Vance Muse and the Racist Origins of Right-to-Work

*This is part of ACSblog's Symposium on Janus v. AFSCME

The Right-to-Work movement is hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court in the upcoming Janus v. AFSCMEcase will invalidate closed shop arrangements among public employee unions. If the Court does so, it will cripple public employee unions and give Right-to-Work the greatest triumph in its seventy-seven year history. Although Right-to-Work forces will hail victory as a triumph for individual workers, an examination of the origins of Right-to-Work suggests that closed shop laws were intended to maintain Jim Crow labor relations and prevent workers from challenging the prerogatives of racist plantation owners and industrialists.

No one was more important in placing Right-to-Work on the conservatives’ political agenda than Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a larger-than-life Texan whose own grandson described him as “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.”[1]

The idea for modern Right-to-Work laws did not originate with Muse. Rather it came from Dallas Morning News’s William Ruggles, who on Labor Day 1941 published an editorial calling for the national prohibition on the closed shop. Muse visited Ruggles soon thereafter and secured the writer’s blessing for the Christian American Association to launch a campaign to outlaw contracts that required employees to belong to unions. Ruggles even suggested to Muse the name for such legislation—Right-to-Work.[2]

Muse had long made a lucrative living lobbying throughout the South on behalf of conservative and corporate interests or, in the words of one of his critics, “playing rich industrialists as suckers.” Over the course of his career, he fought women’s suffrage, worked to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor, lobbied for high tariffs, and sought repeal of the eight-hour workday law for railroaders.[3]

But Muse first attracted national attention through his work with the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution, which sought to deny Roosevelt’s re-nomination in 1936 on grounds that the New Deal threatened the South’s racial order. Among Muse’s activities on behalf of the Southern Committee was the distribution of what Time called “cheap pamphlets containing blurred photographs of the Roosevelts consorting with Negroes” accompanied by “blatant text proclaiming them ardent Negrophiles.” Muse later defended the action and the use of its most provocative photograph: “I am a Southerner and for white supremacy . . . . It was a picture of Mrs. Roosevelt going to some nigger meeting with two escorts, niggers, on each arm.”[4]

In 1936, on the heels of the Southern Committee’s failure to deny Roosevelt’s nomination, Muse incorporated the Christian American Association to continue the fight against the New Deal, offering up a toxic mix of anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Communism, and anti-unionism. Muse and his allies considered the New Deal to be part of the broader assault of “Jewish Marxism” upon Christian free enterprise. The Christian American Association’s titular head, Lewis Valentine Ulrey, explained that after their success in Russia the “Talmudists” had set out to conquer the rest of the world and that they had succeeded in the United States with the enactment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Vance Muse voiced the same anti-Semitic ideas in much simpler terms: “That crazy man in the White House will Sovietize American with the federal hand-outs of the Bum Deal—sorry, New Deal. Or is it the Jew Deal?”[5]

By the early 1940s, Muse and his Christian American Association allies, like many southern conservatives, focused their wrath on the labor movement, especially the unions associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations that were organizing sharecroppers and challenging the legal underpinnings of white supremacy. The Christian American Association solicited wealthy southern planters and industrialists for funds to help break the “strangle hold radical labor has on our government” through the enactment of anti-union laws. The Christian American Association warned that the CIO—which had become shorthand for Jewish Marxist unions—was sending organizers to the rural South to inflame the contented but gullible African-American population as the first step in a plot to Sovietize the nation.[6]

Muse and the Christian Americans initially had little luck selling their Right-to-Work amendment but did have success peddling a pre-packaged anti-strike law to cotton plantation owners and industrialists first in Texas and then later in Mississippi and Arkansas. This law made strikers, but not strikebreakers or management, criminally liable for any violence that occurred on the picket line. For a fee, Muse and his organization would lobby legislators and mobilize public support through newspaper advertisements, direct mail campaigns, and a speakers’ bureau. In Arkansas, Muse and the Christian Americans portrayed the anti-strike measure as a means to allow “peace officers to quell disturbances and keep the color line drawn in our social affairs” and promised that it would “protect the Southern Negro from communistic propaganda and influences.”[7]

The planter-controlled Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allied industrialists were so pleased with the Christian American Association’s success in passing the anti-strike measure that they agreed to underwrite a campaign in 1944 to secure a Right-to-Work amendment for the Arkansas constitution.  This placed Arkansas alongside Florida and California as the first states where voters could cast ballots for Right-to-Work laws. While Muse and the Christian Americans helped with the campaigns in California and Florida, they led the one in Arkansas.[8]

During the Arkansas campaign, the Christian Americans insisted that Right-to-Work was essential for the maintenance of the color line. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor’s threat to the Jim Crow order. It accused the CIO of “trying to pit . . .  black against white.”[9]

In November 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first states to enact Right-to-Work laws (California voters rejected the measure). In the wake of the Arkansas victory, Muse half-heartedly denied the racist and anti-Semitic origins of Right-to-Work: “They call me anti-Jew and anti-nigger. Listen we like the nigger—in his place . . . . Our [Right-to-Work] amendment helps the nigger; it does not discriminate against him.  Good niggers, not those Communist niggers. Jews? Why some of my best friends are Jews. Good Jews.”[10]

It is not coincidental that Right-to-Work first took root in the Jim Crow South. In those states, few blacks could cast free ballots, poll taxes prevented most working-class whites from voting, election fraud was rampant, and political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite. Right-to-Work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines. It would be an incredible irony if, in the name of worker rights, the Supreme Court incorporates Right-to-Work into the U.S. Constitution.


[1] Vance Muse [III], “Making Peace with Grandfather,” Texas Monthly (February 1986): 116.

[2] George N. Green, “Establishing the Texas Far Right, 1940-1960,” in The Texas Right: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Conservatism, ed. David O’Donald and Kyle G. Wilkison (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2014), 90-91;  Cheryl Hall, “DMN Writer Coined term ‘Right to Work,’ Opposed Forced Union Membership,” Dallas Morning News, July 12, 2010, (accessed July 6, 2016); “William Ruggle’s Labor Day editorial on the Right to Work,” National Institute for Labor Relations (accessed July 6, 2016).

[3] Walter Davenport, “Savior From Texas,” Collier’s 116 (August 18, 1945): 13, 79-82; Stetson Kennedy, Southern Exposure (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1946), 251; John Roy Carlson, The Plotters (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1946), 271 (suckers quotation).

[4] “Black on Blacks,” Time, April 27, 1936, pp. 12-13; Vance Muse [III], “Making Peace with Grandfather,” Texas Monthly (February 1986): 142 (Muse quotation);

[5] Davenport, “Savior From Texas,” 79; Victor Reisel, “Let’s Look at Labor: IV. How to Choke Unions,” The Nation 157 (July 31, 1943): 124 (Ulrey quotation); Vance Muse [III], “Making Peace with Grandfather,” Texas Monthly (February 1986): 116 (Muse quotation).

[6][6] Vance Muse to E. W. Montgomery, August 20, 1941 (strangle hold quotation), series 3, subseries 1, box 114, James Eastland Papers, Archives and Special Collections, University of Mississippi Libraries, Oxford; The Christian American (newsletter), August 1941, ibid.

[7] Stetson Kennedy, Southern Exposure (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1946), 250 (peace officers quotation); Untitled pamphlet sent to Christian American Association supporters and signed by Vance Muse (Secretary-Treasurer) and Lewis Valentine Ulrey (chairman), reprinted in Fort Smith Labor News, October 29, 1943, p. 1 (protect quotation).

[8] The Christian American Association documented the start of the Right-to-Work movement in Arkansas in a pamphlet titled “Arkansas Travels.” This pamphlet was serialized in the Fort Smith Union News from January 4 through May 17, 1944.

[9] Stetson Kennedy, Southern Exposure, 84 (apes quotation); “‘Lastus with the Leastus’ (An Editorial),” Arkansas Farm Bureau Press (March 1945), p. 2 (black again white quotation).

[10] Walter Davenport, “Savior From Texas,” 82.

Free Speech and Government Employment: A Plea for Consistency and Fairness

*This is part of ACSblog's Symposium on Janus v. AFSCME

Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 presents a First Amendment challenge to Illinois public-sector labor-relations statutes and contracts that require union-represented employees to pay a fee to the union for services that the union is required by law to provide. Hundreds of such municipal and state laws have been on the books for over half a century in about half the states, and the Supreme rejected a First Amendment challenge to them in 1977 in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. To overturn this settled practice will upend labor relations affecting tens of thousands of teachers, first responders, health care providers, clerks, and other public servants. To rule for the challengers will also require the Supreme Court to make new law in the area of free speech with implications far beyond the working conditions of public employees.

Collective bargaining in both the public and private sector is modeled on political democracy. A union is elected by a majority. Like an elected government, it develops and implements rules governing the community and must be able to charge those whom it represents for the cost of doing so. In the political sphere those payments are known as taxes; in the workplace they are known as dues (for those who choose to join the union) or agency fees or fair-share fees (for those who don’t).

Unlike elected political leaders, however, unions have a duty to represent all fairly. This legally enforceable duty of fair representation prohibits union representatives from discriminating against those who oppose or choose not to join the union. And it requires unions to provide services to all, not just to those who pay their fair share.

Janus argues that nobody should have to pay fees because paying the fee is speech, or at least it is a subsidy for speech, and the government cannot compel speech. The Supreme Court would never accept this argument about taxes. If taxes were optional, people would free ride on the bus or on their neighbor’s willingness to pay taxes to fund schools and parks. Nor would anyone claim that a private organization (which is what a union is) must give away services for free: airlines don’t have to let passengers fly free, and insurance companies don’t have to pay the medical bills of someone who didn’t purchase insurance. As Justice Antonin Scalia explained in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, in which the Court unanimously upheld a Michigan law requiring fair-share fees, “where the state creates in the nonmembers a legal entitlement from the union, it may compel them to pay the cost.”

The business groups who challenge Illinois law in Janus argue that the burden on unions is small because they benefit from the opportunity to bargain and because the burden of providing free representation is small. They rely on the Court’s 2014 decision in Harris v. Quinn, which invalidated an Illinois law providing for fair-share fees for home-care workers because, in the Court’s judgment, that particular legal regime gave the union insufficient responsibilities in contract negotiation or administration to warrant charging nonmembers. The Harris Court minimized the significance of the statutory requirement of fair representation, explaining that “private speech often furthers the interests of nonspeakers, and that does not alone empower the state to compel the speech to be paid for.” But there is no other circumstance where, as Justice Scalia emphasized in Lehnert, the law allows “free riders whom the law requires the union to carry--indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests.”

The threat of free riding prompted the Supreme Court to reject First Amendment challenges to compulsory bar dues for lawyers (Keller v. State Bar of California), and compulsory student-activity fees at public universities (Board of Regents v. Southworth) even though such dues and fees are used to fund speech with which some lawyers and some students disagree. Harris distinguished bar dues and student fees on the ground that the state has a greater interest in requiring lawyers and students to fund the admission, discipline and student activity systems than did Illinois in requiring home-care workers to fund the negotiation and administration of a contract. But that distinction is not available in Janus: given the importance to state and local governments of managing their workforces, it would be a shocking departure from federalism principles for the Supreme Court to decide that governments have no interest in requiring cost-sharing of the elaborate personnel processes that public employment often entails.

What Janus asks the Court to rule is unprecedented elsewhere in the law. Cities routinely hire lobbyists to protect their interests in state and federal legislatures. Could taxpayers object to cities using their funds to engage in lobbying with which the taxpayers disagree?  Every employee who is covered by a health or pension plan contributes some tiny amount to the insurance company’s lobbying or other political speech or a pension plan’s investment in companies that engage in speech with which the employee may disagree. Neither taxpayers nor pension or health plan participants can object to government or plan lobbying or other speech because we treat it as the speech of the organization, not the individual.

  The rules should be the same for unions as other private organizations that collect mandatory fees for services. Unions have a First Amendment right to spend their money to advance the goals chosen by the elected leadership. If it violates an objecting employee’s free speech right to pay her fair share of contract negotiation and administration, why does it not equally violate the rights of the union and its members to force them to use their money to enforce the contract rights of the free rider? It can’t be the dissenting nonmember has First Amendment right not to pay for very same thing that the union and its members are required by the duty of fair representation to provide to that nonmember.

 A balanced approach to the First Amendment would reject the compelled speech claim. Contractually required fees for union representational services are no more a compelled subsidy for expressive activity than is the union’s duty to provide fair representation to all represented employees. Like insurance companies, homeowners’ associations, and utility companies, unions pool money contributed by many stakeholders and spend it to provide services and to engage in expressive activity. When they do so, they advance the interests of the entity and its stakeholders who support the action, and, sometimes, they thwart the interests of stakeholders who oppose it. But they do not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights because the speech is the entity’s, not that of the individual stakeholders.

It is important to remember that government employees have no First Amendment rights to engage in speech on the job. In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court held that a deputy district attorney had no First Amendment protection for writing a memo to his supervisor raising concerns about the use of possibly false police testimony in a criminal case. In Borough of Duryea v. Guarnierithe Court held that a police chief had no First Amendment protection for complaints he made about oversight of how he did his job. Because government employees have no First Amendment right to speak to their supervisors about their working conditions, it is logically inconsistent to say they have a right not to pay the cost of such speech. The Court should not hold there is a First Amendment right to refuse to pay money to support speech that is not itself protected by the First Amendment. In all other compelled-speech cases, including its compelled-fee cases, the speech that was being compelled was protected by the First Amendment. In West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the original compelled-speech case, the right to refuse to salute the flag existed because a flag salute is First Amendment speech.

One final thought about the implications of a ruling for Janus. If government employees cannot be compelled to pay their fair share of collective bargaining because the negotiation and administration of a contract is First Amendment speech, does that mean that collective bargaining is speech protected by the First Amendment? Do employees therefore have a First Amendment right to bargain collectively? Does it call into doubt content-based restrictions on which employees may bargain, such as Wisconsin enacted after Scott Walker’s election 2011 when it stripped bargaining rights from teachers but left them for police officers, or such as many states have that prevent teachers from bargaining over class size but allow them to bargain over pay? One doubts the Court would so hold. Or is the Court truly prepared to hold that the only First Amendment right government employees have regarding speech related to their working conditions is the right not to pay fees to their union?

Beware the Unintended Consequences of Janus

*This is part of ACSblog's Symposium on Janus v. AFSCME

With oral argument scheduled February 26 and Justice Gorsuch on the bench, conventional wisdom is that the Supreme Court is poised to reverse forty years of precedent in Janus v. AFSCMEJanus is one piece of a longstanding campaign by conservative groups to reduce the power of unions.The desires of many conservatives to weaken unions by removing their power to collect fees from employees they are compelled by law to represent appear to have blinded them to the potential unintended consequences of Janus. A brief filed by conservative scholars, however, reveals that some are beginning to awaken to the potential for Janus to disrupt existing constitutional doctrine, the ability of government employers to control their workforces, and stable labor relations in the United States.

The uniquely American system of labor relations relies on the doctrine of exclusive representation to insure that employers will have to deal with only one union, if chosen by a majority, for each bargaining unit of employees that have similar jobs and common interests.  As a corollary, the union is required to represent all employees in the bargaining unit fairly, even if the employees choose not to join the union. Because the union is mandated to represent the employees, many states allow the union to charge nonmembers a fee for representation. In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld such fees as constitutional in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education so long as the fees were used for collective bargaining and contract administration and not for any unrelated activities of the union. Janus, however, argues that Abood must be overturned because all activities of the union, including collective bargaining and contract administration, constitute protected political speech, and the plaintiff cannot be compelled to fund such speech.

The consequences of a ruling for the plaintiff are enormous, and not just for unions. If one pillar of the labor relations system is removed, the system may disintegrate, resulting in multiple unions representing the same groups of employees, competing with one another to obtain the best contract for their members.The employer will be required to contend with several unions demanding different wages and working conditions. Further, unions and their members will have their own constitutional claims if unions are required to represent employees without compensation. The speech rights of unions and their members are impaired if they must expend resources that could otherwise be used for their own speech to represent nonmembers without compensation. Additionally, if the objecting nonmembers have a right not to associate with the union, then the union members have a corresponding right not to associate with the objectors. Also, a mandate for free representation implicates due process, for the union’s property is being taken without compensation.

A ruling that all union activity is political speech has additional ramifications. Courts have regularly ruled that states like Wisconsin can provide collective bargaining rights to some groups of employees and not others, using the rational basis test to find no equal protection violation. Similarly, courts have allowed states to provide payroll deduction to some groups and not others on the same grounds. But if all union activity is protected political speech, then these distinctions implicate fundamental rights, invoking strict scrutiny for such classifications. Thus, the differential treatment of employee groups by the states may not survive. Indeed, unions may even have an argument that there is a constitutional right to collective bargaining.

Equally unlikely to survive are many governmental employer restrictions on employee speech. A long line of cases allows government employers to impose various restrictions on employee speech. The Supreme Court distinguishes employee speech from citizen speech, permitting employers to limit and control employee speech in the interests of the government as employer. When employees speak about their own terms and conditions of employment as opposed to matters of concern to the public, employers typically prevail in cases where they have disciplined or discharged employees for their speech. A ruling in favor of the Janus plaintiffs could obliterate the distinction, requiring employers to tolerate much unwanted speech by their employees.

Finally, if Janus prevails, the case will cast doubt on many other situations where the government requires payments from individuals that are used for purposes to which they object. As scholars, unions, and indeed the Court itself, have noted, taxesbar duesuniversity student feesutility billsinsurance premiumsgovernment pension fundscontinuing education requirements for licensing, and homeowners’ association dues involve government-compelled payments, sometimes to third party organizations that may use them for lobbying or other activity objectionable to those making the payments. If such payments are open to challenge on First Amendment grounds, the Court may have opened Pandora’s box.

There is a simple way to keep Pandora’s box closed. Reject the arguments of the Janus plaintiff and reaffirm Abood, which has served the country well for more than forty years.

Using History to See the Glass Part Full in Janus v. AFSCME

*This is part of ACSblog's Symposium on Janus v. AFSCME

This term, the Court in Janus v. AFSCME will decide the constitutional fate of fair-share fees for public sector unions. These fees support unions’ collective bargaining work on behalf of employees they are legally required to represent but who are not union members. Most prognosticators expect the Court to hand the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF) a win on its claim that such fees violate the First Amendment rights of non-union workers. Yet, as I develop further below, the history that led to Janusoffers three thin rays of hope to the labor movement.

First, history highlights the role principled conservative justices have played in thwarting right-to-work advocates’ prior attacks on union fees, pointing the way to a possible victory for unions in Janus. In 1977, the Supreme Court decided Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the decision that found fair-share fee agreements for public-sector unions constitutional and which the petitioners in Janus seek to overturn. At the time, the idea that public-sector workers had any First Amendment protections on the job was both new and contested. During the 1950s and 60s, the Court gradually recognized but inconsistently applied constitutional protections to public-sector workers. Not until the Court’s 1968 decision in Pickering v. Board of Education did it clearly establish that the First Amendment protected government employees. In the eyes of the conservative justices Nixon appointed to the Court soon after, Pickering was a dangerous precedent. Over the next years, they joined majorities dismissing government workers’ First Amendment claims and dissented from decisions granting them.

When NRTWLDF argued in Abood that all the fees unions charged non-members were unconstitutional compelled speech, only Justice Rehnquist was consistent. His fellow Nixon appointees thought the majority was mistaken to find the fees unions charged to negotiate and administer collective bargaining agreements on behalf of non-members constitutional. Rehnquist, in contrast, joined the majority. As he explained in a concurrence, Rehnquist was “unable to see a constitutional distinction between [the] governmentally imposed requirement” in Abood and that in Elrod v. Burns, a recent First Amendment challenge brought by government workers, which he and his fellow Nixon appointees had argued in dissent should have been rejected. Rehnquist took this position despite agreeing with NRTWLDF that the fair-share fees allowed under Abood supported political speech.

Twelve years later in Communications Workers of America v. Beck, NRTWLDF tried to convince the Supreme Court to apply Abood to private-sector unions under either the First Amendment or federal labor law. President Reagan’s Solicitor General, Charles Fried, despite intense pressure from within and outside the administration, rejected the NRTWLDF’s claims in full. So did the Reagan-appointed Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as Nixon appointee Justice Harry Blackmun. (The rest of the Court crafted a statutory analogue to Abood.) Conservatives had once again put constitutional principle ahead of any sympathy for right-to-work claims.

Will NRTWLDF confront any principled conservatives this time around? There is good reason to be skeptical. All the Court’s conservative justices save Justice Gorsuch have authored or signed on to opinions in the last dozen years that indicate a cautiousness about government workers’ First Amendment rights. However, they also all voted to overturn Abood when an equally divided Court left it intact in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the last constitutional challenge to public-sector fair-share fees. Nonetheless, the best chance for preserving public-sector fair-share fees may lie with convincing at least one of those justices to follow their predecessors and be cautious about right-to-work litigants’ First Amendment claims just as they are about those made by other government workers.

Second, even if NRTWLDF wins before the Court, the history of right-to-work litigation highlights that the very compromise such an outcome will require of conservative justices may offer a silver lining for unions and workers. Just as NRTWLDF lawyers saw great opportunity for their cause in Pickering, their win in Janus could create opportunities for public-sector workers and their unions. One way conservative justices have limited Pickering is to narrowly define the speech “upon matters of public concern” that Pickeringprotects. In a recent right-to-work case, Harris v. Quinn, Justice Alito, writing for a five-justice majority, reasoned in dicta that fair-share fees implicated protected matters of public concern.

The Court in Janus may find a way to hold Pickering inapplicable to fair-share fees. Even so, if it overturns Abood, it will likely find that everything public sector unions do, including collective bargaining over terms and conditions of work, involves political speech. That could still open the door to future Pickering protection of such speech, as well as the expression of other political opinions. Indeed, Reagan’s former Solicitor General Fried co-authored an amicus brief in Janus warning the Court against adopting NRTWLDF’s argument that all union speech is political speech. Such a holding, he and his co-author, Robert Post, caution, would disrupt the framework built since Pickering to limit the scope of those rights, “set[ting] in motion drastic changes in First Amendment doctrine that essentially threaten to constitutionalize every workplace dispute.” This could be good news for unions and workers, as legal scholars such as James Pope and labor advocates such as Shuan Richman have argued.

Third, should an NRTWLDF victory not provide the quick path to Pickering protections Fried predicts, the history that led to Janus is a testament to advocates’ ability to dramatically alter constitutional law, offering promise that right-to-work advocates’ victory today can be bent to benefit workers’ collective voice in the workplace tomorrow. The first constitutional challenge to union fees was brought seventy years ago by Cecil B. DeMille, a famous movie mogul and radio host. The California Supreme Court easily dismissed his case in DeMille v. American Federation of Radio Artists, finding that the fee his union levied to oppose a state right-to-work law did not compel or express DeMille’s speech. “The member and the association are distinct,” the court reasoned, so the money spent and the message sent were the union’s not DeMille’s. The U.S. Supreme Court declined review.

In response, DeMille and other right-to-work proponents embarked on a decades-long campaign to change how courts viewed the constitutionality of union fees. Critically, they engaged not only in coordinated litigation, but also political education and popular mobilization. They sought favorable news coverage and made the constitutional case against union fees in speeches, newsletters, and films. They described the push for right to work as a civil rights struggle, seeking to harness that term’s cachet. As DeMille’s political strategist counseled, they also hid the industrialists and wealthy individuals backing their efforts and “calling the shots” behind a public face of “housewives, farmers, small businessmen, professional people, and wage earners.”

Thanks in part to their popular constitutionalist campaign, right-to-work advocates made steady headway in the courts. In the 1950s, they brought numerous suits asserting that all union fees were unconstitutional. While they lost that claim, they got the Supreme Court to state for the first time that union fees for political expenditures raised First Amendment concerns. In the 1960s, NRTWLDF helped generate the case that became Abood. NRTWLDF again failed to establish the unconstitutionality of all union fees but it finally secured the narrower constitutional claim DeMille had made in his unsuccessful suit. Now, NRTWLDF is poised to win the claim right-to-work proponents first made sixty years ago: that all union fees, even fair-share fees, are unconstitutional.

Constitutional claims in general, and First Amendment claims in particular, have long been off limits for unions because of the right-to-work threat. Resolving that threat against the unions in Janus will open the door for them to reclaim the freedoms of association and speech that once buoyed the labor movement. Outside the courts, those claims may prove a potent tool for organizing as well as for making the case for worker organization and concerted action to the public. As the history that led to Janus demonstrates, integrating public education, popular mobilization, and legislative campaigning with litigation can fundamentally change constitutional law within the courts as well.

This post draws on her book, The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right.