for reasons that have nothing to do with unions, and everything to do with the business management workers formed unions to protect themselves against.

Right-libertarians’ hearts bleed at the thought of an employer running roughshod over workers’ rights by forcing them to join a union against their wishes.

Of course, joining a union is the only conceivable issue on which right-libertarians would defend the “freedom” of workers from the right of management to hire or fire for any reason they see fit — or no reason at all. When workers complain of intrusive social media monitoring by their employers, or restrictions on their rights of free association or free speech outside the workplace, the typical right-libertarian will snarl, “You don’t like it? Look for another job!” Which is strong reason to suspect that the exception they make for union membership isn’t primarily about workers’ interests. Right-libertarians aren’t noted for siding with workers against employers, and right-to-work isn’t an exception to the rule. After all it’s employers — particularly employers in the worst low-wage banana republics of the American South — who are the biggest lobbyists for right-to-work.

But aside from all this, Pierce argues, “right-to-work” has its origins in Jim Crow, and the interest of employers in enforcing the “color line” that kept the labor force internally divided along racial lines and easier to exploit. Arkansas was one of the first three states back in the 1940s to consider “right-to-work” ballot measures, along with Florida and California (it failed in California).

A major political force behind the initiative was Vance Muse of the Christian American Association — as his grandson described him “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.” Lest this description be dismissed on the grounds of possible ideological bias, consider that Muse himself said “I am a Southerner and for white supremacy,” and published an anti-FDR pamphlet with a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt (in his words) “going to some n****r meeting with two escorts, n****rs, on each arm.”

Muse had previously backed Arkansas anti-strike legislation which held unions solely responsible for any violence during strikes. He promoted it as a means to empower “peace officers to quell disturbances and keep the color line drawn in our social affairs,” and to “protect the Southern Negro from communistic propaganda and influences.” Muse’s Christian American Association propagandized for “right-to-work” on the grounds that the union shop meant “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.”

It’s no coincidence that right-to-work legislation was initially backed by, and primarily served the economic interests of, the constellation of class forces in the South that imposed regional Apartheid after the end of Reconstruction and maintained it for a century through lynch law and denial of voting rights. And these same class forces today, acting through some of the most reactionary currents in American politics, are not only continuing to promote the spread of right-to-work legislation; they also, like their predecessors, are attempting once again to prop up banana republics under Apartheid rule by using gerrymandering and racist voter ID laws to roll back the legacy of the Second Reconstruction.

So-called “right-to-work” is inseparable from the political and class agenda of its primary backers, and no self-described “libertarian” should have anything to do with it.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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