You Hate "Right To Work" Laws More Than You Know. Here's Why
"From now on, 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." — Vance Muse, founder of the "right to work" anti-labor campaign
The Michigan GOP apparently blindsided everyone with the union-busting "right to work" laws they just rammed through the state. Certainly my labor friends were caught off-guard tactically by the Republicans’ speed and choice of battleground.
For most of the country, though, the confusion has to do with what "right to work laws" are and why they’re so bad. You can see it written on the faces of the morning cable news hosts on CNN and even MSNBC — trying to pretend like they know what "right-to-work" laws actually mean, flummoxed by the brazen Orwellian neologism of the phrase and sweating over the possibility that they might have to explain it. Lucky for them, and for most of the media establishment (and for the Koch brothers), few people even know what questions to ask about "right to work laws." All they know — kinda — is that they’re bad for unions, and that those unions seem to know exactly how bad things are about to get.
Today, in most of America, unions have it bad. And part of the reason it’s bad is because we no longer know how to organize. Imagine trying to organize workers in your call center or warehouse, or your software gaming firm or your human rights NGO, as they’re doing at Amnesty International. The pressures against you — from worker cynicism and colleagues’ fear of losing their jobs, to personal relations with your boss and superiors, the bills you have to pay, and simple questions like "how do I organize" and "how do I know I won’t be screwed" — not to mention the inevitable appearance of company snitches, provocateurs, and just run-of-the-mill assholes and idiots... I’m not even talking here about your company’s ability to fire you, demote you, abolish your department, slash your pay, pretty much whatever the Hell they want ever since Reagan busted the air traffic controller’s union... This is the lot of American labor organizers in 2012 , except for in a few remaining pockets of America where union power and memory is still strong and tightly woven into the local cultural DNA.
Michigan is one of those places, which is why crushing labor power there would be as inspiring to the rightwing oligarchs who just got creamed at the polls as, say, the rise of the Tea Party was in early 2009.
So yesterday, as Michigan Republicans pushed the bill into law, labor groups converged on the capital in Lansing. According to the BBC, "police in riot gear used tear gas to control tensions among a crowd [outside the Michigan statehouse] of more than 10,000 protesters." For a lot of (once)-middle-class Americans, it’s hard to reconcile that level of anger with something as dull-sounding as "right to work laws."
"Austerity measures" are easier to fear: "austerity" is meant to sound scary and sadomasochistic. But "right to work" sounds dreary and almost redundant, like "right to pay bills."
That’s until you start to understand the history of the "right to work" movement, the racist human hagfish who brought "right to work" into our lexicon and made it happen, and the far-right fascist oligarchs who made it worth their while. Once you meet a few of these cretins — specifically, Vance Muse, the Karl Rove-meets-David Duke brains behind the whole "Right-to-Work" movement whom I’ll introduce you to a little later in this piece — you’ll understand why those thousands who converged on Lansing were acting like their state legislators just invited Count Dracula into everyone’s homes.
In terms of understanding what just happened, it would help if we were back in the 1940s and 50s, when most liberals and establishment media used — and understood — the antonym, "union security" — a descriptive phrase for the New Deal labor laws which finally gave union organizers a fighting chance, and saw the percentage of unionized workers in the US soar from single digits in the early 1930s to around 35% of the workforce by the mid-late 1940s.
The "right-to-work" movement to destroy labor unions began almost as soon as FDR passed the Wagner Act in the mid-1930s, which gave labor organizers "union security" as the old euphemism went and should still go. Again, you have to understand the historical context: Until the Wagner Act passed, when it came to workers’ rights, America in the 1930s was about half a century or more behind the rest of the West — child labor wasn’t even outlawed here until 1938.
But nothing compared to the endless massacres and murders of American labor organizers, massacres that are all but censored from the official history of this country. Maybe you’ve heard something about the Ludlow Massacre of the families of mine workers at Rockefeller’s mines in Colorado in 1913 — but you probably don’t know many of the details, like how Rockefeller’s private armed goons patrolled the miners’ miserable tent cities in an armored car with a mounted machine gun, spraying the tents and terrorizing the strikers, who demanded such radical concessions as "enforcement of Colorado’s laws," the eight hour work day, and pay for time spent working. Or how the terrorized women and children in the embattled tent city dug a giant makeshift bunker pit beneath one of the larger tents to hide out from the bullets — only to have Colorado National Guardsmen douse the tents with kerosene and light them on fire while the miners’ families were sleeping, then shoot some of those who ran out, killing over a dozen children, scores of workers and their wives, and ending with the arrests of hundreds of miners.
In the end, anywhere from several dozen to 200 were left dead. We don’t know exactly — and there hasn’t been much effort on the part of our culture to find out. This "we don’t know the death toll" marks just about all of the many killings and massacres of labor organizers and strikers in the pre-New Deal era.
The same goes with the West Virginia mine wars: whether the massacre of tent city workers in 1913 by coal miner thugs firing from armored trains passing through the tent cities, or the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, when the company raised the largest private standing army in the US, and attacked strikers with gas shells fired from artillery and dropped from bombers. President Harding followed that up by sending in federal troops and the US Air Force led by Brig. General Billy Mitchell, and when it was over, the miners’ unionization drive was dead. Along with well over 100 workers and family members — again, the exact number is "in dispute" as they say.
The "Red Scare" of 1919-20 was aimed at breaking labor unions, and specifically at equating union security — the "closed shop" where unionized companies and factories could require all workers to pay dues to the unions since they all benefited from union contracts — with Bolshevism. In contrast stood the "open shop"—where union membership was merely a "choice" strongly discouraged by employers — with "Americanism." In fact that’s what they called "right to work" back then: the "American Plan."
The Palmer Raids of those years (where J. Edgar Hoover first distinguished himself) resulted in tens of thousands of Americans illegally rounded up, beaten, tortured, imprisoned without any due process, and deported by the thousands, citizens included. Big business coordinated their PR offensive with the Palmer Raids by labeling anti-union open shop laws "American Plan."
After the 1929 crash, that euphemism became associated in people’s minds with the brutal pre-New Deal culture. So corporate America went back to their PR flaks to brand "open shop" with a new, less toxic-sounding euphemism. The phrase they came up with was "right to work," as if they were actually empowering workers with "individual liberty" by going after their unions.
History shows us what’s at stake here, and how far big business was willing to go to keep "right to work" or "American Plan" the national standard. Big business in America regarded the rest of the population and its labor pool much the same way colonial powers viewed the local Natives — as inherently hostile, alien savages whose purpose was to enrich their masters, and who must not be given even the slightest concessions, such as child labor laws, lest it put ideas in their heads about "rights"...
It was in this atmosphere that the ACLU really began as a defender of labor rights, when the ACLU equated civil liberties and Constitutional liberties with union organizing rights. Contrast that with today’s ACLU, which supports Citizens United and corporate "free speech" in exchange for massive donations from tobacco firms and the Koch brothers, while focusing on high-profile culture war cases at the expense of labor.
By 1930, labor unions were practically dead, considered a relic of the past by the media and academic elites. The Great Depression changed all that, in part because unlike today, back then Americans had no food stamps, no unemployment insurance, no state pensions, and of course, no child labor laws and no labor protections to speak of — all the things labor unions are responsible for giving us today.
From the Ford Motors massacre in Michigan in 1932, which left four workers killed and up to 50 wounded — through the Chicago Memorial Day Massacre of striking Republic Steel workers in 1937, in which company thugs and cops killed 10 peaceful marchers nearly all of whom were shot in the back, and wounded 60 more, billyclubbing the wounded as they crouched in the dirt — America was a savage and violent place to work if you weren’t rich.
Hearings were held in the Senate, and the LaFollette Committee Report discovered that corporations not only operated armies of spies in the tens of thousands, but that "Republic Steel Corporation [responsible for the 1937 massacre] has a uniformed police force of nearly 400 men whom it was equipped not only with revolvers, rifles, and shotguns, but also with more tear and sickening gas and gas equipment than has been purchased...by any law-enforcement body, local, State or Federal in the country. It has loosed its guards, thus armed, to shoot down citizens on the streets and highways," the Senate report observed.
That was the arsenal controlled by just a single steel company.
FDR leveled the workplace playing field some with the Wagner Act, for the first time making union security (closed shop) a reality. Labor union power and membership soared, as did wages and benefits; America suddenly had Social Security and unemployment insurance, child labor laws, a minimum wage, five day/40 hour work week, and within a few years, a powerful middle class.
To big business plutocrats, the New Deal labor laws represented a sort of political Holocaust that they never forgot or forgave. They lost their full spectrum political dominance over their workers and over the political and judicial direction of the country, and all that essentially because FDR brought to an end America’s "open shop" culture and empowered unions with "closed shop" union security.
But business vowed that one day it would have its revenge. And that revenge would be "right to work" laws.
A report I found dating back to 1962 by Group Research, Inc — one of those left-liberal outfits back in the days before the left was defunded — dated big business’ first use of this new "right to work" to 1935, when the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association lobbied against FDR’s pro-labor Wagner Act, telling the New York Times, "men have an inalienable right to work, free from coercion..."
That’s an interesting coincidence, because Mitt Romney’s dad, George Romney, owed his success to the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, which hired him as a top lobbyist in 1939. It was from that job that Romney eventually took over his own Michigan automobile firm, AMC, took over Michigan as governor (where he oversaw the bloodiest inner city riots of 1967), told America he’d been brainwashed in Vietnam, denounced supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment as "moral perverts" and homosexuals, and yes, gifted the world with his vulture capitalist son, Willard M. Romney, or "Mitt The Impaled" as we call him here at the NSFWCORP headquarters.
But I digress. And there’s a reason I digress. Because I’ve been putting off introducing you to Vance Muse, the real brains behind the "right to work" movement that’s still plaguing Americans to this day.
Vance Muse was a racist political operative and lobbyist from the state of Texas — the native habitat for all America’s vermin —as Satanically vile as "Turd Blossom" Rove, a racist smear-peddler like Andrew Breitbart, only without Breitbart’s degenerate heart and fondness for blow.
Here is a description of Vance Muse, creator of the "right to work" movement, from a book by an old celebrated journalist, Stetson Kennedy, the reporter who famously went undercover inside the KKK and wrote a tell-all in the 40’s:
"The man Muse is quite a character. He is six foot four, wears a ten-gallon hat, but generally reserves his cowboy boots for trips Nawth. Now over fifty [this is published in 1946—M.A.], Muse has been professionally engaged in reactionary enterprises for more than a quarter of a century."
Among Vance Muse’s "reactionary enterprises": He lobbied against women’s suffrage, against the child-labor amendment, against the 8-hour workday, and in 1936, Muse engineered the first split in the South’s Democratic Party by peeling off the segregationists and racists from the New Deal party, a political maneuver that eventually led to Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and at last a Republican right-wing takeover of the South, and with it, the collapse of the old New Deal coalition. Which worked out fine for Vance Muse, since he was a covert Republican himself, serving "for years" as the Republican Party state treasurer in Texas.
That first attempt at splitting the Democratic party by peeling away the Southern segregationist-fascists took place in 1936, when Georgia’s brutal white supremacist governor, Eugene Talmadge, organized a "grassroots" convention with Vance Muse’s help. To stir up anti-FDR and anti-New Deal hate in the South, Vance Muse used photographs he acquired showing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt being escorted by two African-American professors at Howard University. Muse used that photo to stir up the white supremacists in Georgia, he leaked it to as many newspapers as he could, and he even brandished it around a Senate hearing he was called before in 1936. Those hearings revealed that the anti-FDR "convention" that Vance Muse put on, through his "Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution"— which featured guests of honor like Gerald L K Smith, America’s leading anti-Semite and godfather to the modern American Nazi movement — was financed not only by Confederate sponsors like Texan Will Clayton, owner of the world’s largest cotton broker, but also reactionary northeast Republican money: the DuPont brothers, J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, Alfred Sloan of General Motors... That unholy alliance of Northeastern and Confederate plutocrat money financed the first serious attempt at splitting the Southern Democrats off by exploiting white supremacism, all in order to break labor power and return to the world before the New Deal — and to the open shop.
Incidentally, Vance Muse’s northern donors — DuPont, Pew, Sloan — were the same core investors in (and board directors of) the first modern libertarian think-tanks of the 40s and 50s, including the Foundation for Economic Education. DuPont, Pew and Sloan funds also seeded the American careers of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, among others. In other words, Vance Muse’s funders built the first layer of the libertarian nomenklatura that Charles Koch later took control of — no surprise, since Koch outfits are credited with making the Michigan "right to work" law possible.
...Getting back to Vance Muse: In 1936, he incorporated in Texas another union-busting outfit called the "Christian American Association" which was closely associated with the Texas Ku Klux Klan as well as the American Legion, a far-right veterans’ group used to bust up unions and terrorize minorities and suspected Communists. It was this same Christian American Association which launched the "right to work" anti-union campaign using that very same euphemism.
Dartmouth professor Marc Dixon, writing in the Journal of Policy History, summed it up like this:
The modern Right-to-Work movement and political mobilization championing this slogan...was spearheaded by the Christian American Association out of Houston in the early 1940s.
Initially, Vance Muse set the association up to create a sort of fundamentalist Christian KKK outfit to undermine FDR’s 1936 election. In 1941, he saw an editorial in the Dallas Morning News calling for Texas to pass an open shop amendment called "Right-To Work" to its state constitution.
"After traveling to Dallas and consulting with the editor, Muse was encouraged to use and promote the idea of Right-to-Work. This became their [Christian American’s] primary cause and they campaigned extensively for Right-to-Work legislation throughout the country, and especially in Texas."
Vance Muse’s fellow traveler in Texas union-busting fascism was a local big business outfit called the "Fight for Free Enterprise" and together, the two of groups passed laws outlawing picketing by striking workers and making it easy for anyone to accuse picketing workers of inciting violence, open shop "Right-to-Work" laws, and they even pushed for a Nazi-like law that would force union organizers to wear "identifying head gear (red for the CIO and gray for the AFL)."
Even as millions of Americans were fighting fascism overseas, Vance Muse in his ten-gallon hat bragged to his Confederate plutocrats about the passage of Texas’ anti-picketing bill, saying it would "keep the color line drawn in our social affairs." In 1944, he told the Houston Post that so-called "Eleanor Clubs," named in honor of the First Lady, were a "RED RADICAL scheme to organize negro maids, cooks and nurses in order to have a Communist informer in every Southern home."
Muse’s sister and partner in Christian American, Ida Darden, agreed with her brother, telling the Antioch Review she worried that the Eleanor Clubs...
...stood for "$15 a week salary for all nigger house help, Sundays off, no washing, and no cleaning upstairs." As an afterthought, she added, "My nigger maid wouldn’t dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!"
Allowing herself to go still further, the little lady went on to say, "Christian Americans can’t afford to be anti-Semitic, but we know where we stand on the Jews, all right. It doesn’t pay us to work with Winrod, Smith, Coughlin, and those others up North; they’re too outspoken and would get us into trouble...You’d be surprised how many important corporations support our work." - Southern Exposure, Stetson Kennedy
Indeed. That, again, from the sister and partner in the outfit that created the modern Right-To-Work movement which, decades later, just steamrolled over Michigan.
A March 10, 1945 article in the Sunday Morning Star in Delaware reported on Vance Muse’s outfit, as its first "Right-To-Work" successes started to get national attention:
"Union groups throughout the country are asking [for] an investigation of the Christian American Association which has been pushing anti-labor bills in many state legislators. Anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic literature has also been attributed to the Christian Americans."
In fact, their anti-Catholic literature was so strident that they were all but chased out of Louisiana.
But in Texas it worked: That year, 1945, Vance Muse’s Christian American Association successfully lobbied for Texas’ "Right-To-Work" law thanks to a brilliant smear campaign run by Muse himself: He arranged for a woman called Ruth Koenig, who claimed to be the head of an alleged Texas Communist Party, to testify before the Texas legislature on the Right-to-Work law. Naturally the Communist testified against the law – and thanks to that testimony Muse’s Christian American Association was able to label any Texas lawmaker opposed to Right-to-Work as a Communist. Flyers were printed up warning state residents about "Communists in the Legislature," listing their names, linking them to Koenig with the header: "Where She Leads Us, We Will Follow."
Until that day, Texas was on its way to becoming a strong union state, according to Dartmouth’s Prof. Dixon, outpacing other states in the South thanks largely to successful organizing by the CIO. After passage of the Right-to-Work law...well, look at Texas today. It’s libertarian Hell, Koch Industries paradise, home to Ron Paul and Rick Perry. Just how they like it.
The transition to our time has been seamless. Charles Koch’s father, Fred Koch, made his name in right-wing politics as one of the leaders of the Kansas Right-to-Work movement. The fight in Kansas was more bitter and protracted than in Texas — Kansas had a strong tradition of populism and farmer socialism — but in 1958, they succeeded and the law passed. That same year, Fred Koch co-founded the crypto-fascist John Birch Society with eleven other industrialists, the most powerful grassroots libertarian outfit of the postwar era until his son Charles raised libertarianism to an entirely new level.
Among other things, the John Birch Society taught that President Eisenhower was a conscious active Communist agent taking orders from Moscow; that the Civil Rights movement was a Communist conspiracy and Martin Luther King took direct orders from Moscow; and that the world was controlled by a group of conspiratorial insiders known as the Illuminati; and that America is "a republic, not a democracy."
Politically, its goal was the same as Vance Muse’s: reversing "the whole new-deal march toward state socialism" and expunging "the disease of collectivism," in the words of Bircher leader Robert Welch. In other words: union-busting, stripping government benefits and eliminating taxes on the rich. (To understand why Fred Koch and the Bircher libertarians hated Ike so much, imagine today a Republican like Eisenhower who raised the top marginal tax rate to 91%, who poured massive government investments into building roads and schools, who publicly declared his support for Social Security and denounced any Republican who opposed it — you get the point.)
The founder of the National Right To Work Committee in the mid-1950s, Reed Larson, came from Fred and Charles Koch’s base in Wichita, Kansas — headquarters of Koch Industries. Fred Koch teamed up with Reed Larson to pass Kansas’ Right-to-Work law, and Reed Larson’s "National Right to Work Committee" intertwined itself with Fred Koch’s John Birch Society.
And that sordid history of Right-to-Work, that seamless historical thread running straight out of Vance Muse’s putrid little brain right through all of the shock and misery on display in Lansing, Michigan today — that’s what’s the matter with Kansas. Dorothy’s wrong, folks: we’re all stuck in Kansas, and no one’s safe, no matter which state you live in.
One last thing: I’m ashamed to say that until this week I’d never heard of Stetson Kennedy, author of the book "Southern Exposure" that I quoted above. The old blurbs on his books from The Nation and elsewhere make it clear that he was once a big deal journalist author, largely due to the book he wrote when he went undercover inside the KKK, published in 1942, titled, "The Klan Unmasked." It was thanks to Kennedy’s book and his investigative work that the state of Georgia rescinded the Ku Klux Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947. Kennedy not only wrote for The Nation and others, but also was active in the CIO labor movement. Even Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him, called of course "Stetson Kennedy."
As years went on, Kennedy’s name faded into history. Until 2006, that is when Stetson Kennedy was 90 years old and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt wrote a hit piece in the New York Times titled "Hoodwinked?" claiming that Kennedy’s research into the KKK had been fabricated.
As the Guardian reports:
This ignited a fiery protest, with Studs Terkel angrily defending his old friend in a letter to the New York Times: "[Stetson] could well be described as a 'troublemaker' in the best sense of the word. With half a dozen Stetson Kennedys, we can transform our society into one of truth, grace and beauty."
And sure enough:
"Investigations by several newspapers, and evidence from Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress, generally exonerated Kennedy."
If it was anyone else besides Steven Levitt picking on a 90-year-old man and claiming his scalp by debunking 60-year-old books he can hardly coherently defend — I’d pass this off as mere contrarian dickishness.
But I know Levitt’s work too well, having profiled him with Yasha Levine at our Project SHAME (which we’re bringing into the larger NSFWCORP orbit, stay tuned). So when a demonstrable pig like Steven Levitt pulls a hit piece on a 90-year-old righteous labor legend like Stetson Kennedy, it smells to me much more like some sort of big business/libertarian payback for an old grievance, and here’s why.
First of all, Levitt — a University of Chicago libertarian economist who mentored under Gary Becker, one of Gen. Pinochet’s advisors and an advocate of creating a deregulated commodities exchange for human organs, I nit you shot — has a serious racism problem dating back to the 1990s, when Levitt published a highly dubious paper arguing that crime dropped in the 1990s because black women aborted lots of black babies in the 1970s. Several critics accused Levitt of legitimizing racial eugenics, and of using wildly flawed data to back up his insane claim. The Freakonomics author also was an early major advocate of turning prisoners into cheap private labor farmed out to corporations, and he advised prisons to pack and overcrowd their cells with prisoners as a way of saving money and increasing efficiency.
And that’s the problem with Levitt: He can’t be trusted. Not only has he been called out for promoting racial eugenics, but he also used his cutesy, seemingly-harmless Freakonomics platform to promote an extreme version of global warming denialism, relying on either discredited sources, or on invented quotes by credible sources who then called Levitt out for it.
And then of course there’s his Levitt’s sadistic role in helping bust the Chicago Teachers Union, one of the nation’s biggest (and most heroic) ongoing labor union battles.
It’s a perfect illustration of how far our culture has degenerated: the fact that today we celebrate a loathsome hack like Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, whose "freakonomics" haven’t done a fucking thing to help anyone’s life...and yet we don’t even remember a hero like Stetson Kennedy, who took on Southern racism head-on, championed labor rights, and was a great writer to boot.
So there we are, with tear gas flying in Michigan and Levitt helping discredit Stetson Kennedy and busting unions, and the words "right to work" on every front page from here to London, we’ve come full circle. Vance Muse lives. And we’re still in motherfucking Kansas. It’s looking like if we want to get out, folks, we’ll have to fight our way out.