Right to Work?

September 16, 2015

The annual veto legislative session in Missouri started today, bringing legislators, lobbyists, and activists into downtown Jefferson City after several quiet months near the Capitol. Legislators will consider several important bills, but the so-called 'right-to-work' legislation will likely attract the most attention.


There are numerous competing economic arguments about the legislation as both sides can find statistics to suggest 'right-to-work' states are either better or worse than others. Of course, many of those statistics are based on correlation, not causation. But there's a bigger problem with the idea of 'right to work.' The deviant origin of 'right to work' laws too often goes ignored. Created with the vision to further segregation, ‘right to work’ laws should be rejected. That's why I joined more than 120 other faith and community leaders in signing statement opposing the 'right-to-work' bill in Missouri.


Texas businessman and lobbyist Vance Muse founded the Christian American Association in 1936 to push his racist, political agenda. In the 1940s, he particularly promoted anti-union legislation across the South. He feared the growing political clout of unions, especially since some unions opposed racist Jim Crow laws. He also feared that unionization would bring integration in workplaces. Thus, Muse pushed the first 'right-to-work' laws.

"From now on," Muse argued, "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."

As a Christian and former Baptist pastor, I am appalled that Muse clothed his racist beliefs in Christian language. In fact, he called his anti-union legislation 'God-given right to work.' His so-called Christian American Association veered far from the message of equality and love taught by Jesus. Fortunately, some Christians saw through Muse's hateful and deceptive efforts. Civil rights leader and Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr. criticized "these 'right-to-work' segregationists." 

"In our glorious fight for our Civil Rights," King argued, "we must be on our guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right-to-work.' This high-sounding label does not mean what it says. It is a dishonest twisting of words with the aim of making a vicious law sound like a good law. This so-called 'right-to-work' law provides no 'rights' and it provides no 'work. It is instead a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is a law proposed and supported by the segregationist forces who are trying to keep us from achieving our Civil Rights and our right of equal job opportunity." 

While our legislators promoting 'right to work' are not racists, that does not mean the legislation remains free from the taint of its original sin. The problem is not merely that the crafter of the original legislation happened to be racist. Rather, he backed this type of legislation for the purpose of advancing his racist philosophy. Conceived to protect segregation, it cannot be defended outside that context. Muse desired the legislation so he could promote segregation, and if implemented - even with other motives intended - the original purpose of the legislation could still benefit.

'Right-to-work' laws remain the poisoned fruit of an ugly, bitter tree. Given its original purpose, Missouri legislators should reject 'right to work.' As I argued in my sermon at the Churchnet Annual Gathering in April, we must do more than just avoid being personally racist; we must also work to remove systemic racism. 



Defending 'right to work' as clean despite its original purpose is like defending the KKK today as merely as civic organization because they no longer lynch people and now pick up trash along highways. If proponents of the effort wish to advance their economic goals, they should return to the drawing board and create new legislative proposals rather than borrowing from the playbook of a shameful period of our nation's history.

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