Guest speaker discusses right-to-work laws, organized labor
Tom Naatz | Thursday, March 1, 2018
The Notre Dame community explored the subject of labor politics Tuesday through a lecture delivered by Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.
Tracking the evolution of laws that make mandatory union participation illegal, a continuing theme of Shermer’s discussion was the prevalence of prejudice and discrimination in the movement to enact Right to Work statutes.
“Americans’ discomfort with unionism also reflected the presumption of who was in them,” Shermer said. “In the late 19th century through the early Cold War, it was presumed that union members were not ‘all-American’ workers, meaning the workers in those unions were not white and Protestant.”
The origin of the term “right to work” is important, Shermer said, as it indicates Americans’ inherent suspicion of labor unions. One of the first known uses of the phrase, she said, comes from a 1902 article written by muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker.
“He writes [an] … article for a magazine with a middle-class readership about an anthracite strike. And he has these extraordinary descriptions of workers braving crossing the picket line so they can work to feed their families and the violence and intimidation that they face,” Shermer said. “What he’s doing is he’s sort of trying to warn … his middle-class readers that labor … might not have values that we like.”
Building upon that idea, Shermer said many people in the early 20th century feared unions were simply a means of importing European radicalism into the United States. However, Shermer argued unions often espoused American values and used perennial socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana, as an example.
“I always think it’s amazing to think about Debs, who defined himself as much as an American citizen … thought his radicalism more lived up to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, but also as a devout Protestant,” she said.
Shermer said the term’s meaning has changed over time. For example, she said Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman both used the term to refer to workers’ rights to a good job.
“They assumed that it wasn’t just going to be any old job,” Shermer said. “They assumed that because of the rights working people gained during the 1940s that those jobs would be good because they were likely to be unionized.”
Shermer said right-to-work laws, which the Supreme Court has ruled may only be passed by states, are much more common in southern and western states. Business groups and other entities supported by business groups propagated the laws as a means of attracting investment, she said, and because the laws were unlikely to pass through normal legislative means, many politicians tried to pass them through ballot initiatives. Nevertheless, Shermer said, the laws were still undemocratic.
“We shouldn’t presume that those right-to-work laws represented the will of the people,” she said. “One, because there’s a lot of outside money coming in. And the second, they were passed before the 1965 Voting Rights Act actually provided a real guarantee that someone had the right to vote.”
Shermer closed the lecture by discussing current attempts to enact right to work laws. She referenced a case the Supreme Court heard just this week, Janus v. AFSCME, that centers on right-to-work issues. If the court rules against the union, Shermer said, public sector unions stand to lose revenue and influence.
Shermer concluded that right-to-work laws are constitutional, but not right. She said she applauds activists who continue to work on behalf of organized labor.
“Those questions still have very serious implications for residents and citizens who continue to lead inspiring campaigns to use their federal rights for democratic unionism and improving working conditions to once again have decent — if not good — living standards,” she said.