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Heston Defends Position on Right to Work

September 28, 1986

Let me remind you, I'm a union man. I've belonged to three unions most of my life, served as president of one and helped found a fourth. I'm proud of that. I'm not proud of the AFL-CIO's preemption of its members' free political choice. I don't think Samuel Gompers, the father of the labor movement in this country, would be either.

In your piece on the AFL-CIO's campaign to overturn the right to work law in Idaho, ("Right to Work Battle Heats Up in Idaho," Sept. 24 column by Harry Bernstein), you challenge this.

When you phoned me the other day, you seemed skeptical that Gompers had really said, "No gain can come from compulsion." Today you conceded the quote was accurate. (It was in fact his last public statement, on the day he died, and is inscribed on the base of his statue in Washington.)

But you cite a historian who told you that he didn't really mean that. You don't say why, just that Gompers couldn't have been in favor of right to work laws. Let me enlighten you. In December, 1918, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he said: "There may be here and there a worker who for reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union. This is his right, no matter how morally wrong he may be. It is his legal right and no one can, or dare, question his exercise of that right."

Well, the AFL-CIO does. For a generation, they've been fiercely opposing right to work laws now on the books in some 20 states. You say they've succeeded. You're wrong. In recent years Louisiana, Wyoming and Idaho have passed right to work laws, while referendums to repeal them in Arkansas, Nevada and Arizona have failed. All candidates for governor in both parties in Tennessee have gone on record in recent weeks stating they would veto any legislative overturn of the law in that state.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, backed by Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, tried to deny the states the right to pass such laws. He failed. For the past 13 years the largest and most expensive effort ever mounted by Big Labor--the entire AFL-CIO plus 12 international unions--has been winding through the federal court system. They tried to force the Right to Work Committee to provide the names of union members who had contributed money. In June, their efforts were finally denied.

This perhaps accounts for the desperation of their effort to overturn Idaho's right to work law in November. Even in a time when union membership has shrunk to 17% of America's work force, the AFL-CIO has access to $3.5 billion a year of union members' compulsory dues. (The Screen Actors Guild contributes a quarter of a million of that, and we're a tiny, underemployed union.)

The AFL-CIO has stated they are prepared to commit "whatever it takes" to overturn Idaho's right to work law. I still hope Idaho voters will reject them. I don't think it would be good for Idaho's workers, for democracy, or even for the Democratic Party. (I used to vote for them most of the time, by the way. But that was a while ago.)


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