It’s Labor Day, and for many Texans this means barbeque, neighborhood parties, and the last three day weekend before school really gets into swing. Most of these celebrations will focus more on relaxation than the achievements of the modern labor movement – the original intent of the holiday.
Perhaps there’s no better way to recognize the work of organized labor than to give workers a day off (if they’re lucky enough to have employers who also observe the holiday). But in Texas, any celebration of the victories of the labor movement has to be considered in the context of the “right to work” state. Since 1940’s, unions in Texas have had to work against a rising tide of anti-union sentiment, enshrined in statute as the “right to work.”
To hear conservatives talk about it, “right to work” legislation is the best thing to happen to the American worker since the weekend. No longer must a worker toil under the tyranny of a union in order to be employed – now, all of the shops are “open.”
One of the strengths of unions came from the ability to operate a “closed shop,” a business where membership in the union was a requirement of employment. This helped to strengthen the unions through membership and dues, and to allow the movement to truly engage and represent everyone at the workplace.
In the mid-twentieth century, politicians became concerned with the rights of workers who didn’t want to be unionized. Or at least, this is the rhetoric that is used to support these kinds of laws – which are now on the books in almost half of the states in America. The theory goes that requiring union membership is a kind of employment discrimination – it doesn’t really allow workers to choose their jobs freely if they aren’t interested in union membership.
In reality, what happens in states like Texas, is that unions have lost one of their most powerful tools for growing and strengthening the movement. Employees don’t have to be dues-paying members of a union to reap the benefits of working in an organized field.
Instead, the burden of working towards a better reality at work falls on the backs of those who are willing to give up a little bit of their paycheck each month and work with their colleagues to fight for something better. By targeting the closed shop, conservatives effectively torpedoed the stability of the labor movement – first in the South, and then throughout the country.
According to a Dartmouth study of the “right to work” movement, the term was coined by a Texan – a Houstonian oil industry lobbyist who spent most of his adult life opposing child labor laws, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, and civil rights.
It makes sense that a person who opposed changes to the “Southern way of life” would also support efforts to decrease the strength of the labor movement. Unions are, after all, just people – people who have joined together in the recognition that they have more power as a group and want to make things better for themselves and their peers.
Labor is an inherently progressive movement – and one that many conservatives see as a direct threat to business interests. “Right to work” legislation is a reflection of this belief, and it’s tied directly to the “Texas Miracle” – which, for many low-income people, is no miracle at all.
So, how do we celebrate Labor Day in a “right to work” state? By recognizing the tenacity of Texan workers and organizers, who are still fighting for the rights of their peers across the state – whether or not those peers are equally invested in the labor movement. Despite such fierce opposition over decades, Texan unions are still working for the best interest of Texas families. And that is definitely something worth celebrating.