Why Do Union Busters Use the Phrase “Right To Work”?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 12 2012 4:51 PM

Why Are Anti-Union Laws Called “Right To Work”?

A mini-Explainer on the history of management’s favorite political catchphrase.

Michigan State Police in riot gear stand with batons while protestors block a street during a rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work.
Michigan State Police stand with batons while protesters block a street during a rally to protest a vote on Right-To-Work legislation on Tuesday

Photograph by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill banning mandatory union membership Tuesday. Republicans have been pressing for so-called “right to work” laws across the Midwest. Major labor groups almost uniformly oppose these bills, so why do we call them “right to work” laws?

Because they allow you to work through a strike. Commentator and lexicographer William Safire chronicled the origins of the phrase “right to work” in his Political Dictionary. A 1912 Bernard Partridge cartoon depicted an employer telling a striking worker, “I can’t make you work if you won’t; but if this man wants to, I can make you let him. And I will.” By the 1930s, the phrase “right to work” was common in American political parlance, and it was meant to draw a contrast to labor’s claim of a right to strike.

Former NAACP labor secretary Herbert Hill argued that the phrase “right to work” derives from an earlier conservative catchphrase: “liberty of contract.” Around the turn of the 20th century, employers argued that workplace safety legislation was unconstitutional because it interfered with the rights of private citizens to make whatever agreements suited them. The Supreme Court bought into the argument, striking down a series of laws that mandated sanitation standards at factories and limited the number of hours a laborer could work per week in a dangerous job. After decades of rhetorical battering from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and threats from President Franklin Roosevelt, the Supreme Court finally reversed its position in the 1930s.

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According to some observers, “right to work” was the first time a political class recognized the advantage of formulating its views as granting an affirmative right. The phrase “right to life”—really an opposition to abortion—followed in the 1970s. Those favoring the legality of abortion soon started talking about the “right to choose.” Opponents of contraception legislation and other laws governing sexual activity advocate a “right to privacy” position, while pro-euthanasia lobbyists talk about a “right to die.”

Safire wrote that the widespread adoption of the phrase “right to work” represents a linguistic victory for management, and labor advocates have been raging against it for decades. Labor leader Eliseo Medina described “right to work” as “a phrase that was coined by the employers to undermine the labor movement,” and Cesar Chavez co-wrote a book called “Right To Work" Laws, a Trap for America's Minorities.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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