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“As Great an Issue as Slavery or Abolition”: Economic Populism, the Conservative Movement, and the Right-to-Work Campaigns of 1958

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2011

Kim Phillips-Fein*
New York University


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Copyright © Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2011

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1. For background information on Knowland, see Montgomery, Gayle B. and Johnson, James W., in collaboration with Paul Manolis, One Step from the White House: The Rise and Fall of Senator William F. Knowland (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998), 158, 194, 183–87, 196.Google Scholar

2. “Steelworkers Fail to Attend Knowland Talk,” Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1958, 4; see also Montgomery and Johnson, One Step from the White House, 251.

3. Nixonland, Rick Perlstein: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York, 2008), 27, 49Google Scholar; Cannon, Lou, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (New York, 2003), 157.Google Scholar

4. On union elections, see Gross, James, Broken Promise: The Subversion of U.S. Labor Policy, 1947–1994 (Philadelphia, 1995), 137Google Scholar; on the McClellan Committee, see Witwer, David, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor (Urbana-Champaign, 2009).Google Scholar

5. Examples of the grassroots turn in scholarship on the rise of the conservative movement include McGirr, Lisa, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001)Google Scholar; Perlstein, Rick, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; Critchlow, Donald, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, 2005)Google Scholar; Farber, David and Roche, Jeff, eds., The Conservative Sixties (New York, 2003)Google Scholar; Dochuk, Darren, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York, 2010)Google Scholar; Formisano, Ronald, Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sugrue, Thomas, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, 1996).Google Scholar The neglect of antilabor politics in accounts of the rise of the right is finally starting to give way. For scholarship on the continued importance of business opposition to New Deal liberalism in the postwar period, especially regarding labor relations, see Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–1960 (Urbana-Champaign, 1994)Google Scholar; Lichtenstein, Nelson, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, 2002)Google Scholar; Cowie, Jefferson, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (Ithaca, 1999)Google Scholar; Phillips-Fein, Kim, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York, 2009)Google Scholar; Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, “Origins of the Conservative Ascendancy: Barry Goldwater’s Early Senate Career and the De-Legitimation of Organized Labor,” Journal of American History 95, no. 3 (December 2008): 678–709; Tami Friedman, “Exploiting the North-South Differential: Corporate Power, Southern Politics, and the Decline of Organized Labor after World War II,” Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 2008): 323–48; David Witwer, “Westbrook Pegler and the Anti-Union Movement,” Journal of American History 92, no. 2 (September 2005): 527–52; and Joseph McCartin, “‘A Wagner Act for Public Workers’: Labor’s Deferred Dream and the Rise of Conservatism, 1970–1976,” Journal of American History 95, no. 1 (June 2008): 123–48; Todd Holmes, “The Economic Roots of Reaganism: Corporate Conservatives, Political Economy, and the United Farm Workers Movement, 1965–1970,” Western Historical Quarterly 41, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 55–80; also see the forthcoming volume by Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, eds., The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology and Imagination (Philadelphia, 2012).

6. Cowie, Jefferson and Salvatore, Nick, “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 74 (Fall 2008): 1–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For the history of right-to-work in the early twentieth century, see Chad Pearson, “‘Organize and Fight:’ Communities, Employers, and Open-Shop Movements, 1890–1920,” Ph.D. diss., University of Albany, State University of New York, 2008; also see Pearson, “Not Right: Progressive Era Liberals and Open-Shoppery,” paper presented at the Newberry Library, January 2010, which argues that there was substantial support for right-to-work laws among leading Progressive Era activists. Right-to-work was never only the province of conservatives; the issue indicated the long-standing ambivalence of liberals as well toward organized labor. For more on the centrality of ideas about rights in the conservative movement in the 1970s and after, see Lassiter, Matthew, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, 2006)Google Scholar; Turner, James Morton, “‘The Specter of Environmentalism: Wilderness, Environmental Politics, and the Evolution of the New Right,” Journal of American History 96, no. 1 (June 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Daniel K., “Jerry Falwell’s Sunbelt Politics: The Regional Origins of the Moral Majority,” Journal of Policy History 22, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 125–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and MacLean, Nancy, “Neo-Confederacy Against the New Deal: The Regional Utopia of the Modern American Right,” in The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, ed. Lassiter, Matthew and Crespino, Joseph (New York, 2009).Google Scholar

7. There is a difference between the union shop and the closed shop, although both are union security provisions: the closed shop refers to the agreement of employers to hire only union members (as in the construction industry or entertainment), while in the union shop, employees are required to join the union (or, in the agency shop, pay a servicing fee if they do not want to become full members) after employment.

8. The history of right-to-work in the postwar period has lately been receiving new attention from historians. Gilbert Gall, The Politics of Right to Work: The Labor Federations as Special Interests, 1943–1979 (New York, 1988), used to be the major account, looking at the way that labor unions mobilized to counter the threat of right-to-work. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise, chap. 6, treats the campaigns as the culmination of business’s political mobilization in the 1950s. More recently, the history of right to work has drawn attention from scholars interested in the history of postwar conservatism, and also from historians concerned with the postwar evolution of ideas about rights, especially the connections between the civil rights movement and conservative interpretations of ideas about rights. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, “Counter-Organizing the Sunbelt: Right-to-work Campaigns and Anti-Union Conservatism, 1943–1958,” Pacific Historical Review 78 (February 2009): 81–118, examines the long history of right-to-work campaigns in the West and Southwest and the ways that they helped sustain antiunion conservatism in the region. Shermer has also written an insightful essay on postwar right-to-work activism and the broader conservative movement, “‘Is Freedom of the Individual Un-American?’ Right-to-Work Campaigns and Anti-Union Conservatism, 1943-1958,” forthcoming in Lichtenstein, Nelson and Tandy Shermer, Elizabeth, eds., The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (Philadelphia, 2011).Google Scholar In a conference paper presented at the June 2010 Policy History Conference, “Cecil B. DeMille and the Right-to-work,” Amy Wallermfechtel looks at the role of the Hollywood mogul and his DeMille Foundation in working behind the scenes for right-to-work throughout the postwar period. Two useful older works are Mills, Harry A. and Brown, Emily Clark, From the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley: A Study of National Labor Policy and Labor Relations (Chicago, 1950)Google Scholar, and Paul Sultan, Right-to-Work Laws: A Study in Conflict (Los Angeles, 1958). Reuel Schiller has done important work on right-to-work and the civil rights movement in the 1958 Knowland campaign in California: “Singing the ‘Right-to-work Blues’: The Politics of Race in the Campaign for ‘Voluntary Unionism’ in Postwar California,” paper presented at the American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination conference at University of California at Santa Barbara, January 2009. A version of the essay is forthcoming in Lichtenstein and Shermer, The American Right and U.S. Labor. Sophia Z. Lee’s two excellent essays, “Whose Rights: Litigating the Right to Work, 1940–1980,” also forthcoming in Lichtenstein and Shermer, The American Right and U.S. Labor, and “‘Without the Intervention of Lawyers’: Race, Labor, and Conservative Politics in 1950s America” (presented at the 2010 conference of the Historical Society in Washington, D.C.) focus on the evolution of the litigation strategies of the right-to-work movement, arguing that within the courts, as well as in broader political campaigns, proponents of right-to-work laws became increasingly focused on presenting the right to work as a civil right, seeking to align the right-to-work movement with the African American mobilization for civil rights and explicitly drawing from the legal strategies adopted by civil rights activists who were seeking to desegregate unions. She identifies this move beginning in the 1950s but intensifying in the 1960s and 1970s.

9. Clifton, F. White with Jerome Tuccille, Politics as a Noble Calling: The Memoirs of F. Clifton White (Ottawa, Ill., 1994), 21–43.Google Scholar

10. Galligan, David, Politics and the Businessman (New York, 1964).Google Scholar

11. Ibid., 32–33.

12. Charles Sligh, “Congress, Labor Unions, and the Public,” Chatauqua Institution, 31 July 1958. NAM Papers, Accession 1411, Series 1, Box 107. Hagley Museum and Library. See also Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism (Urbana and Chicago, 1994)Google Scholar, for an excellent discussion of how COPE and the AFL-CIO merger influenced the business community.

13. Fortune, October 1958; see also Richard E. Mooney, “Business Widens Drive in Politics: ‘Work’ Act a Key,” New York Times, 5 October 1958; and Charles P. Taft, “Should Business Go in for Politics?” New York Times, 30 August 1959. It should be noted that the conservative businessmen devoted to antilabor causes who became active during the 1950s only made up one network of business activists. There were also organizations and business leaders who were more committed to Keynesianism, as with the group around the Committee for Economic Development.

14. The phrase “right-to-work” itself went back to at least the early twentieth century, when journalist Ray Stannard Baker used it to describe nonstriking miners who were crossing a picket line and facing retaliation from those on strike in an article for McClure’s magazine. Ray Stannard Baker, “The Right-to-work: The Story of the Non-Striking Miners,” McClure’s, January 1903. Reprinted in Arthur and Lila Weinberg, The Muckrakers (Urbana-Champaign, 2001).

15. Sybil Patterson to Field Staff, “Some Facts About Labor’s Abuse of Its Monopoly Power,” 3 January 1956, Series 7, Box 127, National Association of Manufacturers Papers, Hagley Museum and Archive, Wilmington, Delaware. See also “Suggested Draft of NAM’s 1956 Campaign on Labor’s Abuse of its Monopoly Power,” Folder labeled “January 1956 Correspondence,” Box 13, Sligh Family Papers, Bentley Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Sybil Patterson to Coordinating Committee.

16. L. B. Lane of the Lane Company in Altavista, Virginia, to Charles Sligh, 24 February 1956. Folder labeled “February 1956 Correspondence,” Box 11, Sligh Family Papers.

17. Interview of Reed Larson, Executive Vice-President of NRWC, by Stan Evans, in Fairfax, Virginia, 1/15/76. Box 2, NRWC Papers, Hoover Institution. For further background on the founding of the NRWC, see Leef, George C., Free Choice for All Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movemenft (Ottawa, Ill., 2005), 43–44Google Scholar; Sophia Z. Lee, “Whose Rights? Litigating the Right to Work, 1940–1980.” It should be noted that not all the railroads were hostile to the opposition of some of their employees to the union shop: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, where the vice president and general counsel, Jonathan Gibson, was well plugged in to conservative activist and right-to-work circles, supported the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of union shop contracts. This reflected Gibson’s general political commitments. The railroad donated money to Spiritual Mobilization, a conservative organization that sought to find ways to fuse free-market ideas with Christian principles, while Gibson himself was in regular contact with the American Enterprise Association, reviewing and purchasing pamphlets dealing with union power (including one thousand copies of an AEA booklet, “Labor Unions and Public Policy”). “Spiritual Mobilization Principal Contributors 1955–1956,” Box 70, James Ingebretsen Papers, Knight Library, University of Oregon; J. C. Gibson to William J. Baroody, 22 May 1957, 18 July 1958; William J. Baroody to J. C. Gibson, 28 May 1957, Folder 8, Box 11, William Baroody Papers, Library of Congress.

18. For the leadership group of the NRWC, see the Right to Work National Newsletter, 30 June 1955 and 4 April 1955, Box 5, National Right-to-work Committee Papers; “The Organized Right Wing Versus Organized Labor,” Group Research, Inc. Report, 25 January 1966, in Folder 10, Box 7, Stephen Schossberg Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University; “The National Right-to-Work Committee,” Group Research Report, Inc., 13 December 1962, accessed on 9 February 2011 at, copy in possession of author; Stephen K. Galpin, “Right to Work: Battle Shapes up over State Laws Forbidding Compulsory Unionism,” Wall Street Journal, 4 January 1955, 1.

19. Ibid.

20. Samuel Gompers poster in Denison Kitchel Papers, Box 5, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

21. Ibid.

22. National Right-to-Work Committee Newsletter, 4 April 1955, Box 5, National Right-to-Work Committee Papers.

23. National Right-to-Work Committee newsletter, 25 November 1959, Box 5, NRWC Papers.

24. Reed Larson speech at regional seminar on right-to-work held at Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9 May 1969, Box 5, NRWC Papers, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

25. Ibid.

26. Russell Porter, “Right-to-work in Five State Votes,” New York Times, 20 July 1958, 36.

27. Reed Larson, “How Right-to-work Was Adopted in Kansas,” Box 2, NRWC Papers.

28. Ibid.

29. “Statement to Boeing Airplane Company Supervisors by William M. Allen, Company President, June 1958,” William F. Knowland Papers, Box 115, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

30. Reed Larson, “How Right-to-work Was Adopted in Kansas,” Box 2, NRWC Papers.

31. Ibid.

32. “Kansans Speak Out for Freedom,” advertisement appearing in the Arkansas Daily Traveler, 27 October 1958, Box 5, NRWC Papers.

33. Witney, Fred, “The Indiana Right-to-Work Law,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 11 (July 1958): 506–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gall, The Politics of Right to Work, 95–97; Anderson, David M., “‘Things are Different Down Here’: The 1955 Perfect Circle Strike, Conservative Civic Identity, and the Roots of the New Right in the 1950s Industrial Heartland,” International Labor and Working Class History 74, no. 1 (2008), 101–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34. Schuparra, Kurt, Triumph of the Right: The Rise of the California Conservative Movement, 1945–1966 (New York, 1998)Google Scholar, is one of the few works to view the Knowland campaign as a moment of development and forward momentum for the conservative movement in California, rather than as an abject failure.

35. Edgington, Steven D. and de Graaf, Lawrence B., The “Kitchen Cabinet”: Four California Citizen Advisors of Ronald Reagan, 62, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.Google Scholar

36. Schuparra, Triumph of the Right, 31. Schuparra also emphasizes the support of the Los Angeles Times for right-to-work.

37. Montgomery and Johnson, One Step from the White House, 228–54.

38. “Union Labor in California: 1957,” report by State of California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Statistics and Research, Part 1, p. 7, Box 112, WFK Papers.

39. “Senator Knowland’s Program for Labor,” 5 May 1958, Box 115, WFK Papers.

40. “Bill of Rights for Labor,” in “Manual of Information for Campaigners and Speakers, U.S. Senator William F. Knowland for Governor of California, 1958,” Box 104, WFK Papers. Unions could, however, bar “subversives or Communists” from membership.

41. Knowland speech on KABC-TV, Los Angeles, 27 October 1958, Box 112, WFK Papers.

42. Ed Shattuck to John Gromala, 24 September 1957, Box 109, WFK Papers.

43. Ed Shattuck to William F. Knowland, 3 July 1957, Box 109, WFK Papers.

44. Ed Shattuck to Earl Adams, 13 December 1957, Box 124, WFK Papers.

45. “Specific Proposals for Knowland campaign,” unsigned memo, 23 July 1958, Box 124, WFK Papers.

46. Cornelius P. Cotter and James B. Kessler, “The Current Status of the 1958 Republican Campaign at the Grass Roots Level,” Box 103, WFK Papers.

47. Sophia Z. Lee, “Whose Rights? Litigating the Right to Work, 1940–1980”; see also Lee, Sophia Z., “Hotspots in a Cold War: The NAACP’s Postwar Constitutionalism, 1948–1964,” Law and History Review 26, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 327–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a fuller discussion of the changing relationship between the NAACP and AFL-CIO, which demonstrates both the support the NAACP gave to organized labor early in the postwar years and the frays that appeared over time as segregation remained the reality in many locals.

48. Joseph V. Baker, “The Negro and His Right-to-work,” pamphlet in possession of the author. See also Reuel Schiller, “Singing the ‘Right-to-work Blues’: The Politics of Race in the Campaign for ‘Voluntary Unionism’ in Postwar California.” Schiller’s essay suggests the ambivalent stance of NAACP activists toward right-to-work, given the reality of discrimination within the labor movement, despite the organization’s official opposition to the initiatives. I am grateful to Schiller for sharing his copy of the pamphlet with me.

49. Ben Peery to Knowland campaign, 30 August 1958, Box 110, WFK Papers. At the same time, the Knowland campaign—while it did collect a press clipping here and there about African Nationalist support for right-to-work (see article dated 20 October 1958, Carton 115)—did not do as much as it could have done to reach out to black voters. For example, Peery actually had hoped to organize a benefit for Knowland, but this failed to happen. Frustrated, he complained to the campaign about the “archaic attitude” of “‘lily white’ Republicans,” suggesting that if the press knew about the brush-off, “Republicans would be hard put to make an effective appeal to the Negro vote.”

50. For black opposition to right-to-work, see Schiller, “Singing the ‘Right-to-work Blues,’” 34.

51. Robert J. Cannon to “Dear Cannoneer,” 12 March 1958; “Bob Cannon’s Column,” March 1958, Box 115, WFK Papers.

52. Ed Gilbert to Editors, 28 August 1958, Box 115, WFK Papers.

53. Omar Baldwin to Knowland campaign, 6 September 1958, Box 110, WFK Papers.

54. Jo Duvall to Knowland campaign, 28 December 1957, Box 105, WFK Papers.

55. John Johnson to Knowland Campaign, 1 December 1957, Box 105, WFK Papers.

56. Robert Marson of Marson’s Clothing Store, Colfax, California, to Knowland campaign, 19 December 1958, Box 105, WFK Papers.

57. Letter, 21 October 1957, Box 105, WFK Papers.

58. Joe Barrows to Knowland campaign, 11 August 1958, Box 110, WFK Papers.

59. L.L. Shurtleff to Knowland campaign, 5 September 1958, Shurtleff described himself as a businessman at Thorsen Manufacturing Company, “a small manufacturing company here in Oakland,” who was “wholeheartedly for Senator Knowland as Governor of our state and yet opposed to the right-to-work program he endorses,” Box 103, WFK Papers.

60. Lowell Edgington to Stuart Hinckley, 5 September 1958, Box 103, WFK Papers.

61. E. K. Campbell to Knowland campaign, 18 September 1957, Box 120, WFK Papers.

62. H. P. Ladds to M. Philip Davis, 12 June 1958, Box 104, WFK Papers.

63. Steward Hinckley to Arthur Strehlow, 13 October 1958, Box 104, WFK Papers.

64. H. F. Laramore to Knowland campaign, 28 June 1957, Box 109, WFK Papers.

65. Frank Carter of Otjen and Carter Law Offices to Knowland Campaign, 13 August 1958, Box 254, WFK Papers.

66. Justin Potter of the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Corporation to Monroe Lanier of the Ingalls Shipbuilding Company of Birmingham, Alabama, 16 September 1958, Box 104, WFK Papers. Here the chain letter asked for a very small amount of money—just $2—but also asked the recipient to pass it on to “twenty friends or business acquaintances” and ask them to do the same.

67. Schuparra, Triumph of the Right, 37–39.

68. Cecil B. De Mille to Robert Finch, 31 July 1958, Box 119, WFK Papers.

69. Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, 13 June 1958, Lemuel Boulware Papers, MS Collection 52, Box 44, Folder 1307, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania.

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