A History of Right to Work Laws as Right-Wing Projects on Behalf of Organized Wealth Original research as a resource for people defending Labor Fairness against so-called "Right to Work" laws, which are more accurately called Union Busting laws.

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Right to Work & the John Birch Society

The Right to Work movement is intertwined with the ultraconservative John Birch Society, and has been since the JBS was founded in 1958. This is significant because the John Birch Society, once shunned by Republicans, is now at the center of the ultraconservative revolt that has pulled the GOP far to the political Right. Right-Wing demagogues such as Glenn Beck pluck many of their lurid conspiracy theories from the pages of JBS literature, which warns of collectivist conspiracies to control the government and manipulate the money supply.

Current conspiracy material from the John Birch Society, circa 2011
The "conspiratorial critique was begun in earnest” by the John Birch Society in the early 1960s. In 1962 the JBS published None Dare Call it Conspiracy, which “identified the CFR as pro-communist.”

The National Right to Work Committee shares numerous affinities with the John Birch Society, and both are mainstays of ultraconservative organizing stretching back into the 1950s. Edwin S. Dillard was the National Right to Work Committee’s first chairman back in 1955, and he became an endorser of the John Birch Society after it was founded in 1959.

In 1966 one of the National Right to Work Committee’s board of directors was listed as “homemaker” Mrs. Kennedy Smith. Mary Smith was also the vice president of Ben Venue Laboratories, with $16 million in annual sales. Her husband was chairman and president of Ben Venue Laboratories. Mary Smith was an activist in the John Birch Society, and a national committee member of the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE), established by JBS leader Robert Welch to “prevent the further corruption of American morals and manners by the evil forces of a clandestine revolution.” MOTOREDE called public school sex education programs “part of the overall Communist design.” MOTOREDE also sought to block reproductive rights.

The collaborative relationship between the National Right to Work Committee and the JBS continued at least through the 1970s. For example, Reed Larson and other figures affiliated with the NRTWC were guests on the weekly Manion Forum radio program hosted by Clarence Manion, a member of the National Council of the JBS.

Why does this matter? Because the Birch Society was a group designed to pull ultraconservatives even further to the political right and into the realm of conspiracy theories.

Founded by Robert Welch, the Birch Society blended Christian Right, business nationalist, and libertarian themes, gluing them together with allegations of vast conspiracies of powerful secret elites in league with communists. Among the subversive plotters targeted by Birch publications were politicians, bankers, corporate executives, journalists, academics, and, unsurprisingly, labor union leaders.

Author David A. Neobel, who worked closely with the John Birch Society, issued numerous books on the alleged communist conspiracy.

A David A.Noebel Conspiracy Reading List

  • (1965): Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles.
  • (1966): Rhythm, Riots and Revolution.
  • (1974): Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook on Communist Subversion of Music.
  • (1977): The Homosexual Revolution.
  • (1992): Understanding the Times: The Story of the Biblical Christian, Marxist/Leninist and Secular Humanist Worldviews.

Robert Welch: Founder of the John Birch Society

While this type of anticommunism was fading in public favor in the 1970s with the rise of the New Right, Red-Baiting was still a common way to attack unions in the 1960s. The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 allowed employers to distribute anti-union literature during union organizing drives. Nothing, however, stopped them from saturating society with similar materials. Sara Diamond wrote:

By 1963, corporations were spending an estimated $25 million per year on anticommunist literature... Some corporations circulated print and audio-visual materials produced by the John Birch Society; other corporations produced their own in-house literature...By the early 1960s, the Nation magazine reported that there was a minimum of 6,600 corporate-financed anticommunist broadcasts, carried by more than 1,300 radio and television stations at a total annual budget of about $20 million...Leading sponsors included Texas oil billionaire H.L. Hunt and [J. Howard] Pew of Sun Oil. The corporate sector’s massive anticommunist propaganda campaigns created a favorable climate for the mobilization of activist groups like the John Birch Society.

The JBS gained notoriety by claiming the Civil Rights movement was a communist plot. Conspiracy theories are central to the worldview of the John Birch Society, as its current publications make it plain to see. The Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, once claimed that moderate Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist, writing that his:

firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.

Even JBS members found this claim by Welch hard to swallow.

The Birch Society published copious amounts of conspiracist material, including books, magazines, films, and filmstrips with accompanying 33rpm records for audio.

At the left is a reprint pamphlet made from an article in the JBS publication, Review of the News.

American Opinion was the main JBS magazine in the 1960s. The 1964 masthead of American Opinion read like a Who’s Who of ultraconservatism: Associate Editors included Revilo P. Oliver and E. Merrill Root; Contributing Editors included Medford Evans and Hans Sennholz; the Editorial Advisory Committee featured Clarence Manion, Ludwig Von Mises, J. Howard Pew, and Robert W. Stoddard.

In addition to founding the John Birch Society, Robert Welch served on the board of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers, and ran a project critical of public education for that group. Welch brought other people involved with NAM into the Birch society.

Other NAM leaders were also not shy about promoting their ultraconservative political views. For example, when Ernest G. was the president of NAM in 1957, Swigert sent copies of the ultraconservative book The People’s Potage to “Divisional and Regional Personnel” of NAM.

The book claims that there was a revolution during the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal that destroyed liberty and freedom in America and imposed a neo-Marxian Welfare State on the nation. Swigert said the book “comes closer to anything I have ever seen in print to describe what NAM is really trying to do, and particularly why NAM exists.” Welch of the JBS considered Swigert an “old friend,” and “Swigert continued to meet with Welch and the JBS board of directors into the mid-1960s.”

Current conspiracy material from the John Birch Society, circa 2011

In 1961 and 1965 the John Birch Society published a reprint of Garrett’s The People’s Pottage through its publishing arms, as part of a series called the “The Americanist Library.” Other titles in the JBS series included Dan Smoot’s book None Dare Call it Conspiracy; a print version of a 60,000 word speech by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy claiming FDR sold out American interests to Russia at the Yalta conference at the end of World War II; and The Kohler Strike by Sylvester Petro, an attack on the National Labor Relations Board.

The same ultraconservative arguments—even the same rhetoric—flow from the National Association of Manufacturers to the John Birch Society to the National Right to Work Committee. This type of sharing of themes and concepts among various like-minded groups is typical of how political and social movements interact and help build a growing sense of a shift in public perception and support. This also illustrates that multi-faceted approaches and coalition-building among ultraconservatives was not new to the New Right.

The JBS continued attacking labor unions, with material in the 1970s sporting titles such as “OSHSTAPO – Warning: It’s Against the Law to Have an Accident!,” and “Big Labor and the Congress.”

Robert Welch died in 1985, but the JBS rebounded after a period of decline, and today the organization continues its mission. In a tribute to its founder, a JBS article explained that “Robert Welch launched an unprecedented movement to expose and rout the worldwide collectivist conspiracy.”

Reed Larson and the JBS Interview

In 1984 Reed Larson gave an exclusive interview to the John Birch Society publication, Review of the News. The interviewer was John Rees, who had been an editor for Western Goals Foundation publications.

Described as a “Fighter for Worker Rights,” Larson was asked about the power of labor unions.

JBS. You are talking about political power.

Larson. I think union officials should enjoy the same rights and freedoms as everyone else, but no more. That’s the problem. Today they are specially privileged individuals. In fact, as Nobel-laureate Friedrich Hayek has put it: “We have now reached a state where unions have become uniquely privileged institutions….It cannot be stressed enough that the coercion that the unions have been permitted to exercise contrary to all principles of freedom under the law is primarily

the coercion of fellow workers.” That’s the problem which our National Right to Work Committee is out to solve.

Tremendous political power has been put in the hands of union officials; and that power, almost without exception, is used on the side of collectivism, more government, less individual freedom, and greater control of the individual.

A look at the current positions of the nation’s largest union the National Education Association—shows that the union position in the philosophical spectrum has changed little.

Here’s where the N.E.A. stands:

It is for gun control; for decriminalization of marijuana; for homosexual rights; against Right to Work; and, for National Health Insurance; it wants less national defense; is for the E.R.A.; for abortion on demand; against a balanced federal Budget; it wants reduced aid to anti-Communists in Central America; it is against nuclear weapons; against teaching creationism in schools; and, against school prayer.

Larson’s political preferences are clear in this list of what he claims are NEA policy positions, as is his cordial working relationship with the John Birch Society. Larson not only grants an exclusive interview to the John Birch Society magazine, but in another section of the interview, Larson indicates that he is a careful reader of the periodical. He continues to worry about “collectivism” in 1984, which even George Orwell might find a stretch. Note the reference to economist Friedrich von Hayek who put anti-New Deal economic libertarianism on the political map in the 1940s.

Next: The Union Busting Propaganda Machine

Notes


Bellant, Coors Connection, pp. 43-44.

Group Research, The Organized Right Wing Versus Organized Labor, p. 1; Wynn, et al., “Report,” p. 5, note 39, citing Group Research, and also deposition of Edwin S. Dillard, 1981, August 5, UAW v. National Right to Work Foundation, 1973, pp. 1-37.

Winn, et al., “Report,” p. 30; citing in note 200, a NRTWC brochure from circa 1981.

Winn, et al., “Report,” p. 30; citing in note 202, John Birch Society Bulletin, January 1970, p. 30; John Birch Society Bulletin, January 1969, pp. 16-23.

On File at PRA.

Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 175-185.

Diamond, Roads to Dominion, p. 52; citing in footnote 78, Alan F. Westin, 1963, “Anti-Communism and the Corporations,” Commentary, December, pp. 479-487.

Diamond, Roads to Dominion, p. 52.

Welch, Politician, unpublished version, p. 267. ]]]check PRA library.

Burch, “The NAM as an Interest Group,” Lyons, “Business Conflict and Right-Wing Movements,” Seldes, "Postscript: NAM and the John Birch Society," in Never Tire of Protesting, p. 124.

Ernest G. Swigert, letter, February 1, 1957, to Divisional and Regional Personnel, NAM stationery, Office of the President, on file at PRA.

Garrett, The People’s Pottage. This summary, lest one think there is exaggeration, is based on the text of the back cover blurb.

Ernest G. Swigert, letter, February 1, 1957, to Divisional and Regional Personnel, NAM stationery, Office of the President, on file at PRA.

William F. Jasper, 1999, “Americanism's Standard-bearer,” The New American (John Birch Society), Vol. 15, No. 25, December 6, http://www.thenewamerican.com/tna/1999/12-06-99/vo15no25_welch.htm.

“A Fighter for Worker Rights: Reed Larson,” 1984, interview with John Rees, The Review of the News, Februrary 22, pp. 39-46.


The Union-Busting Collection:

  1. Introduction
  2. Who is Reed Larson? Roots in Kansas
  3. The National Right to Work Committee is Founded
  4. Larson & Hardball Anti-Union Propaganda
  5. Right to Work & the John Birch Society
  6. The Union Busting Propaganda Machine
  7. Union Busting, States’ Rights, Culture Wars, and Race
  8. The Old Christian Right & the Anti-Union Alliance

More Resources

"Right to Work" Means "Union Busting"
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See the spiderweb chart of right-wing funders and anti-union think tanks.

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This chart illustrates that three times since the early 1960s a strategic ultra-conservative coalition has mobilized to move the Republican Party to the Right.

Read this Report on the Right-Wing Juggernaut

Politics In America: the American Right, by Joanne Ricca, of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, who with a handful of other labor and progressive journalists began tracking the right-wing juggernaut 30 years ago. In PDF format at the union's website.

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