Pivotal anti-union Supreme Court case steeped in racist origins

Most faculty realize that unions are a pathway to greater prosperity and rights for working people. We may not realize that the hard fought battle for the right to organize and bargain contracts in the U.S. is entwined with the long battle for civil rights.

The Janus v. AFSCME case that comes before the U.S. Supreme Court this month is the latest in a long-term push by very rich, powerful, extreme conservatives to impose on the nation—including California—elements of “Right to Work (for Less)” laws that already exist in some states. Those laws have led to lower wages, loss of medical care and retirement programs, and increasing income inequality.

Those losses also have fallen hardest on people of color and Native people.

SUNY faculty member Barrett Holmes Pitner writes: “Conservative groups and proponents of [so-called] right-to-work states support Janus, and now the racial undertones of this case become even more apparent. A cursory look at the origins of right-to-work laws make their racist intent abundantly clear.”

What are those origins and connections?

Pitner explains: “Today, most Americans attribute the right-to-work movement to President Reagan, but the movement actually started in the 1930s in Texas with Vance Muse and the Christian American Association. As industries grew in Texas, so did the growth of unions in the state, with African Americans using their collective power to demand better wages and working conditions. The strength of unions in Texas legitimately challenged Jim Crow in the state, and soon, rich Texas industrialists coined ‘right-to-work’ laws to weaken unions. Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries and the father of Koch Brothers Charles and David was an early supporter of right-to-work.”

Why did white workers go along with this? They fell for “the trick”—according to Rev. William Barber, who is organizing the New Poor People’s Campaign. The trick is using racism to divide working people, promoting fear and blame so that their actions undermine civil rights for justice and even work against their own self interests.

Pitner says that Right to Work (for Less!) backers warned that unions would lead to “race-mixing” and Communism.

Today, all 11 original Confederate states are among the 24 in the U.S. that have right-to-work laws.

Public employment, and the unions that protect people in those jobs, has been key to advancing economic progress for a large number of working people of color in the face of walls built by racist hiring practices in the private sector.

CFA as a union is committed to working against racism in our workplaces as well as within our union. These efforts are based on a set of anti-racist and social justice principles that help guide and inform our opposition of “Right to Work (for Less)” and our support of people of color and Native people in our union and university system.

CFA calls on all CSU faculty to join the union, and stand with our all our colleagues to advocate for our profession, for our university, for our students, and for one another.

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