Spotlight: Workers' Rights Champion

Reed Larson


The New York Times describes Reed Larson as one who "can mobilize a right-wing army of hundreds of thousands, make Presidents change their minds, and frustrate the best-laid plans of organized labor." Seemingly as an afterthought, in further testimony to his influence, the Times adds that "he even has his own zip code number."

As president of the National Right to Work Committee, Reed Larson, 56 years old, is the acknowledged leader in the fight against compulsory unionism and the closed shop. Twenty years ago Larson left a promising engineering position with a firm in Kansas to head the drive to pass that state's right-to-work initiative. As he jokingly remarks, "The campaign took a little longer than expected"—in a sense, it hasn't ended yet. After the initiative's passage Reed was appointed executive vice-president of the national committee, which was just being formed at the time.

Under his guidance the organization has grown to a phenomenal 1.25 million members. In 1977 contributions totaled $8.5 million, and 25 million letters were mailed at a cost of $2 million for postage alone. While Larson is actively working to gain states' passage of right-to-work measures banning the closed union shop—20 states now have such provisions—he and the committee are also providing assistance to employees filing lawsuits against compulsory unionism, mounting an attack on public-employee unionism, investigating pro-union materials reaching public schools, placing ads in publications, and commissioning public opinion polls.

During the 95th Congress, Larson directed the legislative battles that brought the defeat of the common situs picketing bill (which would have allowed union picketing to shut down parts of a construction site in addition to those directly involving the union) and the labor law reform bill (which the Right to Work Committee says would have compelled "hundreds of thousands of additional employees into unwanted unions"). These defeats forced labor organizations—led by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)—to temporarily forgo their attempt to repeal section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act (which allows states to pass right-to-work measures). Larson accomplished this task through the coordination of massive letter-writing campaigns using the committee's tremendous membership.

Larson views the right-to-work issue as a philosophical one involving the issue of human rights. The national committee's stationery displays its position: "Americans must have the right but not be compelled to join labor unions." Reed says that his purpose is "not anti-union" but "to guarantee the freedom of employees." "Anyone who says voluntarism is antiunion," he declares, "is condemning unionism by saying it can only exist on compulsion."

He sees unions' charge that right-to-work laws allow "free riders"—those who benefit from union negotiations but do not have to pay their share of the costs—as "phony." People who are forced to join labor unions are "captive passengers," he says, and he is quick to point out that "many people are not helped" by unions. The most common complaint against unions is that they enforce a leveling out of the productivity of workers, and many workers "do not want to be saddled with a union agreement" that does not encourage—or even discourages—increased productivity.

One issue of special concern to Larson "is diversion of compulsory union dues into politics," because it forces individuals to assist political causes in which they do not believe. And some of the coercive powers of government, he maintains, are the result of unions using their political power to come down on the "side of more government."

But Larson is evasive when questioned whether he believes that "businesses should be free to choose to hire either union or nonunion employees." He counters that "we crossed the bridge many years ago with government intervention" and that we are no longer in a position to make that decision. He notes that "yellow dog contracts" (by which a worker promises not to join a union if he is hired by a company) were outlawed in 1935 and that the National Right to Work Committee has never taken a stand on that issue. While "one kind of yellow dog contract is banned," though, "another type of yellow dog contract forcing membership" is sanctioned. Yet when asked again about his own personal views on the subject, Larson says that he has "never thought about it."

Politically, Larson is "very suspicious of concentration of power against individual choice," and he believes that too much coercive power has been concentrated in the hands of the government. He does not associate the development of his political beliefs with any particular personal events but says that his views were primarily shaped by the family environment in which he was raised. In Kansas, where he grew up, he was actively involved in many different causes and served as president of the state's Junior Chamber of Commerce the year before he ran the effort to pass the right-to-work initiative.

In the coming year he is preparing to fight attempts to lower the number of senators needed to end a filibuster—the filibuster has been an extremely important instrument in preventing further increases in unions' power. Larson will also work on getting the legislatures in New Mexico, Idaho, Maine, Vermont, and Colorado to approve right-to-work legislation. Many times in the past, Reed Larson has performed a critical role in the defeat of union-backed legislation. In 1965 he persuaded Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate Republican leader, to personally maneuver the filibuster against eliminating 14(b). In 1970, in keeping the post office from becoming a closed union shop, he won a major victory against the combined opposition of the Nixon administration, the Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO.

Reed Larson's activities at the National Right to Work Committee have caused problems for the unions. Whether he is fighting court battles or bills before state legislatures, the struggles take money and resources that labor unions would like to use in other ways. As one staff member for the AFL-CIO said, "Even when we win it, we lose it."