When the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched “Operation Dixie” in the aftermath of World War II, with the goal not just of organizing unions in the states of the old Confederacy but of ending Jim Crow discrimination, Southern segregationists moved immediately to establish deceptively named “right-to-work” laws.
These measures were designed to make it dramatically harder for workers to organize unions and for labor organizations to advocate for workers on the job site or for social change in their communities and states.
Southern states rushed to enact right-to-work laws and, in short order, all the states that seceded from the Union in order to maintain slavery had laws designed to prevent unions from fighting against segregation. The strategy worked. Southern states have far weaker unions than Northern states, and labor struggles in the South have been far more bitter and violent than in other parts of the country. It was in a right-to-work state, Tennessee, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting the struggle of African-American sanitation workers to organize a union and have it recognized by the city.
Speaking of legal, legislative and practical barriers that Southern states and cities erected to the organization of trade unions — especially in the public sector — King said: “If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
King often spoke of the link between organized labor and the civil rights movement. He recognized that the cause of freedom needed allies, and that unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the United Auto Workers were key allies in the struggle. The unions shared in that recognition, and do to this day. Visit an AFSCME or UAW hall in Wisconsin and you will see plaques and displays recalling when Wisconsin trade unionists stood with King and the civil rights movement for justice.
The Wisconsin unions were strong enough to provide that support because Wisconsin is not a right-to-work state. Like the vast majority of other states that fought to end slavery in the 19th century, and that elected representatives (Republicans and Democrats) who opposed segregation in the 20th century, Wisconsin rejected proposals to enact right-to-work laws. Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans recognized that strong unions, like strong businesses, were necessary to economic and social progress.
Now, however, some Republicans are thinking of aligning Wisconsin with the Southern states. Incoming state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told a WisPolitics luncheon last week that lawmakers are actively discussing making Wisconsin a right-to-work state.
“We have new majorities,” says Fitzgerald. “We’ve talked to new members of the House of Representatives and the way they view the world right now is the more feathers you ruffle right now, the stronger you’re going to be politically. I don’t ever remember an environment where that existed before. I think it gives us a lot of leeway ... to make some significant changes.”
Among the changes being discussed is an abandonment of laws that preserve the right of workers to organize unions and to make their voices heard through those unions. Gov.-elect Scott Walker has even opened up a discussion about decertifying state employee unions -- a move that would end decades of generally good relations between the state and the public employees who help when our cars break down on the highways, serve as guards in our prisons, assist unemployed moms when they are looking for work, inspect our bridges for safety, work to protect our rivers and lakes, write the curriculums for our schools, and maintain our museums and colleges.
Assembly Democratic leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, notes correctly: “During the course of a sometimes acrimonious and long campaign of almost a year, this issue (of decertifying unions and reducing collective bargaining rights) never came up.” Now, for Walker to raise the prospect before he has even taken his oath of office, says Barca, “is rather startling.”
Where are Walker and Fitzgerald getting these ideas? Not from Wisconsinites. They are jetting off to conferences of right-wing governors (where Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal serve up the policy gumbo) and legislators -- including a post-election session organized by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council. It was not in Wisconsin but rather at an ALEC session in Washington where Fitzgerald says he was “surprised how much momentum there was around that discussion” of enacting right-to-work laws.
If Fitzgerald travels to Alabama or Mississippi, we are certain he could find more arguments for right-to-work laws: lower wages, fewer benefits, a race-to-the-bottom mentality that’s great for multinational corporations if not so good for workers, their families and their communities. He could also visit some Confederate war memorials.
If Fitzgerald travels Wisconsin, however, he will find a state that has historically struck a smart balance between the demands of business and labor — and that has been on the right side of the arc of history.
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