The Historical Origins of the Right to Work and the Commodification of Labor

Thomas Castillo, Coastal Carolina University

This paper explores the origins of the employer right to work movement and its links to the commodification of labor. It examines the national and state efforts in dismantling the 1935 Wagner Act, which established the workers’ right to collective bargaining. Its primary focus will be the campaign of Florida’s attorney general Tom Watson (1941-1948) to pass Florida’s 1944 “right to work” state constitutional amendment. I argue that the events and actions that shaped the passage of this amendment revealed a concerted effort to weaken workers’ collective notions of civic mindedness and culture and replaced them with individualistic ideals of self-preservation. Employers sought to squash the democratic potential of the New Deal by taking advantage of the conflict among national union labor leaders (AFL vs. CIO) and the nationalistic moment of world war. It represented a turning point when moral economic framings of the right to work were subsumed by a narrower free market conception that made workers into human capital. The study uses Florida archives, the National Association of Manufacturers records, and other organizations such as the Committee for Constitutional Government Inc. to craft this history. Various capitalist entities pushed free labor and free enterprise ideologies during the crisis of WWII and did so through a patriotic rhetoric that maligned organized labor in stereotypical tropes: from red baiting tactics to fear mongering of mob-criminal syndicates or threats of open anarchy. Right to work emerged in a historical context of fear, reframing notions of economic freedom, and helping to foster conservative, defensive, and limited notions of citizenship. This paper analyzes the national, state, and labor contexts that came to define the right to work in individualistic terms and helped undercut collective worker notions of activism.

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 Presented in Session 241. Conservative Backlash and Restrictions on Labor