HISTORY 101 — Right to Work: A Winning Issue

(Originally published on

For well over three decades, congressional debates and recorded votes on the Right to Work issue have consistently benefited proponents and harmed opponents in subsequent election campaigns.

The inverse has proven equally true: Whenever federal politicians who publicly purport to support Right to Work have chosen, supposedly for “tactical” reasons, to obstruct Right to Work legislation, they have suffered politically as a result.

This has been the case regardless of whether the would-be union-boss appeaser openly voted against Right to Work or helped union lobbyists defeat it without a vote.

Right to Work became a political issue as a result of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), through which Congress, for the first time, gave Organized Labor statutory sanction to get workers fired for refusal to join a union.

Freedom-loving citizens first responded at the state level during the 1940’s, when the Roosevelt Administration’s wartime policies began putting intense pressure on businesses to acquiesce to the forced unionization of their employees, and the practice was spreading like wildfire.

Over the course of the decade, 12 states enacted Right to Work laws prohibiting forced union membership and payment of forced union dues as a condition of employment.

Architect of 14(b) Successfully Courted Union Rank-and-File

In 1947, Congress overrode President Truman’s veto to enact revisions to the NLRA, known as the Taft-Hartley Act. Taft-Hartley did not change the NLRA’s forced-unionism provisions, but one clause did formally recognize states’ prerogative to enact Right to Work laws. This Right to Work clause, Section 14(b), enraged Big Labor.

The following year, GOP presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey tried to appease the union bosses. He refused to defend the Taft-Hartley law from Big Labor attacks or even to appear with the bill’s co-author, GOP Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. Dewey then lost the Buckeye State by 7000 votes.

When Taft’s Senate seat came up for grabs in 1950, the union bosses were certain they could defeat him as well.

But Taft did not back away from his support for Section 14(b) as he sought reelection in a state with a higher-than-average union density at a time when 35% of private-sector workers nationwide (compared to 9% today) were union members.

His nominal opponent was Democratic state auditor Joe Ferguson, but his real opponents were vengeance-hungry union officials such as Walter Reuther, then the president of the United Autoworkers (UAW) and soon-to-be the chief of the massive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

CIO union operatives flooded Ohio with workers and literature depicting Taft as the “enemy of the working man.” But real working men and women and their families didn’t agree. Taft rolled up a plurality of over 431,000 votes – then the second largest margin in Ohio senatorial history. He carried 84 of 88 counties, including all major industrial areas.

Taft biographer James Patterson noted that Taft consistently fared better than Dewey had in union strongholds, and in a number of places the difference was dramatic: “[I]n the four heavily unionized precincts of Youngstown . . . he won 63% of the vote compared to Dewey’s 44% in 1948.

“‘We didn’t want [organized] labor to go too far,’ one worker explained. ‘Ferguson would have been a yes-man for the labor party,’ said another. . . .

“Above all the figures suggested that he had succeeded in mobilizing suburbanites, farmers, and residents of small towns. Many of these people bitterly resented the politicking of unions, and their record-shattering turnout accounted for the remarkable increase in the overall vote. Victory, Taft explained . . . stemmed from the frontal attack against Truman, and from ‘resentment against the labor union crowd.'”

Aftermath of 1965-66 14(b) Repeal Battle Showed Taft Victory Was No Anomaly

Over the course of nearly two decades following the enactment of Taft-Hartley, union lobbyists saw to it that legislation to repeal Section 14(b) was introduced time and time again, but never succeeded in getting such a measure to the floor of either chamber of Congress.

However, the Big Labor sweep of the 1964 elections finally provided the union bosses with an apparent opportunity to wipe out Section 14(b) and nullify all state Right to Work laws.

The 14(b) Repeal Bill passed the U.S. House in July 1965 by a narrow 221-203 margin as public opposition, led by the then-decade-old National Right to Work Committee, began to mobilize.

In the Senate, union lobbyists needed a two-thirds majority of those present and voting due to a filibuster initiated by Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.). Although a majority of senators voted for two of the three cloture motions designed to ram through 14(b) repeal, Big Labor allies never succeeded in breaking the filibuster sustained by Dirksen and other pro-Right to Work senators in the fall of 1965 and the winter of 1966

The 14(b) Repeal Bill was finally laid to rest by Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) on February 10, 1966.

That year’s elections, coming on the heels of the first extended debate over compulsory unionism in congressional history, were a disaster for the officials of Organized Labor.

Thirty-nine House members who had voted to wipe out 14(b) were defeated in primaries or the general elections. Union boss-endorsed candidates also performed poorly in “open seat” races, so that Big Labor’s net strength in the House plummeted by 49 seats, according to an analysis in U.S. News & World Report’s November 21, 1966 issue. Meanwhile, not one House member who had voted to protect 14(b) was defeated by a 14(b) opponent.

At a post-election news conference, AFL-CIO President George Meany admitted that the elections had been a catastrophe for union chieftains: “[T]here is a question of where the vote went. . . . [T]here are indications we didn’t get the percentage of the vote we got in the past and we want to see why.”

Because the overwhelming majority of senators who had embraced the 14(b) Repeal Bill did not have to face the voters in 1966, the magnitude of the legislative battle’s impact on the upper chamber wasn’t immediately apparent.

But after the dust from the 1970 elections had settled, and all the seats of senators voting on 14(b) had finally come up for grabs, Big Labor had lost a net of eight Senate seats. Between 1966 and 1970, a steady stream of pro-forced unionism senators, including Ross Bass (D-Tenn.), David Brewster (D-Md.), Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.), Al Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.), and Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas), were defeated by avowed 14(b) proponents.

‘Common Situs’ Showdown Also Proved Disastrous For Union-Label Politicians

Stung by these defeats, union strategists decided to mount a slightly less direct assault on Right to Work when they again seized overwhelming congressional majorities after the 1974 “Watergate” elections.

The so-called “Common Situs Picketing” Bill for which union lobbyists waged war between 1975 and 1977 would have authorized building-trades union bosses to shut down construction projects involving dozens of contractors until every employer agreed to use union workers only.

Its practical effect would have been to corral millions of independent workers into unions.

On July 25, 1975, a 230-178 majority of House members, including dozens of freshmen who had no personal knowledge of the 14(b) repeal battle and its electoral aftermath, voted for Big Labor’s “common situs” scheme.

Then, in mid-November, after nearly two weeks of extended debate, union-label politicians mustered 62 votes (as a result of a rule change, only 60 were needed) to break a Right to Work filibuster and send “common situs” to President Gerald Ford’s desk.

Although the President had earlier committed himself to signing this bill, intense lobbying by members of the National Right to Work Committee and other groups changed his mind. On January 2, 1976, Ford vetoed “common situs,” effectively killing it.

Americans overwhelmingly opposed “common situs,” and vulnerable politicians in both the House and Senate got the message, loud and clear, in the 1976 elections. When Democratic House leaders brought up virtually identical legislation for a vote early in the next session of Congress, it was rejected, 217 to 205. Opposition increased by nearly 40 votes.

Right to Work gained for three reasons

A number of dyed-in-the-wool proponents of forced unionism, like Edward Raush (D-Ind.), Tim Hall (D-Ill.), Ed Mezvinsky (D-Iowa), Joe Vigorito (D-Pa.), and Allen Howe (D-Utah) were defeated by pro-Right to Work challengers. Several retiring “common situs” apologists, like Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), Alphonso Bell (R-Calif.), Jerry Litton (D-Mo.), and Gilbert Gude (R-Md.), were replaced by opponents of the measure. Finally, 15 returning House members who had backed “common situs” before melted under the heat from pro-Right to Work constituents and switched their votes.

Because many potentially vulnerable Big Labor senators had to face the voters in 1976, Right to Work also enjoyed a significant net pick-up – four seats – in the upper chamber. Veteran union-puppet senators like Frank Moss (D-Utah), Gale McGee (D-Wyo.), and Vance Hartke (D-Ind.) went down to defeat.

Labor Law ‘Reform’ Fight Helped Usher in the Reagan-Era Senate

Recognizing that, although they retained over-whelming majorities in both chambers of Congress, they could not pass legislation that directly attacked state Right to Work laws, union strategists and Carter Administration Labor Secretary Ray Marshall quickly crafted a new approach.

In a July 18, 1977 news conference, Marshall touted a new labor law “reform” proposal that, he claimed, would not “make union membership mandatory for anyone.”

Marshall’s claim was far from the truth. In reality, the so-called Labor Law “Reform” Bill that was soon introduced by Carter allies in Congress would have imposed harsh new penalties on employers who resisted the forced unionization of their employees. But this “backdoor” approach did temporarily work as a political strategy.

Dozens of House members who, fearing a constituent backlash, had voted against “common situs” in March 1977 helped labor law “reform” nail down a 257-163 victory on October 6, scarcely more than six months later.

At the same time, the true aim of the bill’s promoters – millions more compulsory union dues payers – was exposed. Just before final House passage of the labor law “reform,” proponents voted overwhelmingly to block consideration of any Right to Work-backed amendment that would have prevented union bosses from using the broad new organizing powers they would have gained under the bill to procure new forced-dues contracts.

From then on, the claims of Mr. Marshall and top union officials like International Lady Garment Workers Union Vice President Evelyn Dubrow that the “reform” bill avoided the Right to Work issue (and therefore shouldn’t be opposed by the National Right to Work Committee!) rang hollow.

The bill’s real purpose was clear to all.

In the spring of 1978, Senate Democratic leaders who were determined to deliver for Big Labor by sending this bill to Jimmy Carter’s desk put the chamber through 19 days of grueling extended debate and filed a record six cloture motions to break a Right to Work filibuster. But in the end they came up just two votes short of the 60 needed to shut down the debate and pass the power grab.

That November, freedom-loving citizens confirmed that they had seen through the “reform” smoke screen. Sixteen congressmen who had voted for forced unionism lost their reelection bids. Only two congressmen who had voted for Right to Work, including one who had recently been arrested in the parking lot of a nightclub that featured nude dancers, were defeated.

Meanwhile, Big Labor senators such as Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.), Wendell Anderson (D-Minn.), Tom McIntyre (D-N.H.), and Dick Clark (D-Iowa) went down to defeat. The following year, ex-Sen. McIntyre published a book explicitly blaming the National Right to Work Committee and other citizens’ groups for union-“friendly” politicians’ 1976 and 1978 electoral setbacks.

The labor law “reform” vote continued to plague the re-election campaigns of pro-forced unionism senators in 1980, playing a major role in the defeats of Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), Frank Church (D-Idaho), John Culver (D-Iowa), John Durkin (D-N.H.), and George McGovern (D-S.D.) by Right to Work proponents.

One of the pro-Right to Work challengers elected in 1980, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, summed up the impact of the issue that year when he said:

“The people of Iowa knew that John Culver and I supported opposite views on such basic individual freedoms as Right to Work, and chose the candidate who will fight to preserve the personal liberties we cherish.”

Because the vast majority of Senate candidates backing Right to Work in the late seventies and in 1980 were Republicans, one can unequivocally say that the Right to Work issue played a key part in switching control of the Senate over to the GOP at the outset of the Reagan era.

‘Striker Replacement’ Legislation Put Forced Unionism Back on Congress’ Agenda During the Early Nineties

Fortunately for the union hierarchy, once politicians who had opposed the “common situs” and labor law “reform” power grabs occupied the White House and Senate leadership positions, they did not try to press their advantage by moving to roll back federally-imposed forced unionism.

Consequently, the Right to Work issue was effectively off the table in Congress throughout the eighties.

Between 1982 and 1990, Big Labor’s Capitol Hill strength increased in election after election as pro-forced unionism challengers and incumbents were able to sidestep an issue that neither major party appeared to have an interest in pursuing.

Finally, in 1991, emboldened union lobbyists were once again ready to wage a full-scale campaign to expand their special privileges.

From 1991 until 1994, the House and Senate repeatedly voted on the Kennedy-Metzenbaum “Striker Replacement” Bill, which was designed to force employers to punish or fire workers who defy union-boss strike orders. Enactment of this bill would have greatly expanded the union hierarchy’s power to force workers to pay union dues as a job condition.

The “Striker Replacement” Bill, known by opponents as the “Pushbutton Strike” Bill, was originally rubber-stamped by the House, 247-182, in July 1991. However, in June 1992, Right to Work supporters in the Senate resisted two cloture motions by Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and stopped the legislation with a filibuster.

Shortly after Bill Clinton, who vowed to sign the Pushbutton Strike Bill if it reached his desk, became President in 1993, the House once again passed the bill, albeit by a slightly narrower, 239-190 margin. But the bill again succumbed to a Right to Work Senate filibuster in July 1994. This time Mitchell was only able to muster 53 votes for two cloture motions.

Five Decades After Taft-Hartley, Right to Work Takes the Offensive In Our Nation’s Capitol

A 1992 Time/CNN poll and a 1993 poll by the Marketing Research Institute both showed that a two-to-one majority of Americans opposed the strike bill.

Big Labor propagandists claimed these polls were wrong. But in the 1992 and 1994 elections, Americans, many of them mobilized by the National Right to Work Committee, punished dozens of politicians who had backed Kennedy-Metzenbaum.

A total of 40 House and Senate members who had voted with the union bosses were defeated when they sought reelection in 1992 or 1994.
Among those ousted in 1992 were Reps. Albert Bustamante (D-Texas), Jim Jontz (D-Ind.), Tom McMillen (D-Md.), Dave Nagle (D-Iowa), and Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), and Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.).

In 1994, the long list of strike-bill supporters defeated by Right to Work proponents included, for example, Reps. Larry LaRocco (D-Idaho), Jill Long (D-Ind.), Neal Smith (D-Iowa), Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), James Bilbray (D-Nev.), David Price (D-N.C.), Bill Sarpalius (D-Texas), Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), and Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.).

The voter backlash against the Pushbutton Strike Bill and other Clinton Administration policies was so powerful that, when the new Congress convened in 1995, elected officials who had publicly pledged to support Right to Work stood at the helm of both the House and the Senate.

Furthermore, Right to Work enjoyed more grass-roots strength than it had when the GOP had controlled the Senate during the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had recently joined the National Right to Work Committee in order to fight the Pushbutton Strike Bill. (Since 1995 its membership ranks have continued to swell, to 2.2 million at this writing.)

Right to Work leaders were therefore confident that, this time, GOP congressional leaders who had established records of opposing the expansion of compulsory unionism could be persuaded to bring up legislation to pare back existing Big Labor privileges.

Committee President Reed Larson was convinced that roll-call votes on legislation to repeal the provisions in the NLRA and the Railway Labor Act that authorize the firing of employees for refusal to pay union dues would show that voting to perpetuate federally-imposed forced unionism is risky, just as voting to expand it is.

It took a year, but Committee officials ultimately persuaded Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was at that time also a presidential candidate, to schedule a labor panel hearing and a floor vote on the legislation, known as the National Right to Work Act.

As Right to Work advocates expected and predicted in advance, Big Labor defeated this legislation when it was brought to the Senate floor by Dole’s successor as majority leader, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), on July 10, 1996.

The vote wasn’t close. Union lobbyists killed a Right to Work motion with a filibuster led by Ted Kennedy. Congress wasn’t ready to upset the forced-unionism status quo.

However, the vote immediately raised the bar for elected officials and candidates who wished to call themselves “pro-Right to Work.” And many responded favorably, benefiting both the Right to Work cause and their own campaigns.

When Will Beltway Conventional ‘Wisdom’ Catch up With the Facts?

In the November 1996 elections, Senate candidates Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) all pledged to cosponsor the National Right to Work Act and went on to capture seats that had been held by the bill’s opponents.

All in all, the Right to Work Bill picked up a net of four Senate votes, while the GOP gained two seats, in the same year that Bill Clinton was easily reelected as President and Democrats enjoyed a net increase of nine in the House.

The 1996 Senate roll call has continued to prove very helpful for Right to Work allies in recent years.

For example, in 2000, the GOP suffered a near-debacle in Senate races, as five incumbents went down to defeat. But not one of these incumbents had voted for the Right to Work Bill. Meanwhile, every one of the eight GOP senators on the ballot who had voted for Right to Work – including Montana’s Conrad Burns, who was widely expected to lose – won reelection.

The Right to Work issue also helped challenger George Allen (R-Va.) defeat incumbent Big Labor Democrat Chuck Robb. Robb was the only Senate Democrat to go down to defeat in 2000. Judging by candidates’ records and responses to the National Committee’s questionnaires on the Right to Work issue, Right to Work picked up a net of one Senate seat in 2000, even as the GOP lost four seats (and went on to lose another with the defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords in 2001).

The record of the Right to Work issue’s positive electoral impact is so long and so consistent that one might logically suppose that the conventional wisdom inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway would at least acknowledge it. But that has never been the case.

Sixteen years ago, then-U.S. Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), who himself regularly voted for Right to Work and who belonged to an overwhelmingly pro-Right to Work Senate party caucus, publicly said: “I’ve urged Republicans not to raise the [Right to Work] issue for years. I think it’s a bad issue for us, and it’s a real motivational issue for union people.”

McClure’s opinion was right in line with those of the leading GOP labor-policy strategists of his time. Former Republican senator and then-Labor Secretary William Brock had recently called Right to Work “irrelevant.” The late Republican Sen. John Heinz, then chairman of the GOP Senatorial Campaign Committee, had advised his party’s candidates to avoid the issue like the plague.

Yet at the time McClure spoke, Big Labor had already suffered devastating electoral setbacks in his chamber and in the U.S. House as a result of three high-profile confrontations over the Right to Work issue: the Taft-Hartley Section 14(b) fight of 1965-66, the Common Situs Picketing battle of 1975-77, and the Labor Law “Reform” imbroglio of 1977-78!

‘They Have Learned Nothing, And Forgotten Nothing’

And just a week after McClure’s comments were published, his fellow Idaho senator, Steve Symms, became the only GOP Senate candidate to win a close race that year as Republicans lost a net of eight Senate seats.

Symms stood out from the pack because he had ignored Heinz’ advice and because only in Idaho was Right to Work on the ballot. Idahoans defeated a Big Labor-backed measure to repeal the state’s Right to Work law, which had then been in effect for just 10 months, by 30,000 votes.

That was more than double Symms’ 11,800-vote victory margin over Democratic challenger “Big” John Evans, who had successfully vetoed Right to Work legislation in 1982 and then seen his veto overridden in 1985.

On November 5, 1986, in discussing Evans’ defeat with then-Initiative and Referendum Report editor Pat McGuigan, former National Democratic Committee Chairman Charles Manatt admitted, “Right to Work killed us.” McClure himself owned up to his error after Election Day.

And since the 1986 elections, the evidence of Right to Work’s positive power at the ballot box has mounted and mounted, as this study has shown.

Yet the GOP establishment has proven remarkably impervious to facts that contradict what it “knew” then. Officers of the National Right to Work Committee report that senior Capitol Hill Republicans today continue in private exchanges to echo the “wisdom” once publicly espoused by McClure and Brock.

One could aptly say of such Republicans what the statesman, diplomat, and political survivor Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who held high office during the French Revolution, under Napoleon, at the Restoration, and under Louis Philippe, said of the Bourbons: “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”

If they don’t wish to suffer the Bourbons’ ultimate fate, many federal elected officials and their staff members who are forced to deal with the opposition of Organized Labor need first to “forget” presuppositions they have about Right to Work’s electoral impact that don’t fit with the facts documented here.

As author M. Stanton Evans observed a quarter-century ago, “To put it bluntly: By standing up and fighting on the issues, opponents of compulsory unionism have scored some notable successes.

“By rolling over and playing dead, the advocates of conciliation have absorbed some notable defeats. It is not always certain that . . . a determined resistance can win. But it is perfectly certain that a doctrine of non-resistance will invariably issue in defeat.”


. . . putting intense pressure on businesses . . .

1. David Kendrick, “Compulsory Unionism During World
War II,” National Institute For Labor Relations
Research,” Springfield, Va., 2001.

. . . refused to defend the Taft-Hartley law . . .

2. Irving G. McCann, Why the Taft-Hartley Law?, The
Committee For Constitutional Government, Inc., New
York, N.Y., 1950, p. 173.

. . . appear with the bill’s co-author . . .

3. M. Stanton Evans, The Future of Conservatism,
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, N.Y., 1968,
pp. 225-6.

. . . real opponent was the Congress of Industrial
Organizations . . .

4. M. Stanton Evans, “It Doesn’t Have to Be:
Republicans, Conservatives and the Right to Work,”
Young Americans For Freedom, Sterling, Va., 1976,
p. 8.

. . . four heavily unionized precincts . . .

5. Patterson’s analysis is quoted in ibid, p. 8.

. . . “question of where the vote went”

6. Ibid, p. 10.

. . . Americans overwhelmingly opposed . . .

7. A February 1975 nationwide survey by the Opinion
Research Corporation found, for example, that a
68% to 21% majority of Americans (with 11% having
no opinion) believed a “union should only be
allowed to picket the work of the contractor
with whom it has a dispute and not the whole
building site.”

. . . blaming the National Right to Work Committee . . .

8. Thomas J. McIntyre, The Fear Brokers, Pilgrim
Press, 1979.

. . . people of Iowa knew . . .

9. Sen. Grassley was quoted in The National Right to
Work Newsletter, November 28, 1980 edition, p. 1.

. . . I’ve urged Republicans not to raise . . .

10. Sen. McClure was quoted in The Wall Street
Journal, October 28, 1986.

. . . called Right to Work “irrelevant” . . .

11. In a May 29, 1985 interview with the editors of
the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Brock said
Right to Work is “an irrelevancy to me. [It’s]
not an issue these days.”

. . . “standing up and fighting” . . .

12. See Footnote 3, p. 13.

Stan Greer serves as senior research associate
for the National Institute for Labor Relations
Research. Mr. Greer holds a bachelor’s degree
(1983) from Georgetown University in
Washington, D.C., and a master’s degree
(1986) from the University of Pittsburgh.

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