“I have enjoyed seeing the unions shrink,” crowed Christian Reconstructionist Gary North on his blog, “Tea Party Economist,” on February 27. The following week, the Wisconsin state legislature rammed through a bill that weakens unions by allowing workers to benefit from union-bargained wages and working conditions without being required to pay any dues or agency fees. A triumphant Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the new law March 9. The Wisconsin law is not unique, but part of a long-term trend of Religious Right support for Corporate Right actors and robber barons like the Koch Brothers.
Such laws, dubbed “right to work” laws in the 1940s by anti-unionists within the Christian Right, were passed long ago in states throughout the anti-union South and West. Now, we are witnessing their resurgence in formerly union-friendly states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As even North admits, the spin is a ruse: “There is no right to work…But the phrase, “right to work,” has been a political winner for a generation.”
In a New York Times op-ed this last week, scholar and observer of the Right Kevin Kruse shared a bit of history on how Christian Right leaders have long helped business leaders whittle away at the economic freedoms granted to working Americans since the New Deal. Kruse mentioned Billy Graham, who in 1952 listed “union dues” and “labor leaders” among the ills that could not have existed in the Garden of Eden. Graham was throwing fuel on the flames of business leaders’ angst over the profits they were losing to their workers in union collective bargaining agreements. By then, too, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had opened the way for states to begin passing legislation designed to weaken unions. All that was needed was the right pitch to sell these new bills.
Enter the label “right to work”, which cynically refers to state bills that remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job (as the name seems to imply). The likely origin of the label can be seen in a research document from 1962 on the National Right to Work Committee, dug up by our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy, suggesting that the term “right to work” was coined by Vance Muse, a Christian Right activist who “was a protégé of John Henry Kirby, oil and lumberman and one-time President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).” The business leaders of the day recognized the public relations value of the term, and the pitch worked in Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, and so on. “By 1954,” writes historian Bethany Moreton in her 2010 book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, “the entire South had enacted such legislation.”
On CMD’s blog, PRWatch, Jonas Persson also notes that the ultra-conservative, anti-communist Christian Right group the John Birch Society has been involved with the National Right to Work Committee almost since the inception of both groups. “The leadership of the two groups overlapped heavily,” writes Persson, citing the same 1962 research document that shows the NRTWC was part of a coalition with Birchers—including Fred Koch–and segregationist preachers. The connection with segregationists, Moreton notes, is significant: “segregationist Democrats broke the back of the labor and civil rights Left in the years immediately following the war,” she writes. Just as industrial unions emphasized organizing across racial lines and unifying blacks and whites in a class struggle, right-to-work was a big part of the Southern business leaders’ political strategy to keep these unions out. (Watch for a forthcoming article by Peter Montgomery in The Public Eye magazine that shows how Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, helped to achieve this.)
Now, with nearly unlimited funding available from the Koch brothers (and other billionaires, such as Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner) for political campaigns focused on finishing unions off, new states are in play on the right to work map. As before, part of the battle is still being fought on religious grounds. As Josh Harkinson reported in Mother Jones in 2011, groups such as Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been dutifully rallying the evangelical base to side over and over again with business leaders over unions. Already, this public relations war has paid dividends for Walker in Wisconsin, where state employees who once could rely on strong unions to give them a voice with which to bargain find themselves adrift.
But it is not over yet. While Walker cites scripture to rationalize his pre-emptive strikes against organized labor in Wisconsin, at least one Catholic group (the Wisconsin Catholic Conference) testified on the other side in Madison during the debate over right to work, citing scripture in favor of unions. And while that effort ultimately failed, in Missouri the results have been quite different. There, last March, the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis brought the state’s labor leaders a letter saying that the coalition of religious leaders does not support right to work and would help labor fight it. To the embarrassment of Missouri Republicans, right to work failed in 2014, and though it was re-introduced in February 2015, the state GOP does not have the votes to override the promised veto by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).
Given Walker’s popularity among evangelicals, though, coupled with the Corporate Right’s commitment to bringing down unions, we are likely to see more battles over right to work in the next two years. One need only look at long-term right to work states such as Florida and North Carolina to see what happens when the gains made by unions and collective bargaining are eroded: depressed wages, longer work hours, unchecked racial and anti-LGBTQ discrimination and sexual harassment, and failure to follow health and safety protocols. Yet the Religious Right leaders who are shilling for anti-union policies—the same ones who also say that hardworking Americans deserve government assistance—have never taken any responsibility for such consequences.