“The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the 1961 AFL-CIO convention.

As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m thinking of a different King.

Rep. Steve King.

The racist Republican from Iowa was just 12 when the leader of the 20th-century civil rights movement warned that nearly all bigots were also union busters.

But Dr. King could have meant Congressman King, who just got a long overdue bipartisan comeuppance in Congress. The House, by a wide margin, approved a resolution condemning his white supremacist bile. House Republicans booted him off all his committees.

It wasn’t that long ago that the GOP tolerated, and even embraced, King. “He’s been saying this stuff for years and never faced any repercussions; Republican leaders never even blinked,” Luke Darby wrote in GQ. President Trump has yet to disavow him.

Rep. King also demonizes organized labor. In 2017, he sponsored H.R. 785, the National Right-to-Work Act. Since 2003, when he came to Congress, he’s voted the union position on legislation just 6 percent of the time. (Not surprisingly, he got a zero on the 2017 NAACP Legislative Report Card.)

Steve King’s connections

Rep. King’s avid admirers include ex-KKK leader David Duke, white nationalist Richard Spencer, and the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. On a trip to Europe financed by a Holocaust memorial group, King took time out to hobnob with members of the far-right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, which has Nazi roots.

No sooner did Adolf Hitler and the Nazis take power in Germany in 1933 than they crushed Germany’s free trade unions, which had been among the staunchest opponents of Nazism.

Hitler replaced unions with the puppet Labor Front, headed by Dr. Robert Ley. I don’t know if Rep. King has ever heard of Ley, but he seems like Steve-King’s-dream-come-true of the perfect secretary of labor.

Under the Nazi Labor Front, the German worker was “bound to his master, the employer, much as medieval peasants had been bound to the lord of the manor,” William L. Shirer wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Ley promised “to restore absolute leadership to the natural leader of a factory – that is, the employer,” the author added.

What Dr. King thought of right-to-work

Dr. King, who would have been 90 on Jan. 15, was onto the RTW scam.

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ t is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.

– Dr. King, 1961

Under the RTW fraud, workers at a union shop can enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying the union a service fee to represent them. The idea is to weaken strong unions, destroy small unions, and discourage workers from organizing.

It’s no coincidence that the most racist member of Congress is also the staunchest supporter of a national right to work scheme. In the view of (Rep.) King and many other extremists, labor unions must be destroyed, because immigrants and people of color have a better shot at the American Dream when they are able to organize and join unions. Lower wages for everyone, including blue-collar whites, is just collateral damage in King’s view. Supporters of these laws will never admit to the racist origins of right to work. And they certainly won’t cop to the widening inequality gap these laws create. But make no mistake; racism is central to the hidden agenda.

– Steve Smith, California Labor Federation communications
director, when King introduced his RTW bill.

Kentucky’s Republican-majority legislature passed a RTW law in 2017, and GOP Gov. Matt Bevin eagerly signed it.

“‘Right-to-work is not about economic development,” Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan reminded delegates at the federation’s 2017 convention. “It’s not about individual freedom. It’s about dividing workers.”

The racist origins of right-to-work

One of the first perpetrators of the RTW con was Vance Muse, a Texas tycoon and white supremacist who hated “the doctrine of human equality represented by unions,” wrote Roger Bybee in The Progressive. A Klan fan, Muse was “the Karl Rove-meets-David Duke brains behind the whole right to work movement,” wrote Mark Ames in nsfwcorp online.

The Texas Legislature passed a right to work law in 1947 but changed the measure to its current form in 1993.

Muse, who also was rabidly anti-Semitic, saw “right to work” as a twofer: RTW would help smash unions AND help maintain segregation and white supremacy in Texas and elsewhere in the Jim Crow South.

In 1936, Muse started the reactionary, racist Christian American Association in opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Muse allied the group with the KKK. FDR was running for re-election and Muse bitterly opposed him.

The year before, a Democratic Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. Also known as the Wagner Act, the legislation gave workers legal protection to organize and bargain collectively.

“The appallingly racist views of Muse and his Christian American Association coincided with the mentality of corporate managers dedicated to holding down wages and maintaining the tight control over workers dating back to the days of slavery,” Bybee wrote. “The CEOs of the 1930s recognized that Muse’s segregationist ‘right to work’ concept would break up unified worker efforts to claim the rights granted under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.”

Civil rights and the union movement

Dr. King, who was murdered in Memphis in 1968 where he went to stand in solidarity with striking union sanitation workers, saw the civil rights and union movements working in tandem.

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs—decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community,” he also said at the 1961 AFL-CIO convention. “That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor.”

In a 1962 letter to the Amalgamated Laundry Workers, he wrote, “As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.”

In his 1967 book, Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote that “the labor movement, especially in its earlier days, was one of the few great institutions where a degree of hospitality and mobility was available to Negroes. While the rest of the nation accepted rank discrimination and prejudice as ordinary and usual…trade unions, particularly in the CIO, leveled all barriers to equal membership. In a number of instances Negroes rose to influential national office.”

The late W.C. Young, my friend and union brother, was among them. A national civil rights and union leader from Paducah, he said he never went anywhere without his union card and his NAACP card in his wallet. (I look forward to an NAACP card keeping my union card company in my billfold; we’re reorganizing the NAACP chapter in Mayfield, where I live.)

Young said civil rights leaders “have always known that with the labor movement they have a strong friend with clout.”

–30–

Cross-posted from the KY AFL-CIO site.

Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.