Reed Larson and the National Right to Work Committee


The National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC) is a major player in the effort to block the pro-union "Card Check" legislation officially called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Behind the curtain at the formation of the NRTWC in 1955 was a group of ultraconservative southern businesspeople who opposed what they called "the bid for dictatorial power on the part of some entrenched union leaders." For 45 years anti-union impresario Reed Larson was executive director of the NRTWC.

When rightists defame community organizers or accuse the Obama administration of imposing socialist collectivism; when you hear phrases such as "big government" or "union bosses"; when the administration of FDR is denounced as a failure—these are rhetorical frames devised to help greedy corporations and wealthy elites retain their unfair power and privilege. Reed Larson and the National Right to Work Committee pioneered these themes as part of a post-WWII realignment on the U.S. political right, which emerged in the late 1970s.

When Larson stepped down in 2003 the Washington Times quoted him as saying: "This has been an opportunity for me to have the greatest impact in defeating the entity I feel is very detrimental to individual freedom…. The unions are for more government, more taxes, more regulation, and they operate under a set of rules and laws that are designed to give special privileges to organized labor."

It was a rare moment of candor in a career spent claiming that he and the National Right to Work Committee were not against unions—just against abuses by unions. That certainly sounds reasonable. Dig a little deeper into that claim, however, and the anti-union quote by the then 80-year-old Larson seems the more accurate reflection of reality. Larson may have let his guard down in talking to the Washington Times, the ultraconservative newspaper owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. He was, after all, talking to a reporter for a key component in the hard right political network that Larson entered in the 1950s as a young and energetic anti-union organizer active in the local Wichita, Kansas Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Since its founding, the NRTWC has been an essential part of a coordinated campaign to undermine the rights of working people to organize on behalf of their economic interest, ensure worksite health and safety, and defend their basic dignity.

Utraconservatives relaunched a campaign for political power after their Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was trounced in the 1964 presidential election. Goldwater and his followers were seen as far to the right of the main branch of the Republican Party. Today, this network, which the NRTWC helped create, has significant influence in the Republican Party.

Even after the election of Obama, the New Right coalition remains a major force in shaping public policy debates in the United States. Through skillful reframing of issues, coalition building, and tireless mobilizing of voters, ultraconservatives have convinced many Americans to oppose the guarantee of basic human rights and dignity to working people both inside and outside of labor unions. And, at the same time, they have stepped on the rights and aspirations of women, people of color, gay people, immigrants, and the working poor.

Although the Republican Party is in disarray, they have not been defeated with one election. To illustrate the ultraconservative frame, here are more quotes from Larson, delivered in 1999 in Michigan at the ultraconservative Hillsdale College in a speech titled "Government-Granted Coercive Power: How Big Labor Blocks the Freedom Agenda":

"The union hierarchy, operating on billions of dollars plucked from workers’ paychecks, comprises a political machine unmatched by any other in America—a political machine whose philosophy consistently lines up with the socialist fringe in its assault on the rights of individual citizens to live their lives free of government intervention.

"Unless we deal with this fundamental injustice, all of the valiant efforts to prevent our country from being engulfed in a flood-tide of leftist social engineering are destined to failure. The special coercive privileges enjoyed by union officials under federal law have enabled them to amass a degree of political power behind their collectivist schemes that no other special interest comes close to matching. Their power to dictate public policy is out of all proportion to the number of persons whose views they truly represent.

"Whatever your concern, whether it be taxes, education, health care, the economy, or myriad other issues that need addressing, you can be assured that the propagation of the statist, anti-freedom position on each of those issues is being funded largely with union money, essentially seized at gun point from workers."

Most working people who have read a union contract, sat through a local union meeting, or been elected a delegate to a national union convention will find these phrases to be overblown rhetoric and, frankly, somewhat bizarre. Historians, political scientists, and sociologists, however, will recognize the language of ultraconservative political ideologues who think America went down the tubes in the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt used "collectivist schemes" of "social engineering" to steer the nation toward "statist, anti-freedom" policies—we know them as Social Security, unemployment insurance, public assistance, low-cost housing, and public health care—were embraced as sensible and useful by most Democrats and Republicans for decades. To see how pervasive these themes are on the political right, try plopping both "collectivist schemes" and "social engineering" into an Internet search engine.

Since the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1960, there has been a serious erosion of support for public policies and programs that seek to "establish justice," "insure domestic tranquility," "promote the general welfare," and "secure the blessings of liberty." The NRTWC played a major role in undermining these promises, but it has not acted alone.

It’s not some secret conspiracy; it is a loosely knit network of intelligent and talented people and groups who marshal profound and passionate ideological arguments in defense of their views. When ultraconservative activists look in the mirror every morning, they think of themselves as patriotic people rescuing America from a "flood-tide of leftist social engineering."

What is the source of these themes? In the late 1930s it was obvious to employer associations that unions were looking to organize the South. The "southern textile industry, for example, presented a tempting target to industrial unionists," explains labor historian Gilbert J. Gall. President Eisenhower, from 1952 to 1954, was sending mixed messages to labor and management on how to reform provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, reported Samuel H. Cohen in the Nation magazine in 1954. Some union leaders suggested mounting a campaign to push for reform or even repeal of the Act, but the effort failed.

Now there is another push for reform of labor laws. Ultraconservatives and other groups promoting unfettered corporate power have now lined up to block the pro-union "Card Check" legislation. A broad coalition is working to pass the legislation. Which side are you on? Let’s get busy.


Chip Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, and a vice president of the Defending Dissent Foundation. His views here are his own.