When the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched “Operation Dixie” in the aftermath of World War II, with the goal not just of organizing unions in the states of the old Confederacy but of ending Jim Crow discrimination, Southern segregationists moved immediately to establish deceptively named “right-to-work” laws.
These measures were designed to make it dramatically harder for workers to organize unions and for labor organizations to advocate for workers on the job site or for social change in their communities and states.
In short order, all the states that had seceded from the Union in order to maintain slavery had laws designed to prevent unions from fighting against segregation. The strategy worked. Southern states have far weaker unions than Northern states, and labor struggles have been far more bitter and violent in the South than in other parts of the country. It was in a right-to-work state, Tennessee, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting the struggle of African-American sanitation workers to organize a union and have it recognized by the city of Memphis.
Speaking of legal and practical barriers that Southern states and cities erected to the organization of trade unions—especially in the public sector—King said: “If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
King, whose legacy is honored nationally next week, often spoke of the link between organized labor and the civil rights movement. He recognized that the cause of freedom needed allies, and that unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the United Auto Workers were key allies in the struggle. The unions shared in that recognition, and do to this day.
Unions from the North were strong enough to provide meaningful support for the civil rights struggle because right-to-work laws had been blocked in the Northern states arrayed around the Great Lakes and into New England. Like the vast majority of states that fought to end slavery in the nineteenth century, and that elected representatives (Republicans and Democrats) who opposed segregation in the twentieth century, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana rejected proposals to limit collective bargaining rights. Democrats and Republicans in these states recognized that strong unions, like strong businesses, were necessary to economic and social progress.