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.


It seems that you left out the part where management and union officials are getting rather cozy nowadays, I know that with my union contract in particular, we keep losing benefits, while the guys at the top keep raking in the big bucks!, it seems they are basically turning into the same people they are paid to protect us from my dues is being spent on things that have nothing to do with my Union, like a whole website designed just to badmouth Walmart, now what does that have to do with the collective bargaining of my contract... NOTHING!, but they insist on taking an extra percentage out of my check each week on top of my regular union dues!, please write a follow up article on the out of control Union leaders corruption.

It is a troubling time for United States. We the people are under attack from within. The enemy is aloof, cunning and powerful. The enemy is Corporate America and our own Government. I include the government because they are in debt to the corporations who fund their political campaigns. We may be the voters but we don't pay the extraordinary expense of a campaign for a politician to obtain a high government position. The Corporations know they can get what they want by donating huge amounts of money to these campaigns and by spending millions of dollars on lobbyists to push the legislation that will benefit the Corporations and hurt the average American worker. The "Right to Work" legislation was conceived by Corporations intent on weakening and destroying the unions in this country. Any legislator voting in favor of this legislation is a "Corporate Pawn". If the Corporations and the government succeed at destroying the unions there will be no one left to fight for our fair labor rights. Without Unions, our wages, our health care, our pensions, our paid time off, our safe working conditions, our right to a forty hour work week and many other benefits will slowly but surely decline and eventually disappear. Unions are not the problem. Union people are not the problem. Corporations and our Government are the problem, their greed is the problem, their thirst for power is the problem. The American people want nothing more than a modest living. They don't mind hard work and are the backbone of the Corporation's success. Unfortunately many Corporations have lost sight of that fact. The executives in charge of these Corporations don't care about the working class. They don't care if their workers and the worker's family have a roof over their heads, they don't care if workers have health care, safe working conditions, a retirement plan, they don't care if the workers have time off to spend with their families or even if they have food on the table. Many people across the country have been deceived in to believing that the "Right to Work" legislation is meant to help non union workers when in fact it is meant to weaken the unions so that there will be no one left to fight for worker's rights. Unions fight for a decent way of life not just for union members but for all working class people. Why would a corporation ask their employees to take benefit concessions or pay cuts when their profits are increasing year after year. In the name of "Competitiveness". What are they competing for? It's all about greed, they want more money and power at the expense of their employees. Instead of or as well as new innovative ideas to increase their profits they want to reach into the pockets of the less fortunate to fund their own bank accounts. Corporation Leaders are nothing more than thieves and bullies. Why else would they want to take from the working class when their company is making increased profits year after year? They want to take from the hard working people and their families so that they can add to their own extravagant life style. They already have more wealth than they or their family could ever need but they continue to steal from the people that have given so much of their life to the Corporation already. Any person, organization or government official who is pushing for "Right to Work" legislation is nothing more than a corporate pawn hell bent on weakening and eventually destroying unions and what unions stand for. Maybe it's time for the unions to author a bill that would ban "Right to Work" legislation and any special interest groups that seek to weaken or take away people's ability to organize as a collective bargaining unit.

Yeah, violence is NOT the answer, on EITHER side. That said, do some research into the Labor/Union movement, from it's origins, and see where the violence started. In current times the corporations no longer need the armed thugs they once employed since buying off elected officials is much more Politically Correct.

Once of the main concerns I've read about the NRTWC is has little to do with worker's wages and benefits. Few workers would want to opt out of a union to give that up. The main issue I've heard has to do with politics and lobbying. Most unions lean heavily Democrat and they invest in left leaning political causes. Therefore, workers that are or lean conservative don't feel that they should be required to contribute to a political machine that typically aligns itself with opposing politics. If unions were restricted to wages and benefits issues, and stayed out of supporting Democratic only causes, I believe you would take the steam out of organizations like NRTWC. Here is a point to ponder for you who are strong Democratic leaning union members. I challenge you to be honest with yourself. What if you are Democrat and your union had a heavy Republican influence that supported only conservative issues with its lobbying efforts. Even though you desire fair wages and benefits, might you consider wanting to opt out of your union if you knew your union dues were being used to support political views that oppose your views? For the record, I am a registered Independent.

I was solicited for a donation to the NRTWC, but was hesitant on what it was doing. Your biased editorial convinced me to support it. The last straw was the "whistleblower" allegation. No documentation, no confirmed facts, no legal prosecution of this "illegal action", just an anonymous individual spouting rumors and making unproven accusations. Is that the best you can do?

What we as the Labor Movement need to start doing is pushing for Taft-Harley to be amended so that unions do NOT have to represent non-members in Open Shop settings. If we succeed in getting that done, it will defang so-called "Right-to-Work" laws, as almost everybody, if they know they will not get representation, or will have to pay for services rendered, will join, and those few who refuse, it will be a good thing, as they would not make good members anyway.

I guess we should have the right to stop paying taxes if we don't agree with the government leadership/ actions as well

Guess what, the members are the Union. You don't like what your Union is doing, get involved. The LMRDA gives you many rights which are enforced by the DOL, use them. Stop blaming the "Union" get off your ass and get involved, that's what I did and it worked. Flo, based on all the grammatical errors in your post, you need a Union protecting your job. No Union voluntarily gives away jurisdiction, sometimes it is a battle they cannot win. Instead blaming the IBEW get the facts! Also, what is this nonsense about going after pensions? Republicans have been attacking ERISA and taking your pension since Bush signed the PPA into law. Get your facts straight. Too many ignorant people here who don't know what side their bread is buttered on. Who benefits from destroying Unions? Corporations, billionaires, and large employers. Who gets hurt by when Unions are destroyed? Employees, the the working class, most of America.