A History of Right to Work Laws as Right-Wing Projects on Behalf of Organized Wealth
Original research as a resource for people defending Labor Fairness against so-called "Right to Work" laws,
which are more accurately called Union Busting laws.

A section of the Organized Wealth v. Organizing for Human Rights website
Tracking the Attack on Working People, Immigrants, the Impoverished, and Equality for All from Roosevelt to Obama

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Union Busting, States’ Rights,
Culture Wars, and Race

Anti-union ”Open Shop” campaigns sometimes are based on arguments for states rights—an idea that comes with some historic baggage.

The primary source of states’ rights philosophy in U.S. politics is the antebellum south of the early to mid 1800s. John C. Calhoun formulated the main arguments, and delivered them in flamboyant oratory during a historic debate with fellow U.S. Senator Daniel Webster over the issue of states’ rights and their relationship to slavery. The philosophical battle over state’s rights fueled southern succession and helped pave the road to the Civil War.

It is entirely possible to make the philosophical case for states’ rights without a direct linkage to slavery or racism; and yet it is entirely true that for decades, segregationists and White supremacists used the banner of states’ rights to hide a racist agenda. This sometimes gets woven into the fabric of Right-to-Work campaigns, even when it is not a conscious decision.

In the 1930s, appeals to White supremacy and White racial solidarity were hardly marginal. In an editorial highlighting a speech by NAM president John E. Edgerton, the New York Times editorialized that “To aid him and his associates in their effort to maintain the open shop he has the racial and language unity of [employees] and employers in the South, and the pressure of long custom.” As Edgerton explained, in the South:

“The wage-earners, like the employers of this section, are almost wholly of one blood, one God, and one language….No people on earth love individual liberty, or will make greater sacrifices for it, than…those proud Anglo-Saxon elements who constitute the working army of this homogeneous section of the nation.”

Edgerton was outlining NAM’s proposed “Labor Policy for The South,” which was based on “The open shop—the unabridged and unrestricted freedom of contract, and complete individual liberty within the law.”

In some portions of the Hard Right the problems posed by labor unions, class consciousness, communism, and integration were discussed as a single topic. In part this derived from the fact that the Roosevelt Administration designed government programs that selected African Americans and other people of color for training and jobs.
The Roosevelt administration sent another culture shock into many ultraconservatives when his administration funded a works program for the arts.

Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Digital Archives.

A National Archives exhibit explained:

For 11 years, between 1933 and 1943, federal tax dollars employed artists, musicians, actors, writers, photographers, and dancers. Visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and playwrights concentrated many of their creative efforts on the patterns of everyday life, especially the world of work. A recurring theme was the strength and dignity of common men and women, even as they faced difficult circumstances.

The program was accused of communist leanings, supporting the rights of workers and labor unions, and promoting New Deal propaganda.

Cutline: Ben Shahn , “The Riveter,” 1938.

Especially controversial was an event in Harlem where a young Orson Welles assembled an all-Black cast from one of the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Units to create a 1936 production of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Today it is considered a milestone in theatre history.

To ultraconservatives and countersubversives, the Federal Theater Project was a sinister plan to undermine the morality of America and thus weaken it for a communist takeover. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched an investigation of the FTP. Mrs. Hallie Flanagan, the national director of the FTP, was questioned about her research trip across Europe to gather information about different theatrical styles and methods.

Photo: Federal Theatre Project Archives, Library of Congress.

This talk of “class consciousness” smacked of communism to the Committee; but Flanagan responded that issues of social and economic class had been a subject of plays written before communism existed. Flanagan cited as examples such historic theatrical luminaries as playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Euripides. Committee member Congressman Joe Starnes (Alabama) wanted to investigate this fellow Marlowe and other playwrights with apparent communist sympathies.

MR. STARNES: Tell us who Marlowe is, so we can get the proper reference, because that is all that we want to do.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Put in the record that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare.

MR. STARNES: Put that in the record because the charge has been made that this article of yours is entirely Communistic, and we want to help you.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Thank you. That statement will go in the record.

MR. STARNES: Of course, we had what some people call ‘Communists’ back in the days of the Greek theater.

MRS. FLANAGAN: Quite true.

MR. STARNES: And I believe Mr. Euripides was guilty of teaching class consciousness also, wasn’t he?

MRS. FLANAGAN: I believe that was alleged against all of the Greek dramatists.

MR. STARNES: So we cannot say when it began.

Euripides died more than 2300 years before date of the HUAC hearing. The Federal Theatre Project was killed in 1939. The Christian Right “Culture Wars,” launched in the early1980s, were a repeat of these 1930s and 1940s attacks on diversity and difference in the artistic world. They also redeveloped an antipathy toward "collectivism" and thus labor unions.

Next: The Old Christian Right & the Anti-Union Alliance

“Labor in the South,” 1930, New York Times, editorial,

John E. Edgerton, 1930, “A Labor Policy for the South,”


“A New Deal for the Arts: Activist Arts,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/new_deal_for_the_arts/activist_arts1.html.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Digital Archives, http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu.

“A New Deal for the Arts: Activist Arts,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/new_deal_for_the_arts/activist_arts1.html.

Ben Shahn , “The Riveter,” Treasury Section of Fine Arts, 1938, Tempera on paperboard; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, transfer from General Services Administration (77.1.77), http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/new_deal_for_the_arts/images/celebrating_the_people/riveter.html.

Wendy Smith, 1996, “The Play that Electrified Harlem,” Civilization magazine (Januray-February); reproduced on the Library of Congress website, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/ftsmth00.html.

Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968 in Eric Bentley (ed.), Thirty Years of Treason. Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968.(New York: The Viking Press, 1971), pp. 24–5; online at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/131.

Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

The Union-Busting Collection:

  1. Introduction
  2. Who is Reed Larson? Roots in Kansas
  3. The National Right to Work Committee is Founded
  4. Larson & Hardball Anti-Union Propaganda
  5. Right to Work & the John Birch Society
  6. The Union Busting Propaganda Machine
  7. Union Busting, States’ Rights, Culture Wars, and Race
  8. The Old Christian Right & the Anti-Union Alliance

More Resources

"Right to Work" Means "Union Busting"
home page

Browse a chart showing the right-wing moneybags that fund a national network of anti-union think tanks and policy groups.

See the spiderweb chart of right-wing funders and anti-union think tanks.

Browse a timeline of right-wing organizing on behalf of Organized Wealth.

This chart illustrates that three times since the early 1960s a strategic ultra-conservative coalition has mobilized to move the Republican Party to the Right.

Read this Report on the Right-Wing Juggernaut

Politics In America: the American Right, by Joanne Ricca, of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, who with a handful of other labor and progressive journalists began tracking the right-wing juggernaut 30 years ago. In PDF format at the union's website.

Democracy is a process,
not a specific set of institutions

Democracy is a process that assumes
the majority of people, over time,
given enough accurate information,
the ability to participate
in a free and open public debate,
and can vote without intimidation, reach constructive decisions
that benefit the whole of society, and
preserve liberty,
protect our freedoms,
extend equality, and
defend democracy.


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Copyright 2012, Chip Berlet,
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