Right to Work: “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans…”

“Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” – Article 23 of The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


“In our glorious fight for civil rights, 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 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. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking about right-to-work laws in 1961


By David Richmond, Suburban VP

By David Richmond, Harper Faculty Chapter Chair

As I’m writing this, the 86th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is only a couple of days away.  Certainly there are few, if any, Americans more deserving of a national holiday than MLK, Jr. – and none in the 20th century.  We remember and celebrate his tireless efforts for civil rights and equality, and honor his leadership to overcome segregation and achieve voting rights for African Americans.  Too often too many people forget – or never learn in the first place – that Dr. King was also anti-War and pro-Labor.  In fact, he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike when an assassin’s bullet claimed his life at just 39 years of age.

In his lifetime, Dr. King often spoke on the importance of labor unions.  For example, in a speech in 1965 he said, “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”  He also often spoke against so called “Right to Work” laws.  He would almost assuredly be dismayed by what the state legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio have done in recent months.

“Right to Work” laws operate in a variety of ways, but they all attempt to weaken unions by attacking the unions’ finances.  Proponents of “right to work” will claim that no employee should be forced to financially support a union.  Therefore, these laws usually eliminate “fair share” dues by non-union member employees.  This creates the classic “free rider” problem.  Employees can get the benefits of working under a union contract without having to pay any dues.  Often times, like in Wisconsin, in right to work states employers won’t deduct union dues from employees’ paychecks.  Unions end up spending their resources trying to collect dues and therefore cannot effectively represent the workers.  Over time, all of these laws starve unions’ finances until the union becomes so ineffectual it eventually withers and dies.  This, of course, was the goal all along.

As of today, twenty-four states have passed “Right to Work” legislation.  Historically, these anti-union states were in the south and west.  But the recent attacks on unions in the Midwest in traditional union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin have put everyone on notice.  We are all vulnerable.  The decline of organized labor has already done significant damage to the middle class.  For many, wages have stagnated or even declined, work hours have increased, and the employees’ cost of benefits has gone up.  All of the studies show that unionized workers have resisted these trends far better than non-unionized employees.  This is why so many right-wing and pro-business groups are supporting right to work legislation.

The most important thing that unions can do is to organize.  Obviously, unions need to reverse the decline in membership, but also need to organize their existing members into activists.  It’s not enough to simply cast a vote, although that needs to be done too.  Union members need to assert their positions to politicians.  We need to attend rallies and protests, write letters to the editor, and directly lobby our representatives.  We need to find and support pro-labor politicians, not just anyone from the Democratic Party.  We need to continue to build coalitions with other unions.  We need to educate those around us of all the good that unions do.  We need to demand better unions and better government.

The weakened condition of organized labor is not good for the country – and certainly not for the working class.  We live in a time when many non-union workers are angrily asking, “Why should you get those benefits? (Of working under a union contract)” We need to get back to a place where workers are asking, “How can I get those benefits (of a union contract), too?”


“History is a great teacher.  Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation, but enlarged it.  By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed levels of production.  Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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