After 60 years under ‘Right to Work,’ Kansas labor still feeling impact
photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Graphic; Shutterstock Images
TOPEKA – When Kansas voters went to the polls Aug. 7 for the Republican and Democratic primaries, voters in neighboring Missouri were doing the same thing.
There, however, one issue on the ballot overshadowed most of the contested partisan races: a proposition to enact what is known as a right-to-work law, which says no worker can be compelled to join a labor union as a condition of employment.
Such laws have been enacted in 27 other states, including Kansas, and they are generally seen as a tactical way of weakening the power of labor unions.
Despite the fact that the political winds in Missouri have been shifting toward conservatives, however, voters there soundly defeated the measure by a two-to-one margin, proving that organized labor is still a powerful force in the Show-Me State.
That has not been the case in Kansas, however. In fact, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the election when Kansas voters enshrined a right-to-work law into the state’s constitution.
As a result, many observers say, the power of organized labor has been greatly diminished, both in the workplace and in state politics.
Although unions in Kansas still exist in a number of private-sector workplaces — most notably the automotive, aviation, railroad and construction industries — the biggest source of union membership in Kansas and elsewhere these days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is in the public sector: schoolteachers, police and firefighters, road workers and a few other occupations.
In Kansas politics, meanwhile, organized labor does not have nearly the same clout it has in some other states, but it remains a significant force in the Kansas Democratic Party, where candidates still actively seek out and tout its endorsements.
All of that is the direct result of the multiyear political campaigns in the 1950s to enact a right-to-work law in Kansas.
Origins of right-to-work
Marc Dixon, a sociologist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, has written extensively about the history of the American labor movement and the origins of right-to-work laws, which he says had strong ties to racial politics in the Deep South in the years immediately after World War II.
“Because you had growing industrial unions at the time,” Dixon said in a phone interview. “These would be unions like the steelworkers, autoworkers, oil workers in Texas. These were all associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO. They’re more liberal, their leadership is much more liberal, and they’re much more racially liberal.”
Dixon said the CIO led campaigns in the South to get rid of poll taxes and other kinds of Jim Crow laws.
“And of course these weren’t successful, but they posed a real threat to the southern racial order just as much as they did to the southern economic order,” he said.
The push for right-to-work laws began in 1947 when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, over President Harry Truman’s veto. That law outlawed so-called “closed shops,” where employers could only hire union members, and it gave states authority to ban what are called “union shops,” where employers could hire nonunion labor, but those workers were required to join the union within a certain period of time, usually 30 days.
The first organization to push for a right-to-work law, Dixon said, was the conservative Christian American Association, whose founder, Houston businessman Vance Muse, many have described as an avowed racist.
In Arkansas, the Christian American Association distributed literature in favor of a right-to-work law that said without it “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes … whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
Texas and Florida were the first states to adopt right-to-work laws, but they quickly spread throughout the South as well as portions of the Great Plains and Mountain West where, according to Dixon, business associations and employer groups found them an effective way to curb the power of organized labor.
Right-to-work in Kansas
The push for a right-to-work law in Kansas began in the mid-1950s. But here, it took place against the backdrop of the Cold War anti-communism movement at the time, as well as the U.S. Senate investigation, known as the McClellan Commission, which focused on union corruption, particularly within the Teamsters Union and its president, Jimmy Hoffa.
The Kansas Legislature first passed a right-to-work bill in 1955, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Fred Hall, and lawmakers were unable to override that veto.
Three years later, though, with Democratic Gov. George Docking in office, lawmakers mustered enough votes to bypass the governor and put a constitutional amendment on the November 1958 ballot.
In a 2005 book titled “Farmers vs. Wage Earners: Organized Labor in Kansas, 1860-1960,” author R. Alton Lee writes about how the right-to-work movement split the long-standing alliance between farmers and organized labor that had been a cornerstone of Kansas politics since the Progressive Party governed the state in the 1890s.
The American Farm Bureau Association, the National Grange and the Kansas Livestock Association all supported right-to-work, Lee wrote. And in the 1958 campaign for passage of the amendment, the Farm Bureau put up exhibits at 35 county fairs urging people to vote for it, while labor organizations complained they were denied the right to distribute their own literature.
Meanwhile, an organization called Kansans for Right to Work Inc. produced films that were shown in movie theaters equating organized labor with organized crime.
One, titled “You Decide,” portrayed a man being beaten to death by “labor goons,” while another titled “Why Women Weep,” in Lee’s words, “showed the grief of women whose families were touched by labor violence, and many women reportedly left the showings ‘with tears in their eyes.'”
A 2012 article on the website Facing South, an online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, noted that one of the people who helped fund the campaign for right-to-work was Texas-born energy businessman Fred Koch, founder of Wichita-based Koch Industries, “who viewed unions as vessels for communism and integration.”
Fred Whitehead, a retired administrator at the University of Kansas Medical Center, grew up in a union family in Pratt, a significant railroad hub in the 1950s, and remembers the right-to-work campaign of 1958 and the tinge of anti-communism that he says went with it.
“Of course these union guys were at pains to say, ‘Look, we are all anti-communist.’ They had to fight back,” he said in a phone interview. “But these farmers were kind of mobilized against labor on those grounds.”
Whitehead noted that railroad unions, like the one his father belonged to, were protected by special federal legislation, but he said they joined in the opposition to right-to-work because they saw it as an attack on all organized labor.
In his book, Lee writes that the pro right-to-work forces “never discussed fundamental issues but left that to the AFL-CIO. As so often happens with a hotly contested issue, emotions overwhelmed the facts and too many citizens voted their feelings.”
The amendment passed, 56-44 percent.
Organized labor in Kansas today
In 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7.8 percent of wage and salary workers in Kansas belong to a labor union, far below the national average of 10.7 percent.
But union membership has also been declining nationwide. In 1983, the first year BLS began collecting comparable statistics, the national union membership rate was 20.1 percent.
Politically in Kansas, since passage of the right-to-work amendment, unions have been solidly — although not exclusively — in the camp of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the state’s leading farm organization, the Kansas Farm Bureau, has leaned heavily, but not exclusively, toward Republicans.
For the 2018 elections, the Kansas AFL-CIO has endorsed all four Democratic candidates for Congress and all but one of the Democrats for statewide office. Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, a candidate for insurance commissioner, was the only Republican statewide candidate to get the union’s endorsement.
In races for the Kansas House, the AFL-CIO has endorsed 75 Democratic candidates and only six Republicans.
The Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, displayed only a slightly more balanced pattern with its endorsements: 66 Democratic House candidates and 16 Republican candidates.
KNEA also endorsed all four Democratic congressional candidates and the Democratic candidates for governor and secretary of state, but it endorsed the Republican candidate for insurance commissioner.
In its first round of endorsements in June, before the primary, the Kansas Farm Bureau’s political action committee endorsed 77 Republican legislative candidates and 19 Democrats.