Commentary: We must not be fooled by a slogan

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967, at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, California. King felt that to change America’s racial inequalities and reduce poverty, the nation needed union rights. (Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images)

In 1964, Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his work to overturn legal segregation in the South, particularly during the difficult struggles involving police dogs, fire hoses, jailing, and the bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that left four young girls dead and another blinded for life. The struggle of King and others won passage of the Civil Rights Act guarantees of equal rights in public accommodations, education, and at work.

We still struggle to make those rights real. King felt that to change America’s racial inequalities and reduce poverty, we needed something more: union rights.

He resisted powerful people and institutions opposing unions and workers’ collective action, especially across racial lines. During the Jim Crow era, a wealthy Texas industrialist, Vance Muse, was a prime architect of so-called “right to work” legislation. His clear purpose was to divide workers so they would have weak bargaining power, ultimately resulting in lower wages, fewer benefits, and compromised working conditions.

Muse made no effort to hide the racism at the core of “right to work.” He declared that if such laws were not passed, “white women and white men will be forced into organizations [meaning unions] with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

King argued long and hard to stop these laws. King urged: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a dishonest twisting of words with the aim of making a vicious law sound like a good law. It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

In 1968, King marched with striking Memphis sanitation workers. Mayor Henry Loeb’s resistance to the simple deduction of dues from a worker’s paycheck held up the settlement of the strike for months. He knew that a union could not function without funds. King was assassinated in that struggle, but the workers finally won the right to union representation and dues checkoff. Wages went up and conditions improved. That’s what unions do.

Dues deduction simply supports worker representation. Once workers democratically vote to form a union, they may negotiate a “fair share” contractual clause that all workers either pay union dues or contribute a transparently calculated fee for the cost of contract administration and representation. In negotiations, the employer can freely choose to accept or reject such a contractual provision. That is, unless a “right to work” law denies employers and employees the freedom to decide for themselves what is best for their workplace.

It is not unreasonable to have a rule that everyone who signs up to work in a unionized workplace must pay union dues or a representation fee. No worker is required to join a union, but if workers agree and the employer also agrees, every worker contributes something to the cost of representation. Otherwise, as workers in Memphis knew, they would have no treasury and no one whose job it was to represent them in the work place. Government should not intervene to overrule these contractual rights.

King spoke out against “right to work.” He said, “Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.” This hurts not only union workers, but everyone. Ever since King’s death, well-funded, nationally orchestrated “right to work” campaigns and related litigation have whittled away at union rights. New Hampshire has long been in the crosshairs of this national effort. The “right to work” drive here is not homegrown but perennially pushed from outside.

New Hampshire employers with existing unions and fair share contractual clauses have implored the Legislature not to interfere with their labor relations. Does New Hampshire really want to succumb to out-of-state pressure to pass an intrusive law aimed solely at unionized New Hampshire workplaces? Dr. King said the civil rights movement stood against such laws because “they constitute an obstacle to the progress of the Negro people and are inimical to the interest of America’s underprivileged.”

Why would New Hampshire embrace a law founded in racism, perpetuating divisiveness, and designed to sow conflict? Someone who does not want to join a union does not have to do so. But it is not right for someone to benefit when other workers pay union dues in order to improve conditions without contributing something to the cost of securing advancement for all workers.

Dartmouth Sociology Professor Marc Dixon recently traced the history of “right to work” laws for the New Hampshire House Labor Committee, saying: “Right to work has been an important tool for organized business. It is a clear way to defund and destabilize a political opponent. . . . The historical record on right to work’s primary use is clear, and it is not the protection of employee rights.”

King said “right to work” laws provide no “rights” and no “work.” The New Hampshire Legislature should reject the misnamed “right to work” in favor of the rights of workers to be well represented at the workplace.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Honey
Michael Honey

Michael Honey is author of "To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice" (W.W. Norton), and Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma. Honey is also the editor of "All Labor Has Dignity" (Beacon Press) – Martin Luther King's speeches on labor rights and economic justice.

Gail Kinney
Gail Kinney

Gail Kinney is the worker justice minister at the Meriden (N.H.) Congregational Church/United Church of Christ; her Doctor of Ministry work focused on the shared values of faith and labor regarding matters of worker rights and workplace justice.