Reed Larson has spent most of his life battling union bosses, and even at the age of 80, he isn’t quitting the fight.
He stepped down as president of the National Right to Work Committee and its legal foundation in April after fighting for half a century to give workers the right to refrain from funding union lobbying that contradicts their values. But he is still committed to the cause and says he will do whatever he can to help it in his new role as chairman of the legal foundation’s executive committee.
Mr. Larson has fought against compulsory union membership since 1954. In waging that fight, he helped establish the paradigm for other conservative groups to follow, some leading conservatives have said.
“This has been an opportunity for me to have the greatest impact in defeating the entity I feel is very detrimental to individual freedom,” Mr. Larson said. “The unions are for more government, more taxes, more regulation, and they operate under a set of rules and laws that are designed to give special privileges to organized labor.”
Mr. Larson first succeeded in establishing a “right to work” law in his home state of Kansas in 1958, at a time when similar laws were defeated in six other states. Since then, he and the committee have helped establish laws in other states, bringing the number of right-to-work states to 22.
The committee’s legal foundation has argued successfully six times before the Supreme Court in cases that set clear precedent, Mr. Larson said. An additional six cases before the high court have gained some ground for individual workers.
The foundation is working on 300 cases for employees across the country.
Paul Weyrich, founder of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, said Mr. Larson’s organization provided a model for right-to-life advocates and proponents of gun rights.
“Their continued success is really owed to copying what Reed Larson did. And compulsory unionism is in far worse shape than it has been in any other time in modern times,” Mr. Weyrich said.
Mr. Larson rallied support in 1965 against a congressional repeal of provisions in the Taft-Hartley Act that permitted states to determine whether compulsory unionism would be allowed.
The Senate was on the verge of repealing the provisions until Mr. Larson was able to generate a grass-roots movement against the repeal, said Morton Blackwell, a member of the foundation’s board and the founder of the Leadership Institute.
“It was very dicey,” Mr. Weyrich recalled. “But finally when sentiment from right-to-work states weighed in, finally, they won. It literally resurrected the conservative movement from the ash bin of history.”
Mr. Larson is credited with having developed the nation’s first conservative litigating group 34 years ago with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. He acknowledges that it was modeled after a legal group with a very different political agenda — the legal fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
For more than 12 years, Mr. Larson went to bat to protect the anonymity of the foundation’s supporters during a lengthy lawsuit by the AFL-CIO that sought to make public Mr. Larson’s donor list. The legal feud forced Mr. Larson to twice ignore a judge’s order to hand over his donor list to the opposing attorneys, a move that would have endangered hundreds of his supporters, many of whom were union members, he said.
“I really thought I was going to jail,” Mr. Larson said. “They had us backed in the corner and said, ‘You turn over your list to these union lawyers.’ That would have been devastating to our supporters.”
The judge did not send Mr. Larson to jail for contempt, and Mr. Larson’s legal team appealed to a higher court, where it won.
“It was the toughest thing I have had to go through. I was in violation of a court order for a year,” Mr. Larson said. “It was, of course, the life and death of the organization.”
Today, the committee and foundation have 2.5 million identified supporters.
Mr. Larson said he will continue to work full time for the foundation for a year, after which he said he will reassess the situation.