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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The National Right to Work Committee
is Founded

Behind the curtain at the formation of the National Right to Work Committee in 1955 was a group of ultraconservative southern businessmen who opposed what they called “the bid for dictatorial power on the part of some entrenched union leaders.” Since the late 1930s it had been 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 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, and some union leaders suggested mounting a campaign to push for reform or even repeal of the Act.

During this period, Gall points out, “The most active proponents of right-to-work laws continued to be employers associations of one type or another; this was as true in 1954 and 1955 as it had been in 1947.”

By 1955, however, public sentiment had shifted against McCarthy and his allies, and the influence of other anticommunist anti-union groups such as the DeMille Foundation began to decline. In addition, overt anti-Semitism, racism, and opposition to integration, while still very much a part of public debate, had undermined the moral authority of groups such as the Christian American Association. Some employers had stopped working with CAA as early as 1947.

A national united front against union organizing was going to have to be based on a new sales pitch. There needed to be a new way to create the impression that there was mass public support for Right-to-Work laws on both the state and federal level. It would be most efficient to coordinate those campaigns through a central organization. It was in this context that the National Right to Work Committee was founded in 1955 and based in Washington, D.C. “Heretofore, organized labor had for the most part faced isolated state by state campaigns,” says Gall. One labor leader, George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, warned that the labor movement now faced the possibility of (in Gall’s words), “an organized assault by a coalition of the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the new NRTWC.”

The website of the National Right to Work Commitee features this banner flag and slogan.
The name of the organization is a registered trademark, and is used here as an illustration.

The first president of the National Right to Work Committee in 1955 was Fred A. Hartley—the same Hartley who co-sponsored the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. After leaving Congress in 1948, Hartley became “president of the management-minded Tool Owners Union,” an ultra-conservative lobbying group founded in 1946 that represented “investors, farmers, small business men and those who live on savings or income from property.”

Organized labor bristled at the use of the term “Union,” in the name, especially given the group’s pro-management positions, and the fact that members could not vote on policy. The Board of Standards and Appeals of the New York State Labor Department refused to grant the Tool Owners Union a certificate to operate in that state, charging “No more fascistic organization, with all the potentialities for undemocratic action and danger to our way of life, has yet come before the official attention of this board.” The use of the term “Union” in the title was found to be misleading. Hartley was harshly criticized for his new lobbying role.

In 1950, according to the New York Times, Hartley tried to form “a right-of-center political group” to oppose “big labor groups” such as the AFL and CIO. To block labor organizing, Hartley said “right-wingers had better start ringing doorbells.” Hartley was reported as starting a “right-wing political organization to rival the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Political Action Committee and the American Federation of Labor’s League for Political Education.” This plan does not appear to have moved forward. Hartley then hit the lecture circuit, with some one hundred appearances a year “before business and civic groups around the country,” with the topic “The Truth about the Taft-Hartley Act,” in which he defended the Act against critics who said it undermined the ability of unions to organize.

The National Right to Work Committee’s first chairman of the board was Edwin S. Dillard, an anti-union activist and president of the Old Dominion Box Company with plants in the South. A few years later Dillard would become an endorser of the ultraconservative John Birch Society (JBS). In announcing the formation of the Committee on January 28, 1955, Dillard said it would work on a national level and that it sought “To establish in the United States the principle that Americans must have the right, but not be compelled, to join labor unions.”

It was Dillard, Hartley, and a well-known anti-union attorney, Whiteford Blakeney, who pulled together the Committee. A public relations firm, Selvage and Lee was hired to handle publicity. James P. Selvage had previously handled public relations for the National Association of Manufacturers from 1933 to 1938. As general counsel, the Committee tapped John Gall, also general counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers. After a year, Blakeney replaced Gall as general counsel. “Not a single wage-earning, nonsupervisory employee as present at the Committee’s formative meeting in December 1954.” To correct this in the future, handpicked working people with anti-union sentiments were named to the board of directors.

The Committee grew quickly, with generous support from employer associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. In 1956 the Committee raised $46,000 and the next year the amount increased to $272,000. The increase fueled a national campaign to attempt to pass Right to Work laws in fifteen states, and resist the efforts by union supporters to repeal existing laws in twelve states.

An article in Time Magazine helps establish the business agenda for the year 1956:

When the 3,500 delegates to the 61st Congress of the National Association of Manufacturers met in Manhattan last week, their avowed theme was the “new dimensions” beckoning the modern businessman. But most of the N.A.M.’s attention was devoted to such perennial targets as union activity (“encroachment on individual rights”) and big government (“The termites of welfare statism eat out the foundations of our society”).

Ernest G. Swigert was the new NAM president, and he echoed the theme of rollback of the New Deal, saying “We must make a complete change in our whole theory of taxation. The tax system should be designed for raising revenue and not for reforming society.” Swigert would later pursue this agenda through his affiliation with the John Birch Society.

As labor unions began to mobilize a broader base of opposition to right to Work laws, they achieved more success, especially in a hard fought campaign in Ohio in 1958. What that meant for the National Right to Work Committee was that between its founding in 1955 and 1958, the Committee had little success in helping pass statewide laws restricting the union shop. So in 1958 the Committee shifted its focus back to the national level.

Next: Larson & Hardball Anti-Union Propaganda

Notes:

Wynn, et al., “Report.”

Gall, The Politics of Right to Work.

Cohen, “Taft-Hartley: In Labor’s View.”

Gall, The Politics of Right to Work.

Ibid.

New York Times; Wynn, et al., “Report,”

State Bars ‘Union’ For Fascist Form, New York Times; “Tool Owners, Once Held Fascistic, Sues to Force State Recognition,” New York Times; “‘ Tool Owners’ Lose Appeal as a ‘Union’; New York Times, online archive.

Louis Stark, 1949, New York Times, online archive.

1950, New York Times. Note the quoted passages are from the newspaper article which includes direct quotes and paraphrases of Hartley comments, and thus do not necessarily represent direct quotes from Hartley.

Mitgang, 1952, New York Times, online archive.

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.

“'Right-To-Work' Drive, 1955, The New York Times, online archive.

Fine, et al., Setting the Record Straight..

Seldes, 1000 Americans.

Fine, et al., Setting the Record Straight.

Ibid.

Ibid.

“Right-To-Work Laws Now A Major Issue For Labor, 1956, The New York Times.

“Business: Problems & Challenges,” 1956, Time Magazine.

Ibid.

Dixon, The Politics of Union Decline.


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"
home page

Browse a chart showing the right-wing moneybags that fund a national network of anti-union think tanks and policy groups.

See the spiderweb chart of right-wing funders and anti-union think tanks.

Browse a timeline of right-wing organizing on behalf of Organized Wealth.

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 th 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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