Kentucky has become a right-to-work state, a recent development cheered by corporate lobbyists, particularly those funded by the Koch fortune, such as the Americans for Prosperity chapter in Arkansas.
If Kentucky thinks prosperity is around the corner now, they need only cast a glance toward Arkansas, still among the national laggards in income though we were one of the first two states to pass the anti-union law — 72 years ago.
The law prohibits making payment of union dues or union membership a condition of employment.
Apart from the impact on labor unions and the questionable economic impact, the movement has dark roots. Michael Pierce, an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas, has written an article published in Labor Online that explains.
Right-to-work, approved by Arkansas voters as a constitutional amendment in 1944, was pre-dated by anti-strike laws that punished strikers, but no one else, for violence that occurred during strikes. It was the work of Vance Muse, a Texan with racist, anti-semitic and anti-union views, and his Christian American Association. (See the article for devastating quote from Muse.)
In Arkansas, Muse and the Christian Americans portrayed the anti-strike measure as a means to allow “peace officers to quell disturbances and keep the color line drawn in our social affairs” and promised that it would “protect the Southern Negro from communistic propaganda and influences.”
The Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allied industrialists were so pleased with the Christian American Association’s success in passing the anti-strike measure that they agreed to underwrite a campaign in 1944 to secure a Right-to-Work amendment for the Arkansas constitution. This placed Arkansas alongside Florida and California as the first states where voters could cast ballots for Right-to-Work laws. While Muse and the Christian Americans consulted with the campaigns in California and Florida, they led the one in Arkansas.
During the Arkansas campaign, the Christian Americans insisted that right-to-work was essential for the maintenance of the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed “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.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor’s threat to Jim Crow. It accused the CIO of “trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white.”
Pierce sees a parallel today
In November 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first states to enact Right-to-Work laws (California voters rejected the measure). In both states, few blacks could cast free ballots, election fraud was rampant, and political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite. Right-to-Work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines. The current push for Right-to-Work in Kentucky and Missouri (along with the fueling of nativism) does something similar—it is an attempt to persuade white working people that unions and racialized others are more responsible for their plight than the choices made by capital.