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Nation contributor Jane McAlevey says right-to-work legislation has its roots in repressing black workers under Jim Crow, and will harm African Americans who benefit from unions far more than the average white working-class person

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. On Monday morning, Republican governor Scott Walker signed into law what is called the right-to-work legislation. It prohibit private-sector workers from being required to join a union or pay dues, even when working under union contracts. With me to discuss all of this is Jane McAlevey. She is joining me from New York, New York. And Jane is a PhD candidate in sociology at the university, at CUNY Graduate Center, and a regular contributor to The Nation. Thank you so much for joining us, Jane. JANE MCALEVEY, CONTRIBUTOR, THE NATION MAGAZINE: [incompr.] glad to be here. PERIES: So, Jane, let’s begin with putting this legislation in context, and tell me what happened. MCALEVEY: Sure. I mean, essentially what happened today is that Governor Scott Walker, who was elected to essentially be an advance man for large private corporations, just created the 25th state in the country that’s moved into what we call in the labor movement the right to work for less law/legal framework. And we say right to work for less, even though it’s right officially called the right-to-work law, is we call it right to work for less essentially because there’s one thing it guarantees, which is that workers earn less income. So the context here has been a sustained attack on organized labor. But to say it’s on organized labor in some ways is truly a–it’s really a misapplication of the term. The attack is on American workers and on people in America. We’ve seen essentially a 40-year to 45-year sustained attack, the result of which is that we are experiencing the greatest levels of inequality in the United States of America that we’ve ever experienced since when the sort of gilded era of the late 1920s and early 1930s just before, not coincidentally, the last big push for workers to form unions and large numbers of them protested in the streets. So, hopefully that’s coming soon. But what we have right now is a very sustained attack. It’s an attempt to roll back every gain that American workers, including people of color and women, have made, really, first since the 1930s by forming strong unions that could help level the playing field against corporations that were all about profit (we’re back to that today), and then, secondarily, relatedly, the sort of gains that’s getting lost in the story, but the gains, the rollbacks they’ve been making to the gains that were made in the civil rights movement. You know, we had two big periods of victory in this country for ordinary people, and those gains are being rolled back by a sort of multifaceted attack by corporate America. And to see that it’s anything else is simply crazy. So that’s–to me that’s the opening salvo, and the results we’re seeing are high levels of inequality, wages stagnant since 1973. And the attack, this sort of right-to-work thing, is nothing more, is really–it’s nothing more than an attack on working people. And it’s got three primary motives, and they’re all related. One is profit. That’s the most important thing in this discussion. The second is power, and the third is politics. And that’s what Walker is playing, power politics and profit. PERIES: So, Jane, let’s states the extent of this kind of legislation across the country now. A number of states have adopted this, not only Scott Walker. MCALEVEY: Yes, absolutely. So I’m going to talk about the history, but let me just say, let me start with present and then walk us backwards on the history of right-to-work. In the present moment, we’ve hit 25 today, right? Wisconsin is now the 25th state in the country to sort of flip or skid, as I like to think, into right-to-work status, legal framework. The two states that came before that where Indiana and Michigan, which both flipped into the right-to-work category in 2012. So the current wave of right-to-work all happens after the 2010 elections, when for the first time in America we’ve got 37 states in what are called trifecta rent control, meaning Republicans have control of the House, the Senate, as well as the governor’s office. It takes that kind of total control by corporate America in the state legislative system to do what they’re doing right now. And the simple reason is because people don’t want this to happen. That’s the simple fact. So they’ve got to have a total control program before they can implement something like a right-to-work law as over and against the wishes of ordinary people in their states. And just on that note, in the debate that went on in Wisconsin just last week and the week before, actually, over the Senate bill, the first step of Walker signing the bill today, the ratio was, like–it was 1,700 people testified against it, and I think it was 78 people testified against the bill for every single person who testified in favor of it. Right? That gives you an actual reality of what Americans think about these right to work laws. We’re opposed to them. But that doesn’t matter, because they’re moving them in states where they’ve got total control and total control in the states–Indiana, Michigan, and now Wisconsin, right? Wisconsin is the same dynamic. They’ve got a Republican governor. They’ve got consolidated Republicans in the House and the Senate. So it takes, like, a tripartite attack–or it takes the U.S. Supreme Court (and we should come to that at some point). But it takes either a court decision or total control at the state level for them to advance an agenda against American workers. So that’s sort of the current scenario. What’s interesting is if you trace the history of right to work in this country, which is something that I’m studying as part of my doctoral work right now–so the history of right-to-work, almost all states that were right-to-work previously to just three years ago, it all happened back in the ’40s. And here’s the reality. It happened because it was clear to Southern employers that industries were moving into the U.S. South, and as a direct response to what was going to become the end of the Jim Crow sort of American apartheid in the U.S. South, the Jim Crow laws, the employers panicked and began to realize there was no way that they were prepared to let black people in the American South have power, and definitely not economic power. So the entire history of the right-to-work laws this country goes back to Jim Crow southern racist leading giant corporations in the U.S. now trying to try to figure out, oh my God, we’re about to roll industry into the South, ’cause they had had an agricultural economy until the early 1940s, right? They had cotton. That was the main thing. And they used slaves, and surplus value was extracted at very high levels in the U.S. South. So as a fear factor that when the U.S. civil rights movement, which was clearly on the rise, when it was clear that the U.S. civil rights movement was actually going to change the laws of the U.S. South and Jim Crow was going to end, which had kept workplaces segregated and officially let black workers earn much less money, they came up with a strategy which was called the right-to-work laws. So they began to pass it, state legislators, only in the South. Then in 1947 they advanced something called the Taft-Hartley law. The Taft-Hartley law passes the U.S. Congress, and it officially codifies and makes very easy the ability of individual states to then go on and pass right-to-work laws state by state. So progression goes from the oppression of African-Americans. You bring it full circle to today. And I’m going to argue it’s still about oppressing African Americans in large numbers who benefit from unions far greater than the average white working-class person, just in terms of numbers; black workers do much better with a union than without. And so you can sort of tie a knot from Jim Crow and racism in the South and efforts to keep workers down in this country to the present moment. And I just wanted to say again this is about profit, grotesque levels of profit by American corporations using people like Scott Walker as their advance man to do their dirty work by destroying unions, which help working people. PERIES: So, Jane, describe to us what exactly happened in Wisconsin, because at the height of the protest and rebellion against Scott Walker in Wisconsin, we saw of labor quite active in organizing. So what happened in losing this struggle? MCALEVEY: Yeah. I think Wisconsin was very complicated, as this is in real life, right, all over the place. So just start by saying who is to blame for this debacle in this country is absolutely hyper greedy corporations that have far too much power in our American political system–by recent design of the court system, by the way, right, that’s facilitating all of this. But back to Wisconsin for a moment. It’s also fair to say, I think, that the trade unions bear a little bit of the blame themselves, primarily just because they weren’t doing a good–the leadership wasn’t doing a good enough job of staying in touch deeply with the rank-and-file trade unions. And we’ve got a domination right now of trade unions in this country who–despite that they’re still an overall good, I just think there’s no question, no matter how bad a union is, it’s better than workers not having one. There is no question about that by every statistical measure of income benefits, equality, fairness at work, etc. But we can say we know that some unions have sort of lost touch with the membership base. So what happened in Wisconsin was you saw enormous grassroots outrage in 2011 when the proposal first hits, which I write about in The Nation magazine. I did a series of stories about this. You see enormous backlash by ordinary people who are very upset. It’s about [incompr.] proposal at the time just to attack public-sector–so-called public-sector workers before now coming full circle to just saying, yeah, I’m going to knock you all out right, right, with today’s signing of today’s law. And what happens is–and I think we miscalculated the strategy. We channeled what were 125,000 people at their peak in a single rally outside of that capital in Wisconsin, in Madison, we channeled that into sort of an electoral strategy that didn’t make much sense to most Wisconsinites. What most people said in poll after poll when Walker was reelected in that election, in his recall, in the recall attempt, was that there hadn’t been enough good education done on the ground about what the implications were going to be for people in Wisconsin if he succeeded. And so, many Wisconsinites initially thought–and I bet it would be different today, but many Wisconsinites going into that recall election hadn’t had enough of an education. The unions were a little bit too detached from the rank-and-file base. We saw 38 percent of union households support Walker in that recall. Like, that’s a crime to me. And, by the way, the margin of victory was in that 38 percent. That’s why I say unions have a little bit, need to take a little bit more responsibility for how they govern themselves right now, because we could have defeated Walker in Wisconsin inside of the union household vote. So union members voted to get rid of the governor in 2012, but the union household vote [incompr.] go home and talk to their kids, their husband, their wife, their grandma, their uncle about the value of their union. The evidence says no. And to me that spells a little bit of homework for America’s trade unions, which is we’ve got to get way more in touch with the rank and file of our unions to stave off these kind of attacks. Americans simply don’t understand any longer what the value of a union is. Many people–I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of–people will say things like, oh, it’s so good we had them back then. You know, we’ve got the weekend now, we’ve got an eight-hour workday; we’re not going to have the weekend anymore. And for most low-wage workers, they don’t have a weekend already in this country. So Wisconsin was–it was very difficult. There was a smart messaging. We were outspent four to one in the recall election, right? That’s very important. That’s why I keep saying it’s profit, power, and politics. Corporations can outspend American workers in every election in grotesque ways right now. But with unions, we’re at least 25 percent in the game up against the corporations’ money in our elections. So that’s why they need to undo unions. It’s the only voice American workers have in the electoral system is America’s unions. PERIES: Jane, I thank you so much for joining us today and bringing us up to date. And we want to follow this Ostory, so I hope you join us again very soon. MCALEVEY: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Jane McAlevey is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Before academia, she worked for 20 years an organizer in the labor and environmental justice movements. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, which chose her book, "Raising Expectations and Raising Hell" (Verso 2012), as the "most valuable book of 2012."