The misery of the Great Depression generated broad public support in the 1930s for new government guarantees of economic rights of ordinary citizens, such as Social Security, unemployment compensation, federal insurance of bank deposits, job programs, establishment of a minimum wage, child labor laws, and strict regulation of the stock market. For labor unions the federal government guaranteed the right of workers to unionize.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) stated that henceforth the policy of the U.S. government would be to encourage "the practice and procedure of collective bargaining…for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions" of employment. Union leaders often referred to the 1935 act as the "Magna Carta of the labor movement," because among other measures it facilitated the creation of "closed shops" and "union shops," and as a result the number of organized workers in the United States tripled over the next half dozen years.

As part of this increased sense of government responsibility for social and economic needs New Dealers held the "right to work" to be an inviolate part of America’s social contract. When the National Resources and Planning Board in 1942 proclaimed the nine freedoms that President Roosevelt promised would be the foundation for "winning the peace," the first freedom was, "The right to work, usefully and creatively through the productive years." New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, a great champion of organized labor, claimed, "The right to work…means, simply, that people who are fit to work and desirous of working should be able to obtain full-time, regular, productive employment. It means that people should not be idle through no fault of their own."

New Deal opponents, especially financial and commercial interests that feared the encroachment of government power into the free enterprise system, turned the "right to work" phrase on its head, claiming the real infringement of workers’ rights came from requiring union membership in Closed Shops. On Labor Day in 1941 a Dallas newspaperman, William B. Ruggles, wrote an editorial proposing a 22nd amendment to the constitution "guaranteeing the right… to work with or without membership in an organized union."

The adoption of the motherhood slogan "right to work"—instead of "wrong to unionize"—was a masterstroke of political strategy, even if union backers claimed the real translation should have been "the right to wreck" or "the right to scab." As a law review article claimed in 1957, the motherhood phrase of "right to work" sounded like an effort to increase employment, not change requirements for employment. The author observed that "The deceptive nature of the phrase ‘right to work’ led the Idaho Supreme Court to hold that it could not be used as the title of an initiative measure, because it might mislead the voters as to the nature of such legislation."

Passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricting strikes and prohibiting closed shops marked a turning of the tide of the power of unions, and by the time of the Alaska Constitution Convention more than one third of the 48 states had passed some version of "right to work" laws. But in the 1950s Alaska was a union stronghold, and even though the delegates had decided not to include any guarantee of the right to collective bargaining, when Delegate Robertson offered a "right to work" amendment to the Bill of Rights, citing the usual grounds that unions had "no right to deprive an individual of the right to work," there was fierce opposition.

"The phrase, "right-to-work" is a misnomer," said Delegate John Hellenthal, who said the term was an utterly phony piece of propaganda, a union breaker in disguise. "Nothing is farther from the truth than to consider this as a protection for an individual. It is nothing but a device aimed at breaking up the rights of unions to organize and bargain collectively for their members…."

Delegate Johnson said Hellenthal—who had indirectly called Robertson a hypocrite—was engaging in demagoguery, because Section One of the Bill of Rights stated that all persons have a right to "the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry." According to Johnson, "That’s almost identically the same thing as saying they have the right to work and to the fruits of their own industry." According to Johnson the reason to oppose Robertson’s amendment was not because of Hellenthal’s argument, but because the open/closed shop issue was more properly a legislative matter.

In the end 90% of the delegates present agreed that the "right to work" proposal did not belong in the Alaska Bill of Rights; the amendment was defeated by a margin of 47-5.