Reed E. Larson was working as an electrical engineer for the Coleman Co. of Wichita in the mid-1950s when he got involved in the successful struggle for a right-to-work law in his home state of Kansas. He then went off to Washington to work with the newly formed National Right to Work Committee, a job he tells Insight he planned to spend at most a couple of years doing but one that he's been at ever since.
Since 1976, Larson has been president of the National Right to Work Committee. His belief in the right of workers to hold jobs without coercion from labor unions and of not being required to hold union membership or pay dues springs from his vision of what it means to be a free American and from his faith.
"I'm a Southern Baptist," Larson tells Insight. "I think that the protection of individual conscience is fundamental to our religious belief, and the coercion of people by the government or by a private organization, like unions, with the backing of government is immoral."
A national right-to-work law advocated by Larson's organization now has stronger support in Congress than any other right-to-work law ever has had. The bill has 109 cosponsors in the House and the support of such Senate power brokers as Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "We're a lot closer than we were three or four years ago," says Larson. "I think we'd have to be immodest so that the work we've done on it is getting noticed."
Insight: The year 2000 is going to be a big year for the labor unions as far as the elections go, isn't it?
Reed E. Larson: Yes, it sure is. [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney has made it pretty clear they're going to do more of what they've done during the past two [election] cycles while he's been in the driver's seat of the AFL-CIO.
Somebody has described Sweeney's campaign in '96 as an "air war" and in '98 as a "ground war." In '96 he beat his chest, and they did lots of television and a more public campaign. They put hundreds of millions of dollars into so-called "issues" discussion -- "nonpolitical education" -- that type of thing.
In '96, it was a very high-profile, thoroughly visible campaign. But in '98 they put it into staff and it was a lot less visible, and they were more effective.
Insight: The ground war was more effective?
REL: I think it was. They admitted sending out 70,000 staff in the last weeks of the election. I think they're really more effective at getting their people registered and to the polls and they know generally how they're going to vote, and if they've got people that they know don't support the union, they're going to be less likely to get them on the list of the people they move to the polls.
Insight: Is union power on the increase?
REL: At this moment, perhaps. There's a little more militancy since Sweeney took over. He's at least been more noisy. What has happened since 40 years ago -- when union membership was the highest it's ever been as a percentage of the workforce -- is that membership gradually declined as a percentage of the workforce. The union leadership as a result has concentrated more and more on achieving its ends through political power.
The biggest union is now the teachers' union, the NEA [National Education Association], with almost 2.5 million members. You've got the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] pushing 1 million members. The union movement now is very heavily influenced by the public-sector unions. But their political objectives are very, very similar to [private-sector unions such as] the AFL-CIO. The candidates they support are always big government, pro-tax, more government control, and so their objectives are going to be very similar.
Insight: In 1996, Rutgers University economist Leo Troy testified before Congress that union officials may pour as much as a half-billion dollars into federal politics each election cycle. Is this accurate? …