Who Is Behind the National Right to Work Committee and its Anti-Union Crusade?

- by Jay Riestenberg and Mary Bottari

As the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 session comes to a close, one of the major cases left for a decision is Harris vs. Quinn, which could affect millions of public sector workers in the United States.

The case originates in Illinois, where home health care workers have been successfully organized by public sector unions. Now, a small group of these workers, represented by lawyers from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, have sued and their lawyers contend that the agency fees, or the fair share dues that even non-union members of a bargaining unit are required to pay to unions that bargain for higher wages on their behalf, violate the First Amendment. Agency fees are barred in so-called "right to work" states, which have much less unionization and lower wages and benefits.

"the most important labor law case the court has considered in decades..."

Joel Rogers, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, calls it "the most important labor law case the court has considered in decades."

This is because when the Supreme Court decided to take on the case, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation dramatically expanded the scope of the case beyond the home health care workers to include all public sector workers, from teachers and firefighters to sanitation workers to librarians. If the court follows National Right to Work's lead, every state in the country would essentially turn into an anti-union "right to work" state, which would be a significant blow to public sector unions' collective bargaining efforts and also complicate thousands of existing contracts between organized workers and municipalities, cities, counties, and states across the country.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF) is the 501(c)(3) arm of the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), a 501(c)(4) organization. Additionally, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research is an affiliated anti-union research shop. Founded nearly 60 years ago, the NRTWC has been a national leader in the effort to destroy public and private sector unions. The groups have increased their funding and staffing in recent years. In 2012, the three groups combined reported over $25 million in revenue, making them a powerful instrument of the corporate and ideological interests that want to keep wages low and silence the voice of organized labor in the political arena.

NRTWC's success and the demise of unions in the United States has directly contributed to the erosion of high-paying middle class jobs and to growing inequality, as this chart from the Economic Policy Institute graphically illustrates.

National Right to Work's Deep Connections to the Koch Brothers and the John Birch Society

The NRTWC has deep connections within the national right-wing network led by the Koch brothers. Reed Larson, who led the NRTW groups for over three decades, hails from Wichita, Kansas, the hometown of Charles and David Koch. Larson became an early leader of the radical right-wing John Birch Society in Kansas, which Fred Koch (the father of Charles and David) helped found. Several other founders and early leaders of the NRTWC were members and leaders of the John Birch Society, specifically the Wichita chapter of which Fred Koch was an active member.

The groups remain tied to the Kochs. In 2012, the Kochs' Freedom Partners group funneled $1 million to the National Right to Work Committee, while the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation gave a $15,000 grant to the NRTWLDF, which has also received significant funding from the Koch-connected DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. Today, at least three former Koch associates work as attorneys for the NRTWLDF.

In June 2010, Mark Mix, the current head of the NRTW groups, attended the Kochs' exclusive Aspen strategy meeting to give a presentation on how to mobilize conservatives for the 2010 election, along with representatives from Koch-backed groups such as the Center to Protect Patient Rights (now called American Encore) and Americans for Prosperity.

In addition to the Koch brothers, the NRTWLDF has received significant funding from many big name conservative donors, including the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart), the Coors family's Castle Rock Foundation, Wisconsin's Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust.

A $33 Million Anti-Worker Lobby Shop with Ties to ALEC, SPN, and More

In order to push their extreme agenda, the NRTWC has launched a massive lobbying effort at both the state and federal level. In the U.S. Congress alone, the NRTWC has spent over $33 million on lobbying between 1999 and 2013. NRTWC has lobbied Congress to pass a national "Right to Work Act," which is sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Paul has lent his name to several NRTWC advocacy and fundraising letters and received over $27,000 in campaign contributions from the NRTWC’s federal political action committee. The NRTWC also strongly opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to organize, while supported legislation that would weaken the regulatory authority of the National Labor Relations Board over employers.

The NRTWC also does extensive lobbying on the state level. In 2012, lobbyists registered with the NRTWC were on the ground in Indiana and Michigan when both states passed anti-union "right to work" bills and are big supporters of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his efforts to crush public sector unions. The NRTWC was an exhibitor at the 2011 annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate bill mill exposed by CMD in 2011. ALEC's "Right to Work Act," which has been in the ALEC library since at least 1980, is one of its most commonly used "model" bills. When Republicans took trifecta control of 26 state houses in November of 2010, it was a top agenda item at the December 2010 ALEC meeting. According to a 2010 email from ALEC to Wisconsin legislators that CMD obtained, ALEC referred to its "Right to Work Act" as a "solution… for your state's most pressing issues." Currently 24 states are so-called "right to work" states. In 2013, 15 states introduced legislation based on ALEC's "Right to Work Act."

The NRTWLDF is also an associate member of the State Policy Network (SPN), an $84 million dollar network of 64 state-based "think tanks." The State Policy Network's affiliate in Michigan, the Mackinac Center, was one of the major supporters behind "right to work" when the legislature passed the bill in 2012. Through its board, staff, and other activities, the NRTW groups also have close connections to Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the American Conservative Union, and the Republican National Committee.

Crossing the Line: Whistleblower Alleges New Election Law Violations

From the beginning, the NRTWC had a focus on influencing U.S. elections. The NRTWC has spent millions in dark money electoral ads, including $7 million during the 2012 election. Although a leading group on the right, the NRTWC has also attacked Republicans such as John Boehner and Bob Dole for not adhering to their extreme policy agenda.

The NRTWC's long history of pushing the line in campaign finance and electoral activity as a nonprofit led to an FEC case against it at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, in which the court ruled against the NRTWC for illegally raising money for electoral activities. The NRTWC continued to engage in controversial campaign-related activities, and evidence suggests that the National Right to Work Committee spent $100,000 on private detectives in 1984 to infiltrate the AFL-CIO, NEA, and Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. By the time that case was brought to court, the statute of limitations had expired.

Today, the NRTWC continues to generate controversy for engaging in campaign related activities. In January 2014, the Center for Responsive Politics detailed whistleblower allegations that the NRTWC was running "a massive off-the-books mass mailing operation" attempting to influence the 2010 election in Iowa and possibly other states. The NRTWC did not disclose that it was participating in political activity that year to the IRS. The whistleblower also alleged that the NRTWC was coordinating its activities with candidates' campaigns during the election. Former IRS official Marcus Owens commented to the news outlet that "people have gone to jail for precisely the facts that you are describing." At the center of the controversy was then-NRTWC Vice President Doug Stafford, who is the former chief of staff for U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

NRTWC Lawyers Push Their Agenda through the Courts

The legal arm of NRTWC was launched in 1968 to take the anti-worker agenda to the courts. With the Harris v. Quinn case, the NRTWLDF is seeking to re-litigate the Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education Supreme Court case it lost in 1977, which upheld the constitutionality of fair share dues. Over the years, the NRTWLDF has done little to improve wages, benefits, health or safety protections for American workers, but has tried scores of cases against unions and organized labor revealing its political agenda. With a large team of lawyers and millions in funding from national right-wing sources, the NRTWLDF is currently trying cases in Arkansas, Missouri, California, Michigan, Colorado, and Ohio.

NRTWLDF's also recently filed suit to block workers in the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant from voting for union representation and to prevent Volkswagen from voluntarily consenting to any future organizing drives.

Professor Rogers and other labor experts contend that the NRTWC's success in the U.S. Supreme Court "would be a disaster for labor, particularly for the public sector unions that traditionally rely more heavily on agency shop agreements." As Rogers points out, it is technically possible to form a union in a "right to work" state, but when union members are free to stop paying their dues, the union becomes a weak and ineffective organization. The results for American workers are clear. Research shows that "right to work" states have lower wages, less health care and more poverty.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


Your article is so biased. Please, I live near VW plant, non UAW workers are good people. They remember when various unions almost ruined manufacturing in Chatty. There was much needless violence especially in the 50's. Some unions do well in Chatty others , militant ones like the UAW are not welcome. Give these folks a non-militant union and they will vote it in.

Just wait Pat.. when someone is hurt or what not, god forbid, I be they are fired before they hit the Lab Tech or Safety Officer..Oh wait, you don't have them, or your back when you get hurt , or they are fired too before they get to the supervisor...

Nobody least of all me thinks non union workers are not good people. But what exactly given the history and purpose of the union movement would a non militant union look like. How is the UAW in your opinion militant. all unions have their militant element. When you are fighting against entrenched attitudes and great wealth, by nature that is a militant movement. You are trying to change the staus quo. It is interesting that the same people demanding that we have smaller government and right to work laws to protect the constitution and peoples rights, are pushing a law which is at it's heart unconstitutional. Especially the effort to eliminate "fair Share" fees. How? Well let me give you an example. A basic common law tenant is payment for services rendered. I can't go to the doctor and demand he treat me then refuse to pay when I have the money to pay him. I can be forced to pay him through various means. And he can refuse to treat me in the future except in a life or death emergency. But what right to work proponents advocate is just that, the union being forced to represent those who will not share the load. If those in favor of right to work are honest about their beliefs, then they should also support the right of the union to refuse to provide services to the non payer. This is fair and right. Any one who would suggest otherwise is being disingenuous. It becomes clear their motives are not protecting peoples right to work free of coercion, they are working to starve out the union. If people are free in the workplace to not join the union,then fine. If they are being disciplined by the employer, then they should not be allowed union representation during that process, Or the union should be able to submit them a bill for services rendered and they be required to pay it. They must be directed to negotiate their own contract and compensation. This is right and this is fair. Furthermore, especially in the VW case, it is the COMPANY who wanted the workers to form a union, so that they could have the sort of highly successful labor management model they use in Germany. One that routinely outproduces American factories. Under our laws in the US they needed to have a union in place to represent the workers. Right to work proponents in this case, through the state, inserted themselves between the two in a blatant violation of the legal concept of free contracts. Basically they said the state had the right to stop VW from entering into a contract that they felt would improve their factory. so I don't know if this sheds any light on the issue, but I hope you will at least considr my remarks.

I so agree with you, Greg Thoms. In my experience it is usually the people who do the least and don't participate in the union and are constantly complaining who are the first to run to the union when they need representation. It is not fair that a union should have to represent people who don't pay dues. It is very interesting that right wing organizations often have names that are the opposite of what they are really advocating for. Right to Work. Hmmmm--what it really does is increase poverty and unemployment, because there is no job security without union protection. The complete title should read, "Right to Work for the Lowest Possible Wage to be Determined by the Employer."

I don't know if my comment applies so much to this subject, but what the heck, i am going for it. This is a serious subject in my opinion when your a loyal union worker that pays their dues on time for 20 + years, to find out that your being pushed out of your job because other brothers in the same union are getting kick backs to bring in another non union company of workers to do your job and to have your representative of that same union turn a blind eye and do nothing about it? Then to have lies made up about the one person that is a thorn in their side because they follow protocol and safety issues, and believe's that what is going on is wrong and keeping other union workers out of work, that would be coming up for them. I just do not understand how this twist and turn of events could happen, but it is!

When peoples make comments like yours, I can see the hurt you are suffering. But as a long time union member and descendent of union leaders, local officer and just general labor support, it saddens me. because frequently the frustration leads to the idea that maybe we SHOULD just throw out the baby with the bathwater. Are unions perfect? No, but what human institution is. The biggest issue is to fight this sort of thing by getting people involved, going to meetings and keeping our leaders feet to the fire. And I speak as a member of one of the worst unions for this sort of top down approach by union leadership. And we shouldn't air this sort of thing to the general public, because it just adds fuel to the fire. The key is not letting apathy overwhelm the membership.

I think your thought on this is actually a bit off . Because I know that IBEW is a strong union and one of the locals in California is allowing non union work to be giving away in their jurisdiction. They still have huge quarterly dues that have to be paid regardless. What's even scarier is they obviously do not care about their members, or some organized group wants their pensions........

An individual that believes he can bargain with a company on his own for fair treatment and wages is fooling himself. It is well worth it to pay dues and form a union to speak for you. Without unions we wouldn't have health care, pensions, etc. People formed unions because they couldn't talk to "companies" and "companies" are just another name for a group of people, usually owners or highly paid officials whose job is to keep from paying workers and make sure that any benefits are kept to a minimum if there are any benefits. There will always be crooks so there will be bad unions as well as bad companies. What the workers have to do is stand up and fight! They should not give in because they truly are worth just as much as that fellow sitting in a big office and wearing an expensive suit. Without you he wouldn't be sitting there.

Just wanted to say that your comments are right on, Flo! Thanks!

Thanks for writing such a thorough piece on the right's push to get anti-union legislation passed across the nation -- such as the right to work laws. I'm from Texas, so I know what this has done to my state. I'm also a member of the National Writers Union, and we follow issues like this. All workers, writers included, have a stake in what happens to the push back against unions. My colleagues will be following this Supreme Court decision closely. By the way, I found your article on the At-Large National Writers Union website. We'll continue to link your articles to our site. Thanks!! Sandra Campbell http://nwuat-large.org/