Pence leads under-the-radar attack on unions
Pence leans over an executive order in the Oval Office. The assault on workers in the Executive Branch is led by Pence. | AP

Since he took office, Vice President Pence has been working with high-level Trump backers to develop a comprehensive strategy to weaken labor unions. The strategy he is developing revolves around so-called “right to work” laws that have already been rammed through numerous state legislative bodies. Among the GOP bright lights attending the closed-door sessions with Pence have been Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Pence’s role as architect of a new federal assault on unions is one of the topics tackled recently in an excellent article* in the March/April issue of The Voice of the ILWU, published by the union’s local 142 in Hawaii. The article, entitled “Trump backs attack on union,” delves into the history of “right to work” and how it has been used to bash workers and their unions.

After a January 28 meeting with Pence and Gingrich, it is noted, Walker bragged that he showed how “bits and pieces” of what he did in Wisconsin to “reform” union law and civil service, can be “applied at the national level.”

The advice Walker gave to the Trump administration is to begin the attack on labor by first going after public workers and their unions. Pence and Trump are likely to oblige that advice since they had already promised to do just that during their campaign.

“So-called right to work laws are designed and funded by big business to weaken unions,” the Voice article says. “They force unions into an impossible situation by making them legally responsible for representing all workers in a shop, while stripping the union’s ability to collect enough fees to cover those representation costs. Strong union shops where everyone is a paying member would be outlawed under the proposed law and replaced with ‘open shops’ where division, disunity and financial hardship weaken the union and leave workers with lower pay, meager benefits and little say over working conditions.”

Perhaps the most powerful feature of the piece is a hard-hitting section on the “ugly origins of right to work.”

The first “right to work” laws, it is noted, were instituted in 1936 by a Texas organization, “the Christian American Association.” The Voice describes the group as a racist outfit run by Southern oilmen and Northern industrialists. Today, their work is continued by organizations like ALEC.

“A top associate of the group once explained her hostility toward workers by criticizing what President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, had done to help workers, especially African Americans: “…Roosevelt stands for a $15 a week salary for all n****** house help, Sundays off, no washing, and no cleaning upstairs,” adding, “My  n***** maid wouldn’t dare sit down in the same room with me unless she sat on the floor at my feet!”

The first right to work laws, the article points out, were passed in 1944. The first two states to approve them were Arkansas and Florida and by 1947 they were law in some 14 southern states. That was the same year that the GOP-controlled Congress passed the infamous Taft-Hartley law which removed from unions and workers numerous rights they had gained under the Wagner Act, passed during the tenure of President Roosevelt. “The anti union laws were popular in the South,” the ILWU article says, “where segregationists warned that union shops and civil rights would lead to ‘race mixing and communism.’”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waged a campaign against right to work laws in the 1960’s. He is quoted: “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and our job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.”

Another interesting part of the article is how it treats the conservative and right wing reaction to the civil rights gains of the 1960’s including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, drawing the connection between the attacks on civil rights and the attacks on labor rights:

“Richard Nixon won in 1968 with a ‘Southern Strategy’ that used racist code language, including talk about ‘welfare, less government, violent criminals and states right,’ to win white votes in the South – plus blue collar votes from whites in the Midwest and Northern industrial cities. Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldemann, explained: ‘You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really Blacks. The key is to develop a system that recognized this while not appearing to.’ Ronald Reagan’s campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, explained how racist appeals had won white votes:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “n*****, n*****, n*****,” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff…”

“This is how,” the ILWU article concludes on this point, the term “right to work” became one of the many racist code words that white politicians used to communicate bigotry and win elections; beginning in the South, and now throughout much of the country.”

We all know all too well that, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the South does not stay in the South. As of today 28 states, a majority of the states in the country, have “right to work” laws on the books. And we have Vice President Pence working hard on a strategy to make “right to work” national law.

The ILWU’s president, Robert McEllrath, remains undaunted, however. Interviewed for the article in the Voice, he said, “Workers and unions have never gotten anything handed to them on a silver platter, because progress only gets made by pushing the powerful to do what’s right. That’s the way it has always been. And that’s what we need to be doing now and in the future.”

[Mie Omori,  the editor of the ILWU Local 142 newspaper The Voice, informed PW that the article that appeared in The Voice is actually from the Dispatcher, ILWU’s headquarters’ newspaper. Roy SanFilippo is the editor of the Dispatcher and most likely wrote it. — Eds]


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.