Inside the Koch Family’s 60-Year Anti-Union Campaign That Gave Us Janus

Lisa Graves

Charles Koch has spent his political life trying to crush unions. (Getty/Washington Post)

With last month’s monumental Janus decision by the Supreme Court, the Koch family won a major victory in their multi-generational attack on unions.

The ruling spreads to the entire public sector one of the laws the Koch fortune first helped push through in Kansas 60 years ago: right-to-work.” And in doing so it enshrines the union-busting agenda their fossil fuel money has helped advance for decades. 

Through a single vote, the Court’s 5-4 Janus decision reverses decades of legal precedent that had obstructed part of the Koch’s pro-corporate agenda. That vote was secured with the Kochs’ help in bankrolling efforts that include: helping to maintain a GOP Senate majority; helping the Senate block President Obama from filling the February 2016 Supreme Court vacancy; and helping to win the confirmation of right-wing corporate activist Neil Gorsuch.

Janus helps cement the nation’s highest court as the Koch Court, and Charles Koch wants to keep it that way.

As Documented first detailed in partnership with the Intercept, for months the Kochs had been investing heavily in anticipation of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Court, which was announced on June 27, the same day as Janus. Earlier this year, the Koch group Americans for Prosperity” (AFP) hired Sarah Field from the Koch-funded Federalist Society to spearhead its campaign to extend the Koch hold on the Court for perhaps a generation or more.

Despite claims by AFP that helping to seat Gorsuch was their first” foray into Supreme Court nominations, the Koch effort to influence who becomes a judge and how they interpret the law goes back much further.

In fact, the Kochs have been investing in reshaping the law to suit their personal agenda for decades. For example, the Koch group Citizens for a Sound Economy, AFP’s predecessor, backed Clarence Thomas’ controversial confirmation to the Court more than 25 years ago.

The Kochs’ long-term agenda to remake the United States in their image is a multi-pronged effort that includes changing both the law and who makes or interprets the laws, including the anti-union Janus decision.

The seeds of Janus 

The effort to roll back union rights actually began almost a century ago, as wealthy industrialists objected to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, known as the Wagner Act, which enshrined the right to collective bargaining in the United States.

Many tycoons of the time, like Alfred Sloan, head of General Motors, opposed those rights along with other business reforms of FDR’s New Deal.

Fred Koch, co-founder of the corporation that later became Koch Industries, harshly criticized American workers under New Deal policies in 1938. He extolled the economic policies of Emperor Hirohito and fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini:

Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard… The laboring people in those countries are proportionately much better off than they are any place else in the world. When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925 you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.

Only recently, through the investigative work of Jane Mayer, has the public learned that the Koch fortune was actually built in part on directly aiding Hitler by building the oil-cracking factory that became a key component in the Nazi war machine.” As Mayer noted in her 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, that factory refined high-octane fuel needed for the Luftwaffe, which targeted, terrorized, and killed many thousands of innocent civilians. Fred Koch’s praise of Germany came after Hitler’s air bombers helped murder 136 men, women, and children in Guernica in the Basque region, a tragedy made famous by the mural painted by Pablo Picasso.

Meanwhile, industrialists like Sloan pursued efforts to undo New Deal reforms. In 1947, Congress amended the Wagner Act with the Taft-Hartley Act. It gave states the power to pass right-to-work” laws that undermined collective bargaining by not requiring workers who benefit from bargained rights to pay dues to the unions that secured and enforced them.

How the Kochs fertilized right-to-work”

As Mayer noted:

[Fred Koch] was an early and active member of the Wichita-based DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom, an anti-labor group [founded in 1945] that was a forerunner of the National Right to Work Defense Foundation. In a revealing private letter, one of its staff members explained the group’s Astroturf’ strategy. In reality, he said, big-business industrialists would run the group, serving as its anonymous quarterbacks,’ and call the turns.’ But he said they needed to sell the yarn’ that the group was composed of housewives, farmers, small businessmen, professional people, wage earners-not big business industrialists.’ Otherwise, he admitted, the movement was almost certainly doomed to failure.’

By 1954, an engineer from Wichita, Kan., Reed Larson, took a leave from his job at the Coleman Company, to launch Kansans-for-the-Right-to-Work. The following year, former Rep. Fred Hartley, Jr., (R-N.J.) co-founded the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC). By 1958, the NRTWC was targeting six states to adopt right-to-work laws but it failed in every place, except Kansas.

Fred [Koch] co-led a referendum drive to alter the state constitution in order to make it harder for unions to take root in Kansas,” Duke University Professor Nancy MacLean noted.

On Nov. 9, 1958, the New York Times reported that right-to-work won in Kansas because anti-union views had taken hold, noting:

More campaign efforts and more money were expended on the emotion-provoking issue than on the campaigns of all Republican and Democratic state and Congressional candidates combined. … For the last 10 days or so before Election Day an organization called Kansans-for-the-Right-to-Work flooded newspapers, television channels and other advertising media with appeals to vote yes.’ These by far outnumbered the vote no’ advertisements of unions opposing the amending.

A month later, Fred Koch joined Robert Welch and ten other men in Indianapolis to found the extreme rightwing group dubbed the John Birch Society” (JBS).

As the Washington Post noted in its 1961 profile of JBS:

At the top of the Society’s structure in Wichita are several very wealthy industrialists. Oil engineer Fred Koch is president of the Rock Island Oil and Refining Co. A millionaire several times over, he is on the Society’s national council. … Wichita is the John Birch Society’s center of strength in Kansas, and one of its greatest in the country. … The leadership of the Birch Society overlaps heavily with the leadership of the organizations that successfully campaigned in 1958 for a right to work amendment to the State’s Constitution.

As detailed by Group Research Inc. in its 1962 history of JBS, Koch worked with both NRTWC and the Christian Crusade in arguing against union dues like those at issue in the Janus case.

A history of hostility 

In 1959, Fred Koch joined the Executive Committee to plan the JBS strategy to push back against what it viewed as communism in nearly every American institution.

In 1960, Koch published his polemic A Business Man Looks at Communism” and distributed it to JBS chapters across the country. That pamphlet makes a variety of hysterical claims against unions, including:

Labor Unions have long been a Communist goal. How far they have been penetrated by Communists I have no idea, but it must be very far indeed, judging the hatred and venom poured out in some labor papers….

Koch also accused the U.S. Supreme Court under former Gov. Earl Warren (R-CA) of issuing pro-Communist decisions, the universities of having thousands of Communist professors, the United Nations of being subversive, and former GOP President Dwight Eisenhower of being soft on Communism.

Similar sentiments were expressed in numerous other publications the JBS also pushed. The organization pitched a screed against the union workers who organized against Kohler fixtures in Wisconsin. It pushed attacks on the UAW’s Walter Reuther, who was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It published and peddled right-wing writer Rosalie Gordon’s attack on the U.S. Supreme Court for decisions enforcing collective bargaining rights as protecting the labor-union monopoly,” along with what she called the plague” of desegregation caused by Brown v. Board of Education.

The JBS also pushed reprints of tomes by Ludwig von Mises attacking unions as illegitimate intervenors in the free market,” artificial inflators of wages for workers, and thieves of the profits of tycoons. It promoted F.A. Hayek’s vilification of government regulation of corporations as leading to fascism and Hilaire du Berrier’s conspiracy theories that American labor unions were supposedly using union dues to finance communist terrorist violence abroad.

Fred Koch’s son Charles urged visitors to the John Birch Society bookstore in Wichita to read copies of JBS pamphlets, including those by anti-labor writers from the Austrian School of Economics, like Mises.

Indeed, as the present author first documented for the Center for Media and Democracy, Charles Koch became active in JBS after returning home to Wichita to help with the family business. Charles was a leader and fundraiser for JBS, including underwriting its publications and national radio network, while it attacked collective bargaining and leaders of the civil rights movement such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. 

Charles Koch in action

Though he left JBS in 1968, Charles Koch never abandoned its core anti-union agenda and the lessons of his father’s commitment to right-to-work. He did try to shed some of the rhetoric around communist conspiracies, though of late he was painted by Koch political strategist Richard Fink as a martyr against collectivism,” in audio obtained by the Undercurrent, which also included outlandish claims linking fascism and the minimum wage. 

It was Charles Koch’s investment in lifting up the work of Mises and Hayek, who made similar claims, that helped preserve and extend their legacy. As Stephen Moore noted in a 2006 profile on Charles for the Wall Street Journal:

The authors who have had the most profound influence on his own political philosophy include F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Julian Simon, Paul Johnson and Charles Murray. Mr. Koch says that he experienced an intellectual epiphany in the early 1960s, when he attended a conference on free-market capitalism hosted by the late, great Leonard Reed.

Charles brought Mises to Wichita to speak and deployed F.A. Baldy” Harper’s Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) to promote Mises and his protégé Hayek. As lauded by Reed’s Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), Hayek argued that unions violated the very idea of the rule of law” and that the Wagner Act was central to that violation, a sentiment he promoted in numerous writings.

Charles Koch is deeply devoted to an alternative universe in which collective bargaining undermines the rule of law and is not a major cause of increased wages. Moore noted in his interview:

As we continue, Mr. Koch becomes increasingly animated. He discusses another seminal work in his collection, F.A. Harper’s 1957 Why Wages Rise. The book demonstrates that wages rise not because of unions or government action, but because of marginal productivity gains – people get more money when they produce more value for other people.’ Then he confides, I was so thrilled by this revelation that I had what Maslow called a peak experience.’’”

Koch has also supported the NRTWC, which sought to put a new face on the anti-union campaign by building its rhetoric on the arguments of Hayek, Mises, and others with a respectable’ pedigree.” The NRTWC argues that:

Compulsory unionism itself violates the dignity of the individual worker, regardless of how the forced union tribute is spent. As the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich A. von Hayek wrote: “[T]he coercion which unions have been permitted to exercise … is primarily the coercion of fellow workers.

Deep devotion and investment

Hayek and Mises are not the only two virulently anti-union economists Charles Koch backed. As Nancy MacLean documented in Democracy in Chains, one of the key architects of the Koch agenda domestically and internationally, James Buchanan, also railed against the so-called union monopolies” for distorting free market” wages.

And, as UnKoch My Campus has detailed, Koch money has funded scores of academics to push their agenda at universities, buying control over content and personnel with restrictive dictates attached to their donations.

Many of the rightwing groups Charles Koch is known to have made a major investment in since the 1970s have pushed right-to-work or attacked collective bargaining rights. These include Reason magazine, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network and many more.

During David Koch’s 1980 bid to become vice president, running on the ticket of Libertarian Ed Clark — which was pushed by Charles and fueled with Koch cash — the campaign platform included making right-to-work the law of the land:

[W]e urge repeal of the National Labor Relations Act, and all state Right to Work Laws, which prohibit employers from making voluntary contracts with unions. We oppose all government back-to-work orders as imposing a form of forced labor.

That is, there would be no need for state right-to-work laws if there were no NLRA that protects collective bargaining rights. As a result, right-to-work would be effectively nationalized at the determination of the employer.

After badly losing that election, the Kochs have invested heavily in changing the culture — and courts of America — to make their anti-union vision a reality.

Right-to-work is part of that vision.

Millions spent

A leak of the Kochs’ summer retreat in 2010 revealed that they featured NRTWC leaders at their gathering of billionaires to plot plans for that year’s midterm elections.

In 2012, before most of America even knew that the Kochs had branded their billionaire conclave as Freedom Partners,” that group injected $1 million directly into the NRTWC among the more than $200 million of its known spending that cycle.

In 2016, they focused much of their known political spending on keeping a GOP majority in the Senate, and they influenced the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court by helping to block Judge Merrick Garland’s confirmation.

For the 2018 election, they’ve pledged to spend more than $400 million through the Seminar Network, the latest rebranding of their network of tycoons.

To be clear, the Koch family fortune is not the only one that has been expended pushing right-to-work laws to try to weaken the power of ordinary people to negotiate through unions. A major funder of right-to-work effort has been the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, along with Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which Mother Jones has dubbed the ATM” of the right wing.

Collective bargaining has provided women with greater economic opportunities and job security. Right-to-work laws also have a disproportionate impact on people of color, who are union members at a higher rate than whites. Black women will likely be the group most adversely affected by the Janus case. Notably, workers in right-to-work states also have lower wages than in states that have rejected this agenda.

Undermining progressives too

The spread of right to work through Janus also will affect our elections.

As In These Times has documented with the Center for Media and Democracy, the national push for right-to-work is designed to undermine the power of unions and to defang and defund” them as a way to weaken the chances for progressives to win in politics and policy.

The Koch investment in making right-to-work a national reality represents one of the longest and deepest commitments to this agenda, aside from NRTWC itself.

And this year marks the 60th anniversary of Fred Koch’s victory of making right-to-work legally binding in Kansas.

Now, six decades later, Charles Koch has helped make his father’s wish binding on the rest of America through helping to make the Janus ruling a reality.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Lisa Graves is the Co-Director of Documented. She previously served as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. She was also Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she vetted potential judicial nominees. She previously led the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) where she spearheaded the launch of ALEC Exposed. She is an Advisor to UnKoch My Campus and on the Board of Directors of CMD.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.