To every union member and allied working person in the United States:
I hope this missive finds you well. As those of you who follow the news know, Wisconsin has become the 25th state to allow those in workplaces with unions that fall under the Wagner Act’s jurisdiction to not pay dues while still receiving the hard-fought benefits that come from a union contract. This is a terrible state of affairs, not the least of which because historical union bastion states of Indiana and Michigan preceded it in implementing similar laws. While I am confident that we will eventually reverse this development, this is not why I am writing you. I am writing you about the use of the phrase, ‘Right to Work’.
As you are well-aware, ‘Right to Work’ is the euphemism used by the powerful and wealthy to allow this kind of freeloading, and it has a vile history. It’s currently authorized by the Taft-Hartley Act, which amended the Wagner Act in 1947. Its stated goals were to remove Communist influence in the labor movement. As it was, some of labor’s greatest successes were organized by Communists of one type or another. The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, the Toldeo Auto-Lite Strike, and the West Coast Waterfront Strike featured Reds of some sort as key figures in these fights. Some might find this stated goal laudable (I don’t) but it remains beside the point: the actual purpose of Taft-Hartley was to contain union power on a more basic and fundamental level than any political involvement with Communist parties.
Taft-Hartley was passed in the wake of a massive strike wave. Spreading across the country in response to the inevitable economic contraction caused by going from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, 4.3 million workers were out on strike in an eighteen month period. Oil workers, auto workers, coal miners, steelworkers, film crews, meatpackers…all were out on strike at one point or another from 1945 to 1946. Taft-Hartley was passed in response to this and over Harry Truman’s veto. It banned sympathy strikes, political strikes, secondary boycotts, the closed shop (job sites where only union members can be hired), independent expenditures by unions towards or against candidates, mass picketing, and (most importantly to the purpose of this discussion) allowed for states to outlaw union security clauses, which required anyone working at a union job to join the union and pay dues.
(It is important to note here that a closed shop and a union shop are different things despite seeming similar. Closed shops only hire union members, union shops hire anyone and have them join the union. To some this is a distinction without a difference, but they do differ in execution and should be treated as separate concepts).
Either way, from this miasma of paranoia about Communism and contempt for workers, a man named Vance Muse emerges. Muse, a man who was almost a caricature of a Texan, “has been professionally engaged in reactionary enterprises for more than a quarter of a century,” according to journalist Stetson Kennedy in 1946. Among other things, Vance Muse was involved in lobbying against the eight hour working day and bans on child labor. He was also heavily associated with white supremacist organizations and founded one himself: the Christian American Association. It is from this root that the phrase ‘Right to Work’ springs, as the CAA championed ‘the right to work free from coercion.’
More than anything, though, men like Muse and his Confederate Lost Cause diehard funders were terrified of unions succeeding in the South. The CIO unions, imperfect as they were, were explicit in their willingness to organize workers of any color in a way the AFL was not at the time. As labor’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement would prove, organized Black resistance to racial subjugation and worker power went hand in hand. If the CIO could get a critical mass of support amongst those who were being crushed by Jim Crow, they could eventually upend the system of social and economic control that enthralled the South since the end of Reconstruction. This could not be tolerated, and so an attack on the source of a union’s funds was formulated and eventually codified into law, undermining the labor movement’s ability to build power in states that passed these laws.
Knowing the history of the phrase ‘Right to Work’, I now ask each of you to never use it again in this context. The phrase ‘right to work’ connotes something truly awesome, like a job guarantee that would end economic insecurity for any worker. It connotes rights at work, which is what a union contract provides and everyone deserves. These connotations are used to mask its denotation, which is a historically racist effort to undermine the only organizations that currently exist in American politics that seek to better the lives of working people. I know this is a difficult ask, because it’s so pervasive as a phrase and the alternatives that frequently get used in our movement, like, ‘Right to Work for Less,’ or, ‘dues freeloading,’ are cumbersome and sound forced.
Instead, I propose we use the phrase, ‘open shop’. It lacks the the superficially good sound of ‘Right to Work’ and enables us to discuss these issues without using our enemies’ terms. It also doesn’t sound forced, as this was the term before ‘Right to Work’ came into vogue. It’s easy enough to remember as a phrase and can basically be substituted for ‘Right to Work’ in any rhetorical instance you can imagine. ‘North Carolina is an open shop state. Wisconsin just passed an open shop law. West Virginia just saw an open-shop law die an ignominious death in its legislature.’
Regardless of what just happened in Wisconsin and what some people are saying, open shop laws cannot kill this movement. Hurt it maybe, but the only thing open shops prevent when it comes to organizing is lazy organizing. We can and we will win, and we start by not using the bosses’ words when our own will do the trick just fine.