Reed Larson, the chief of a lobbying organization to outlaw compulsory union membership and mandatory payment of union dues in labor contracts, died Sept. 17 at his home in Seattle. He was 93.
The cause was a pulmonary embolism, said a daughter, Patricia Sween.
Mr. Larson, a leading voice in a broad-based campaign to limit the power of labor union leaders, was a former president of the National Right to Work Committee and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
A former engineer in Wichita, he came to Washington in 1959 as the newly appointed leader of the National Right to Work Committee, a four-year-old organization with 20,000 members. When he stepped down as president in 2003, it had 2.2 million members and has since risen to 2.8 million.
Over the years, the Larson-led Right to Work Committee helped block union-backed efforts to repeal right-to-work laws in several states and assisted in the enactment of right-to-work laws in four states. The “right to work” term was coined by a Dallas journalist in 1941 to describe what its supporters believe to be an employee’s right to hold a job without being compelled to join a union or pay union dues or a dues equivalent. There are currently right to work laws in 26 states.
Once described by the London Daily Telegraph as the “man that American trade union bosses most love to hate,” Reed Eugene Larson was born in Smith County, Kan., on Sept. 27, 1922. His father was a farmer and his mother a former school teacher. In 1947 he graduated from Kansas State University.
He took a temporary leave from his engineering job in Wichita in 1954 to work for the passage of a right-to-work law in Kansas. After an initial veto by the governor, the measure was enacted in 1958, and the following year Mr. Larson came to Washington.
In 1965 and 1966, he helped defeat a campaign on Capitol Hill led by organized labor to repeal a section of the Taft-
Hartley Law that allowed states to enact right-to-work laws. Thirty years later his committee helped defeat legislation forbidding employers from offering permanent jobs to workers hired during strikes.
In 1970 Mr. Larson’s committee was successful in eliminating from postal reform pay raise legislation a measure that would have required union membership or dues payments from many rank-and-file postal workers.
He organized a massive letter-writing campaign in 1976 that led to a veto by President Gerald Ford of a “common sites” picketing bill that would have allowed construction unions to picket an entire building site — potentially impeding or stopping work — when they had a dispute with just one of the subcontractors working there.
The campaign produced more than 700,000 cards and letters to the White House. Not since the war in Vietnam had an issue drawn such a volume of mail, The Washington Post reported at the time.
On the judicial front, the Defense Foundation, which Mr. Larson began in 1968, helped win a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred unions from spending mandatory fees they had collected from non-union members on political campaigns or causes. Such money could be spent only on collective bargaining, the court said.
Mr. Larson retired in 2003 but continued in retirement to participate in right-to-work lobbying. A former resident of Falls Church, Va., he spent his retirement years in Williamsburg, Va., before moving to Seattle three years ago.
His wife, Marjorie Jeanne Hess Larson, whom he married in 1947, died in 2010. Survivors include three daughters, Patricia Sween of Edmonds, Wash., Barbara Finnegan of Broadway, Va., and Marcia Craig of Atlanta; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
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