The PRO Act Would Undo Decades of Southern Anti-Union Laws Rooted in RacismBreaking News
tags: Southern history, labor history, Right to Work
The U.S. House of Representative passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act this week, with 42 House Democrats from Southern states as cosponsors.
The bill is one of the most ambitious attempts to strengthen the rights of workers and unions in decades. Its centerpiece is a provision that would override so-called "right-to-work" laws by allowing unions to collect dues from represented workers in states with such laws even if those workers have not joined the union.
"Unions benefit all workers, but especially women and workers of color," Rep. Nikema Williams, a Georgia Democrat who cosponsored the bill, said in a statement after its passage through the House.
Right-to-work laws proliferated across the Midwest in the mid-2000s. But their roots are in the Jim Crow South, in the milieu of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism wielded by rich white Southerners and their Northern allies to maintain an economic system built on racial division and cheap labor.
In 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first two states in the country to enact right-to-work laws. As labor historian Michael Pierce wrote in 2017, the anti-union measures were meant to prevent what industrialists and planters in both the North and South saw as interracial organizing's threat to the racial and economic order. The Christian American Association, a group founded by Texas oil industry lobbyist Vance Muse in 1936, worked to pass anti-strike laws and spearheaded right-to-work campaigns in Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and California.
The campaigns to get those laws passed by ballot initiative — in a time where many Black voters were blocked from the ballot — were explicitly racist in tone and substance. Pierce writes:
During the Arkansas campaign, the [Christian American Association] insisted that right-to-work was essential for the maintenance of the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed "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." Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor's threat to Jim Crow. It accused the CIO of "trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white."
Most Southern states, with the exceptions of Kentucky and West Virginia, implemented their right-to-work laws during the mid-20th century. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, gave these laws federal backing.
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