In the 1940s, pro-segregationist Southerners started a movement for “preserving the Old South’s racial order” by passing legislation to weaken worker unions. This was partially in response to labor movement gains across the country, including the Congress of Industrial Organizations (now AFL-CIO) kicking off “Operation Dixie” to organize the South. It was also about race — the fact that more unions attempted to unite workers across racial boundaries was unacceptable to many white Southerners.
Florida leaders and landowners favored the passage of a right-to-work (RTW) law as a direct response to increasing union power. “Right to work” implies that those willing and able to work should be able to do so; however, that is not what these laws do. One of the most significant aspects of state RTW laws was that they prohibited unions from mandating dues needed to function, including activities like collective bargaining between workers and employers for better workplace conditions and pay. In practice, RTW meant that workers who did not pay dues still benefitted from a union-negotiated collective bargaining agreement, disincentivizing union support and hampering worker power over time.
Florida became the first state to pass a RTW law in 1944, and by the late 1970s, every other Southern state (and numerous non-Southern states) had followed suit. Together, Florida’s 1943 Union Regulation Act and 1944 RTW law undercut unions and worker power — by capping fees from members in the former and restricting fee collection from anyone benefitting from a union agreement in the latter.
Today, economic research finds that workers in RTW states earn approximately $1,500 less per year than those in non-RTW states, regardless of union membership. While it may not have been true when Florida passed RTW, Black workers today are more likely to be union members than white workers. Although this concerted strategy to weaken union power hurt all working Floridians, it distinctly harmed working Floridians of color.
Image Source: St. Lucie News Tribune
Image Description: Newspaper clipping of ad urging voters against the right-to-work amendment, 1944