News Story

Is Right-to-Work Racist?

'In a right-to-work state, I am a free man because my labor belongs to me'

The Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago, but one college professor is bringing the era up in the debate over right-to-work in Michigan.

Michigan State University Economics Professor Charles Ballard said that states that embraced slavery with a "long history of strong hierarchy and inequality in race relations" would naturally be supportive of right-to-work laws.

"All of the states that seceded from the union in 1861, plus a stripe in the Midwest, in the plains and in the Rocky Mountains, those states are the poorest in the country," he said in an Mlive article based on comments he made at the Detroit Economic Club’s 2013 Michigan Economic Outlook luncheon.

Ballard was referring to the 11 Southern states that seceded in late 1860 and 1861. They were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

However, there are 24 states currently that are RTW, meaning less than half were states that seceded from the union over 150 years ago.

So why did Ballard link RTW with Confederate states that supported slavery?

Here’s Ballard’s response via e-mail:

I guess I will begin by saying simply that my statement is true. Every state that joined the Confederacy is a RTW state, while 13 of the other 39 states are RTW. I am a native Texan. Of course I am NOT saying that secession 'caused' RTW.  It's a lot more complex than that. But there is a connection. 

The economies and societies of the Confederate states were extraordinarily hierarchical. Racial hierarchy was by far the most important aspect of this, but if a society is organized around hierarchy and inequality in one dimension, it’s easy for that to spill over into other dimensions. For example, before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote passed the Congress, a bunch of states in the west had already allowed suffrage for women, but no Southern states had. After Congress passed the Amendment, not only did many of the Southern state legislatures not vote to ratify, but they explicitly voted to reject allowing women the right to vote. My interpretation of this is that the Southern legislators were devoted both to inequality by race and to inequality by gender. 

And the South has long been the region that has been least favorable to union organizing. The connection, in my view, is that a region with a long history of strong hierarchy and inequality in race relations, etc., would naturally be a region that would tend toward having a less level playing field between employers and workers. 

Of course, many of the liberal policies that were enacted, despite Southern opposition, are now well established: No one is saying we should reinstitute slavery, or that we should deny women the right to vote. And of course, I am NOT equating RTW with slavery, or with the denial of women’s right to vote. Far from it.

But the South does remain the most conservative region of the country, and that manifests itself in labor relations and in a host of other ways. As a native Southerner, I think the historical context is relevant to our understanding.

Every Western state in the country granted women the right to vote before the passage of the 19th Amendment. The states of South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona are modern right-to-work states which had full suffrage for women at that time. At the same time, only the modern non-right-to-work states of Michigan (until recently) and New York allowed full suffrage for women. A lot of the reason behind this, historians say, was to entice women westward.

Vernon Burton, a professor of history and computer science and director of the Clemson CyberInstitute at Clemson University, said he agreed with a lot of what Ballard said, but said there is no direct correlation between the Civil War and unions.

Burton said the states that seceded had slavery and were primarily farming and agricultural and would have had little contact with unions, which were primarily in the manufacturing cities in the North.

“I do not think seceding is a direct correlation with right-to-work laws," Burton said. "I think there are complex factors that underlie both.”

Burton said Southern cynicism of unions can be traced back to the 1934 textile workers strike that involved about 400,000 workers throughout the country. Burton said unions promised striking Southern workers that they’d feed them if they went on strike but never followed through because they lacked the resources. Historians say that left lingering resentment against unions for decades.

Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University, said the comparison of right-to-work laws with the Confederate states is misguided.

He explained his point of view in an email:

It is ironic that Ballard equates right-to-work states with the secessionist states (implying that the same states that support right-to-work laws are also those that supported slavery), Davies wrote.

The premise behind slavery is that people do not own their own labor. Rather, a person's labor is owned by his master. (This is quite different from employment wherein a worker voluntarily exchanges his labor for money.)

The premise behind labor unions is that people do not own their own labor. Rather a person's labor is owned by a union. The union will dictate whether you work, when you work, and at what wage you may offer your labor.

Now, if union membership were voluntary, there would be no slavery analogy because workers could voluntarily pledge their labor to a union in exchange for union benefits. The problem arises when the law takes away the worker’s freedom by forcing him to join a union. This is exactly what right-to-work states prohibit.

In a right-to-work state, I am a free man because my labor belongs to me. If I choose to pledge it to a union, I am free to do so. If I choose not to pledge my labor to a union, I am free to do that also. In a non-right-to-work state, I can only work if the union says I can work and then only under the conditions that the union imposes. In non-right-to-work states, the law regards my labor as belonging not to me but to a union. This is slavery.

Stacy Swimp, president of the Frederick Douglass Society in Flint, recently wrote that "right-to-work works for Black Americans."

"From 2000 to 2010 right-to-work states’ black population increased by 17.4 percent, well over double the 7.6 percent increase for forced-unionism states as a group," Swimp wrote. "The 9.8 percentage point advantage in black population growth in right-to-work states even outpaced the 9 percentage point edge right-to-work states registered in white population growth.

"Big Labor apologists who are now trying to play the race card against right-to-work laws need to answer one simple question: If forced unionism is so good for black Americans, why are they fleeing in droves from the states where this exploitative system is still in place?"

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.