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'Right to Work' Designed to Keep Black Workers Poor

In his commentary "Unions ignore long history of excluding minorities from jobs," Missouri Rep. Shamed Dogan (R) highlighted past discriminatory practices in organized labor’s history as reason for implementing our state’s currently pending "right to work" law, along with other anti-worker measures such as ending prevailing wage and minimum wage requirements.

To claim that unions continue to exclude minorities and are detrimental to working people is ridiculous and erroneous in the face of the facts. The truth is, enacting right to work and other anti-worker laws would only hurt the minority communities Dogan seeks to protect, by lowering wages, reducing benefits and limiting career opportunities.

Dogan claims that right to work is the key to helping black workers and stimulating the economy. This is contradictory to the racist history of such laws, which were originally conceived by a Texas lobbyist named Vance Muse. He hated unions, claiming "white women and white men will be forced into organizations with African apes…whom they will have to call 'brother' or lose their jobs."

From the beginning, right to work was designed to weaken unions and divide workers with a goal of keeping black workers poor and weakening their fight for equality and justice.

Today, more black workers than ever are represented by a union. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s August 2017 report, roughly 10.6 million of the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color, and 14.5% of black workers age 18-64 are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, compared with 12.5% of white workers and 10.1% of Hispanic workers.

Even with this progress, we know there is much more that has to be done. This is why you will find the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists standing up for jobs and social justice, and fighting for all workers in the union halls and in the community.

Workers formed unions to demand a fair share and to make sure they had a voice. The world’s wealthiest individuals total only 8.6% of the global population but own 85.6% of global wealth. Without unions, we will continue to see global wealth rise for a precious few CEOs and special interests, while workers’ wages drop. This is what happens when workers are denied a voice.

St. Louis’ black community knows this all too well. That’s why an overwhelming majority of us voted against right to work back in 1978, and that’s why we’re working to make sure it fails again in 2018.

The CBTU joins me in calling on Dogan to do more than attack unions and hurt our middle class. Denying workers a voice on the job is not the way to stimulate the economy, but putting money in the average working person’s pocket allows them to spend their money locally and revitalize businesses.

I’ll close with the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who understood the importance of unions, not only to the black community, but to our society as a whole:

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.

Lew Moye is president emeritus of the St. Louis Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and this post originally appeared as an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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