Big business and white supremacy: The racist roots of America’s “right-to-work” laws

June 7, 2018 | Salon |

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hand down its decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which challenges the ability of public sector unions to collect “fair share” fees from workers who are covered by a negotiated union contract but don’t want to join the union. While the case may seem technocratic, its argument is one thread of a well-worn tapestry by conservatives: attacking union rights to thwart working-class solidarity, especially across racial and ethnic lines.

At the heart of the case is what are deceptively known as “right-to-work” laws, which were conceived with the sole intention of maintaining racial wage hierarchies in the Jim Crow South as part of a larger conservative backlash to the success of union organizing in the years immediately following the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) in 1935. We have to go that far back because what Congress did in that year, as long ago as it seems, greatly constrains working-class power today.