Home / General / The National Right to Work Committee Keeps Coming for You

The National Right to Work Committee Keeps Coming for You

Lesa Curtis of Westchester, N.Y., right, who is pro agency fees and a former president of her union, rallies outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, as the court heard arguments in the ‘Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association’ case. The justices were to hear arguments in a case that challenges the right of public-employee unions to collect fees from teachers, firefighters and other state and local government workers who choose not to become members. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

One of the most vile organizations in the United States that you may never have heard of is the National Right to Work Committee. Moshe Marvit has an excellent primer on their tremendous evil. Let me just embed a small piece of this long and thorough history.

While the founders of the NRTWC laid the groundwork for its future rise, the person who was most responsible for building it into the force it would become was Reed Larson. Larson was a balding, bespectacled man who spent his early years as an engineer at the Coleman Company in Wichita until he left in 1954 to spearhead right-to-work legislation in Kansas. After successfully steering the legislation to an improbable win—reportedly with the support of oil magnate and Koch-family patriarch Fred—he was plucked from relative obscurity to lead the organization. It was a role he would end up holding for more than 40 years, until 2003, and that he would parley into power and prominence in conservative circles. In 1981 he came in fifth, only two places below President Ronald Reagan, in a poll on the most admired conservative men not in Congress; just three years later, the John Birch Society’s Review of the News hailed him as a “Fighter for Worker Rights” in an “exclusive” interview.

Larson’s genius, as suggested by a flattering 1977 New York Times profile titled “Reed Larson vs. the Union Shop,” lay in the combination of his ambition, which was significant, with a general’s commitment to the use of overwhelming force. Under his watch, the NRTWC grew into a multiheaded operation dedicated to battling labor on multiple, simultaneous fronts. Through the Legal Defense Foundation, it brought a constant rotation of lawsuits all across the country, jamming the courts with cases. Through legislative campaigns, it pushed states to pass right-to-work laws, with an eye to picking off legislatures one by one. It lobbied legislators, backed political candidates, and pushed out an endless stream of letters through a direct-mail machinery so extensive that the organization’s building in Springfield, Virginia, was granted its own ZIP Code by the United States Postal Service. Around the time of the 1965–1970 Delano Grape strike and boycott, it reportedly sold stickers urging people to “eat more grapes.”

To his admirers, such dedication made Larson a hero—”the most gentlemanly of the giants of the conservative movement with the biggest stick and the tallest stature of them all,” gushed Eugene Delgaudio, leader of Public Advocate of the United States (which was dubbed an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), in a tribute after Larson’s death in 2015. In its obituary, The Wall Street Journal saluted him as a “dedicated ‘right to work’ advocate.” Larson’s critics, however, saw him differently. “Reed Larson,” the civil-rights lawyer Joseph Rauh Jr. told the Times in 1977, “is devoted to the destruction of the trade union movement.”

In the end, Larson didn’t succeed in this mission, but he did manage to undermine the labor movement, and to spawn an anti-union apparatus that remains a powerful behind-the-scenes force. Under its current leader, Mark Mix, the NRTWC and its sibling organizations are part of a $30 million operation, according to Guidestar, with high-profile right-wing supporters like the Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (as in Walmart). While the groups have little of the name recognition of conservative allies like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, their reach remains profound, and their fingerprints can be found on many of today’s defining anti-labor efforts: from the 2011 push to pass Act 10 in Wisconsin, which gutted the state’s public-sector unions by, among other things, ending their ability to engage in collective bargaining, to the 2013 “Battle for Chattanooga,” the failed Volkswagen unionization drive.

At times, such relentlessness has gotten the NRTWC into trouble. In 1984, during the height of the Larson era, the committee shelled out $100,000 to hire private detectives to infiltrate Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign as well as the AFL-CIO and NEA, according to comments made by Larson as well as a case filed by the Federal Election Commission (the case was dismissed in 1996 on statute-of-limitation grounds). More recently, ProPublica and PBS Frontline together, followed by local Montana newspapers, traced the NRTWC’s operatives to an elaborate series of front groups that ran off-the-books mailing operations for Republican legislative primary campaigns in Montana in violation of campaign-finance laws. (The scandal was initially unearthed after a box containing NRTWC documents was found in a meth house in Colorado.) Asked to comment on each of those incidents, the organization did not respond.

Nonetheless, the NRTWC’s hardball tactics have continued to pay off, particularly as the pendulum of power has shifted ever farther to the right. Since 2012, the committee and its allies have helped pushed six states—including the important union states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri—into the right-to-work column. (Thanks to popular pushback, Missouri’s law will not go into effect unless it passes a vote in August.) These additions have brought the total number of right-to-work states to 28 and, by some accounts, so thoroughly weakened unions in once-Democratic strongholds that they helped tip the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

Moreover, let’s be clear–Janus is not the end. It is just another step in the long stage of crushing unions. What is coming next year? It ain’t good.

But the NRWLDF is unlikely to stop there: An even more imminent possibility, stemming from the foundation’s right-to-work victories, will likely be the effort to claw back what Justice Alito referred to in his Janus opinion as the “billions of dollars [that] have been taken by nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment.” In other words, now that the NRWLDF, in conjunction with the five conservative Supreme Court justices, has succeeded in crippling unions’ ability to collect future dues, the next move will be to bleed them for past dues.

The Court has already waded into this issue. On May 21, the NRWLDF appealed Riffey v. Rauner to the Supreme Court. This case is built upon the group’s win in the 2014 case, Harris v. Quinn, which imposed “right to work” on hundreds of thousands of home health-care workers. Through Riffey, which failed at the lower courts, the foundation is suing SEIU for $32 million, while also making the radical argument that all the workers who paid fair-share fees should be presumed to have paid involuntarily, whether or not they objected to the union, and should get all their fees returned. It is unclear whether this case will succeed, but it is moving forward: On the day after Janus was decided, as part of the Miscellaneous Orders the Court issues, it quietly granted the appeal, vacated the lower court’s judgment, and remanded it for further consideration in light of Janus.

Refunding 40 years of fair share fees would effectively mean the bankruptcy of public sector unions. This is of course the goal. And it will almost certainly be the result, whether all in one fell swoop or whether Alito and company tee it up with a narrower decision that will then lay the groundwork for the bigger play.

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