The NAACP took the unusual step this week to declare a travel advisory to African Americans for the state of Missouri. This bold action came in response to legislation passed by the Missouri Legislature limiting workers’ ability to sue over discrimination. "With the Missouri Human Rights Act gutted, employers who want to engage in illegal workplace discrimination will have no fear of being held accountable," Missouri House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty told Ebony magazine. "While S.B. 43 might not quite return us to the days when businesses were free to hang 'minorities need not apply' signs in the window, it certainly reinforces the sentiment." For that reason, the Missouri AFL-CIO opposed S.B. 43.
Since legislators in Missouri passed a "right to work" law undermining the freedom of workers to negotiate for a better life, they have continued to expand these unfair attacks. Earlier this year, they overturned local powers to set minimum wages, effectively lowering the wage floor in St. Louis from $10 an hour to $7.70. This will have a major impact in one of the nation’s poorest cities.
Right to work is deeply rooted in racism. A 1915 South Carolina law mandated total racial segregation in textile mills, from separate bathrooms, entrances, punch clocks and even windows. This was the real agenda of right to work: preventing the appearance of equality that cross-racial membership in a union implies. Vance Muse, the greatest advocate for right to work, made his sentiment clear about the failings of the Wagner Act: "From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call 'brother' or lose their jobs." The result of this animus is that black workers are more likely to live in states with right to work laws, the lowest minimum wages and the least access to unemployment insurance.
Yet the problem does not stop there. Right to work states are highest in incarceration, lowest in per student investment in education and lowest in supporting the incomes of single mothers. People misconceive these problems to only affect communities of color, which causes elected leaders to manipulate this into a wedge issue that will pass over white workers. Union members know that nothing could be further from the truth.
The problem doesn’t start or stop with state-sanctioned discrimination, and it is more than black workers who need to be on guard while traveling to Missouri. The state is racing to the bottom—a race that hurts all workers.
At the bottom of these worst practices now is Mississippi, a state whose laws insure it will continue to have the highest poverty rate in the nation. Today, the brave workers at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, can strike a blow against the poverty machine. Rather than be meek, they are standing up. They get the vote they have fought so hard for to have their own voice—to bargain as equals with their bosses and start the process of reversing trends.
"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent." —Martin Luther King Jr.