Defeating a Pillar of Jim Crow: Right to Work


Josh Armstead is a worker militant with UNITE HERE Local 23, organizing in the DMV Area


I will admit I am not a Virginian, but there was a time when my family were Virginians, migrating every so often to escape the violence of the KKK and racism from deeper parts of the South, before settling in Washington, DC.

Moreover, I have worked in this state, I have many comrades in this state, and I have organized in this state. I need not remind you that in the capital of Virginia, Richmond, was the seat of the Confederacy, a failed state which fought a war to cement their ideology of slavery, specifically the enslavement of my ancestors.

To those reading this, I hope to bring about an understanding of our current situation, in which labor rights in this country have been viciously attacked, thwarted, and often denied to vast millions of workers.

This assault on the dignity of labor, started on these shores in the year 1619, found a home in the defunct Confederacy of 1861 – 1865, and since that time, was cultivated meticulously by the bosses, the rich, and the powerful capitalists, whose sole purpose is to enrich themselves at the expense of you and me, fellow worker. I am speaking of so-called “Right to Work”(RTW) laws, which have spread from the union resistant South, and now, for public sector workers, have been codified into law due to the unfortunate ruling of the Supreme Court in Janus v AFSCME

One might wonder, with such a name, “right to work” must be a good thing, correct? 

A real “right to work” should bring millions out of destitution and allow for general welfare of the worker to live a life, not of artificial scarcity and want, but of something fulfilling. 

The name is deceptive, and it was purposely crafted to be so. As alluded to earlier, the origins of Right to Work laws came about in the 1940s, to counter a vast and militant labor movement, which was often more than not led by and carried the aspirations of, socialists, communists and anarchists. Radicals who in a time of great strikes and labor actions, organized millions of workers, from those who worked on railways and in meat plants, to coal mines, dock yards, steel mills, auto factories, and many more.

Many of these same militants also set their eyes towards the bastion of reaction, the old South. In spite of Jim Crow laws, the Sharecropper Unions were formed. In spite of lynching, cross burnings and other violence, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, backed and often led by these far-left militants (both Black and white), was born.

Unfortunately, due to this violence many of these workers and organizers lost their lives, but the gains they won were real. However, these gains, whatever their size, were not something the capitalists could endure, especially if such efforts  undermined the status of the old order: the Jim Crow Laws meant to suppress Black liberty. 

Thus a cabal of many rich men, and under the guise of religious associations, began a plot to eliminate the “union shop”, otherwise known as a union secure shop. Unions at their best are worker led organizations, funded by the dues of their members.

If such dues are stopped, the organization slowly, but surely, is strangled and effectively ceases to be a militant force. If such a scheme could succeed, then the rich men thought, the organizing would cease, the Jim Crow South with its suppression of Black people would be saved and the communists, with their “Jews, uppity Negros and talks of equality” would be crushed.

Vance Muse stands out among the racist capitalists of his era, and whilst he alone did not come up with the idea he was the one who popularized, lobbied for, and got Right to Work into law in both Arkansas and Florida in the year of 1944.

Since then it has spread like cancer across America. History rightly remembers Muse as virulent racist, anti-Semite, and anti-communist, who enjoyed crushing, on behalf of the industrialists, the aspirations of working people. His reasoning can be summed in a quote. As to why unions presented a unique evil Vance said: 

“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.” 

Dear reader, I am Black, born as such, and will die as such. The words of this capitalist, no matter how many times I tell this story, fill me with rage, only proving in my mind that anti-blackness, and anti-labor policies, including anti-communism, are always linked. If you scratch a man who hates the worker and their union, you will find a man who hates Black people, almost with certainty. 

However, now that a condensed version of this horrid origin story has been told, we can now return to the present. In the year of 2022, the list of states with RTW laws  has expanded since Muse’ time, to a total of 24 states, including Virginia.

With few exceptions, union membership, already low in this country, is LOWER in these places, where the laws make dues optional, if there is even a union in a workplace at all. As a result, workers in these states take home less pay and suffer 37% more workplace deaths than those in states without RTW laws

For such laws didn’t just make the union shop optional, it also emboldened the rich, the companies they own, and the lawmakers and government officials which they hold in their pocket. It would seem that they won, and that we, folks of good conscience, who value the dignity of human beings and the spirit of workers, have lost, right? 

I say those who hold that mindset are wrong. 

We have been roughed up and bruised, but are not yet buried. Be encouraged that there is still a path forward if we dare tread it. 

I type this as a worker militant in UNITE HERE, a labor union which has historically had roots in the hospitality and food service industries, primarily roles often worked by Black and Brown people, which have often been thought of as the worst, lowest paying jobs.

Yet, because of my union membership, I am able to live a decent existence, in so much as a man in the capitalist system can mind you, despite no formal education beyond high school. Washington DC is no workers’ paradise, far from it. But, union membership is in fact higher here, untethered as DC is by RTW ideology, and that fact alone makes the wage gap about as wide as the Potomac separating Arlington and DC.

In Nevada, which is also a Right to Work state, my union has managed to build both political and worker power by the continuous organizing of hotels and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. In our union’s 85-year history, it wasn’t the ‘lone union staff organizer’ who took on this challenge by themselves but rank and file workers, shop stewards, activists, and worker-organizers.

Workers would leave their shifts at a unionized hotel, and then go to work at the non-unionized one, encouraging and agitating the folks there to also join the union, making sure no employer could undercut the prevailing standards they were building. If they, in a RTW state can build this power, where employers fear a strike vote, and politicians of both parties acknowledge them as a force to be reckoned with, why can’t we do something similar? 

It will take adaptation to fit with the realities here, but in practice it is still the same, four of the most important points. 

  1. Comrades, who would call themselves socialists and communists especially, should be keen in this work. Learn the struggles and joys of organizing, house visits, one on one talk, agitation, inside organizing and committee development and recruitment.
  1. We will need to be strategic in our targets. There are millions of workers in this state, but creating a plan is essential for each workplace. Is it retail, food service, tech, manufacturing, a corporate owned space or a franchisee? Which capitalist owns them? How big is the unit? Etc.
  1. Is there a union already organizing similar industries? Can you rely upon them to give you resources or help you organize, or do you have to do it independently? In either case, do you have worker support in your shop and information to move forward? No need to rush a fight if you are not ready. 
  1. Long term vision. The daily fight will be intense, the victories hard fought. You will learn new things every day and experience both success and setbacks. The work will take sprints of months and years. Building networks not just in your workplace, but also in your community, will be essential, especially as you continuously organize. 

If we are to turn the tide, we will need a renewed effort to organize unions in Virginia, from Arlington to Richmond, from Newport News to Roanoke, strategic, yet unapologetically brazen in its scope and confidence. Right to Work is a legacy of racism we must smash. It is the bastard child of the original sin of this land: slavery. We cannot wait on politicians to do this work; we must pick up the hammers ourselves and begin the task.

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