Home Jennifer Lewis: The background to the misnamed ‘right to work’ movement

Jennifer Lewis: The background to the misnamed ‘right to work’ movement

Jennifer Lewis
Jennifer Lewis

Virginia is one of many states where working people are burdened with a misnamed “right to work” law, passed by an anti-union and racist General Assembly in 1947.

The term “right to work” was popularized by a white supremacist Texan, Vance Muse, who warned against the dangers of white and Black workers together working side by side. In opposing unionization, Muse saw a means of perpetuating Black subjugation while also keeping both Black and white wages down.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said the purpose of “right to work” is “to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.”

These laws don’t guarantee anyone the right to work. Instead they weaken labor unions by forbidding agreements requiring all workers who benefit from a union contract — through wage increases, health and retirement benefits, and paid vacations — to pay a share of the cost of union representation. That’s a matter of simple fairness.

But keeping that law in place wasn’t enough for our union-hating Sixth District Republican Congressman Ben Cline. In 2016, as a member of the Virginia General Assembly, he helped lead the effort to enshrine right-to-work-for-less in the Virginia Constitution by putting it on the November ballot that year.

Cline and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly got a nasty surprise in the 2016 referendum. Not only did Virginians defeat the “right to work” amendment, but the amendment also lost in some of the most heavily Republican parts of the Sixth District.

Cline can’t be pleased by recent polls showing that two-thirds of Americans approve of labor unions – the highest number in years – and that fully one-half of non-union workers say they would join a union if they could. And large numbers of workers across the country, including at a Starbucks in Roanoke here in the Sixth District, are voting to unionize for fair treatment on the job.

That hasn’t stopped Cline from continuing his anti-union push. He’s a leading opponent of the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) legislation in Congress which would restore some balance to federal labor laws that make it all too easy for employers to thwart union organizing.

Cline joined almost every other Republican in Congress in 2019 to vote NO on increasing the federal minimum wage from the current poverty level of $7.25/hour to a more adequate $15/ hour.

He voted NO in 2021 on the Protecting Older Workers from Discrimination Act, which strengthens the federal law protecting older workers from discrimination in hiring and makes it easier for employees to prove when they are a victim of age discrimination in the workplace.

He voted NO in 2021 on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The bill would require private-sector employers with 15 or more workers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees. It would also protect workers from retaliation.

Cline’s votes in Congress always support the interests of large corporations over the interests of their employees. To understand this, it’s useful to look at the long list of corporate contributors to his campaign. That’s where you’ll discover who Congressman Cline truly represents in Congress.

I’ve never accepted a dime from corporate PACs because I know that big money comes with strings attached. I also know that your representative in Congress is supposed to represent you – not corporate interests.

I think most people in the Sixth District understand that, and don’t hate unions as much as Congressman Cline believes they should. I also think voters in the district understand that lobbyists and politicians like Vance Muse and Ben Cline come up with schemes like “right to work” in order to divide us – because they understand that workers united in solidarity means our interests will come before those of big business.

Labor unions helped create the American middle class and have made it possible for tens of millions of workers to earn a decent living, provide for their families, and live with dignity. Unions are the reasons American workers — whether union members or not — have the eight-hour day, weekends, medical and retirement benefits, and laws protecting their health and safety on the job.

The ability to form a union and to collectively bargain, as history demonstrates again and again, serves as a foundation of economic welfare and dignity. So despite the toxic legacy of Vance Muse and the corporate cronyism of politicians like Ben Cline, I’ll keep fighting for workers of the district – and for their freedom to unionize and realize dignity and democracy at work.

Jennifer Lewis is the Democratic Party nominee in the Sixth Congressional District.



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