Since Reed Larson died on September 17 at age 93, tributes have been pouring in for the longtime president of the National Right to Work Committee.
Retiring in 2003 from the helm of NRTW that he first assumed 44 years before, Larson had settled in Seattle, Washington to be closer to one of his three daughters. News of his death and burial two weeks ago trickled back to "the other Washington,"where he was remembered as the man who put right-to-work on the map.
"All Americans who value liberty owe a debt to Reed Larson,"said former Texas Rep. and GOP presidential candidatel Ron Paul, "In his almost half-a-century of leadership of the National Right to Work Committee, Reed demonstrated that one can make a difference by sticking to principle.”
In a tenure that rivaled the decades-long rule of George Meany at the AFL-CIO and John L. Lewis at the United Mine Workers, onetime engineer Larson made a "cause célèbre"out of the issue of not being required to join a union or pay union dues as a requirement to hold a job.
Larson knew from first-hand experience how much the pursuit of this cause was nothing short of political guerrilla warfare. In 1954, the Wichita, Kansas man left a comfortable career in engineering to take over the campaign for right-to-work in the Sunflower State.
Under Larson’s leadership, right-to-work passed the Kansas state legislature in 1955. But Gov. Fred Hall stunned fellow Republicans by breaking his campaign promise and vetoing the measure.
As he would demonstrate repeatedly to foes throughout his career, Larson didn’t give up easily. A year later, with angry right-to-workers fueling the challenge, State Rep. Warren Shaw defeated Hall in the GOP primary. In November, 1958, right-to-work finally went on the books.
Larson’s tenacity and eventual victory caught the attention of the National Right-to-Work Committee, then four years old and with roughly 20,000 members nationwide. When Larson accepted the offer to run NRTW, the prospects of its success seemed dim.
Democrats had swept mid-term elections in 1958, and defeated high-profile right-to-work initiatives in California and Ohio. Collective bargaining for public employees became law for the first time in Wisconsin in 1959.
But before long, right-to-work was on a roll, and labor unions were increasingly branding Larson "Public Enemy Number One.”
"The billions of dollars that is collected through compulsory union dues provides the fuel that drives the liberal political machine," he declared, "Without the disproportionate political muscle of union officials gained through government-granted coercive power, all our battles against the floodtide of tax and spend big government schemes could be won hands down."
He and his committee engaged in political battle on three fronts: in states, where right-to-work gradually won through referenda and votes by legislatures; in Congress, where NRTW helped thwart cherished union objectives such as a national evisceration of right-to-work laws through repeal of the Taft-Hartley law’s Section 14(b) in 1965 and "common situs"legislation of 1975-77 designed to unionize more works on construction sites; and in court, where right- to- work helped secure such wins as the celebrated "Beck"decision (upholding the right of workers to withhold their union dues for political purposes).
An early and eager backer of NRTW’s fund-raising and membership efforts was Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinios, who signed its national solicitation letters for a decade.
"When Sen. Dirksen died in 1969, [direct mail czar] Richard [Viguerie] and Reed asked me if [freshman GOP Sen.] Ed Gurney, who came from the right-to-work state of Florida, would become the new champion of NRTW,"recalled James L. Martin, once Gurney’s top aide and now head of the SixtyPlus Seniors Association, "I said yes, and Ed’s signature raised so much money that, as a result, the National Right to Work Legal Foundation took off.”
Viguerie, Martin told me, "said so much money was coming in under Ed’s signature, he wished he could turn off the flow and direct it to other clients. When Ed retired from the Senate, one of the most moving tributes to him came from Reed Larson.”
Time and events have vindicated Larson. Where NRTW had only 20,000 members when he took it over, its membership rolls numbered 2.2 million when he retired and is today 2.8 million. Twenty six states now have right-to-work laws, the latest being union-heavy Michigan in 2010 and Wisconsin, birthplace of collective bargaining, in 2015.
A decade ago, the thought of either state having right-to-work on the books was akin, as one wag put it, "to Greece having a Turkish prime minister.”
Perhaps the most apt eulogy of Reed Larson is the epitaph of the British architect Sir Christopher Wren in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral: "If you seek his monument, look around you."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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