Forced-Unionism Apologists Try to Hide Big Labor’s Segregationist Past

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Tim Hudak Takes a Page Out of the U.S. Labour Policy Playbook

At the time the Right to Work movement emerged in the 1940’s, the American Federation of Labor union conglomerate, the precursor to today’s AFL-CIO that was then headed by William Green, consisted mostly of whites-only unions. But today many apologists for compulsory unionism are trying to dispatch this undeniable history down the memory hole. Image: Ed Clark

As a forthcoming fact sheet contributed to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research by Stacy Swimp, president and CFO of the Flint, Mich.-based Frederick Douglass Society reminds us, race-based discrimination was rampant in Organized Labor at the time the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was adopted by Congress and signed into law in 1935.  Moreover, many major unions continued overtly to exclude or discriminate against black workers during World War II and well into the post-war era.

Swimp quotes a scholarly history of blacks and American labor laws and courts written by Herbert Hill, the NAACP’s labor policy director from 1951 to 1977.

Hill observed that, at the time the NLRA “established labor unions as exclusive collective bargaining agents through a process of governmental certification by the National Labor Relations Board,  . . . most of the unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor either excluded Negro workers from membership . . . , thus preventing their employment in union-controlled jobs, or engaged in other discriminatory practices . . . .”  Consequently, “spokesmen for the black community vigorously opposed” the core monopoly-bargaining provision in the NLRA, just as they had previously opposed a basically identical provision in the National Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933.

Swimp also cites the observation of W.E.B. Du Bois, cofounder of the NAACP and intellectual father of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that in the years prior to the enactment of the NLRA employers were far more apt to support the expansion of economic and educational opportunities for black workers than were union officials and their militant followers.

There is substantial evidence that monopolistic unionism continued to serve as a bulwark of workplace segregation long after the NLRA was enacted.  For example, a scholarly article by pro-forced unionism sociologist Marc Dixon published a few years ago acknowledged that, when Right to Work legislation was being debated by the Texas Legislature in 1945, the head of the state AFL affiliate, Harry Acreman, “invoked race as an issue.”  Acreman insisted the Right to Work measure must be defeated because it would “end segregation in southern workplaces.”  This was not an off-the-wall claim, either.  Dixon pointed out that in 1945 “most union activities” in Texas “were still segregated — something the closed shop helped perpetuate in many cases.”

In light of such facts, it is truly astonishing that recently a number of forced-unionism apologists who are ignorant, deceitful, or both have attacked the Texas Right to Work law specifically and Right to Work laws generally by insinuating that they were intended to perpetuate segregation in employment.  (See the link above for an example.)

It is of course true that, in the 1940’s South, when the vast majority of white citizens supported segregation, many Right to Work supporters did as well.  But since unions across the South (and even many in the North!) were segregated in the 1940’s, forced unionism presented no meaningful threat to state-imposed segregation at the time.  It is absurd to suggest otherwise.

The author of the particular article linked above may personally be ignorant of Big Labor’s segregationist past, but it seems impossible to believe that some of the Right to Work haters in academia who have been making similar claims over the past few months in what seems to be a concerted campaign are equally ill-informed.  Rather, they appear to be deliberately smearing Right to Work supporters and covering up union officials’ own ugly record of openly condoning discrimination against black employees until the law and social pressure finally forced them to cease doing so.

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