A half century ago, Richard Nixon spearheaded his party’s national congressional campaign in the face of a recession like we face today. Then Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, he decided the GOP would champion anti-worker laws pioneered in the segregationist south as a way to defeat Democrats. Specifically, he rolled out “right to work” ballot initiatives to weaken the labor movement. These measures ban contracts that compel employees benefiting from union representation to contribute union dues.
When the 1958 election came, Nixon’s blame-workers-first initiatives bombed, and Republicans lost 48 congressional seats, handing the party “its worst year ever,” as historian Rick Perlstein recounts in his brilliant new book, Nixonland.
“Right-to-work wasn’t popular with a general public that understood how a strong labor movement had rocketed millions of voters into the middle class,” Perlstein writes.
Fifty years later, conservatives are ignoring history’s teachings and resurrecting Nixon’s failed strategy in a place that could decide a close presidential election. Here in Colorado, one of the most contested “swing” states, a group of zealots is hoping a “right to work” ballot initiative will drive up GOP turnout and help John McCain keep nine electoral votes in the Republican column.
The strategy is bold in its desperation. Right-wingers are betting that Colorado citizens will vote to cut their own pay. After all, according to the Economic Policy Institute, employees in right to work states make between 4 and 8 percent less per year than those in other states.
Already, a poll shows 56 percent of the state opposes “right to work” laws. Even one of Colorado’s most influential business groups has said it has “no desire” for such irrational measures. But the right is not in a rational frame of mind.
Colorado conservatives are reeling after Republicans lost both the legislature and governor’s mansion for the first time in more than four decades. The local Republican Party is so unhinged that it hired a buffoon named Dick Wadhams to save it – the same Dick Wadhams who most recently made headlines running Sen. George “Macaca” Allen’s 2006 re-election campaign into the ground, effectively ending the Virginia lawmaker’s political career. Clearly, these are dire times for the right, and despair tends to deify the Nixons and the Wadhamses by embracing irrational extremism – whether YouTube-amplified racism or worker persecution inherent in “right to work” schemes.
Adding to conservatives’ troubles is Colorado’s emboldened labor movement. Rather than crouching in a defensive posture, unions are preparing two initiatives that could drive up turnout for Democrats and serve as a model for other states across the nation.
One forces the right to defend criminals – literally. The initiative would make a corporate executive personally liable under the law if he or she “engages in, authorizes, solicits, requests, commands or knowingly tolerates the business’s criminal conduct.”
According to union polling, 84 percent of Colorado citizens back the measure. Nonetheless, the Denver Chamber of Commerce is trying to keep the initiative off the ballot, claiming that punishing corporate criminals is “a direct assault on our business climate.” Yes, conservatives say lawbreaking is not an “assault on our business climate” – prosecuting lawbreakers is. Next thing you know these shills will argue that locking up violent criminals hurts the “business climate” because, when not killing people, murderers contribute to the local economy.
The other labor-backed initiative would require employers to have a “just cause” when laying off an employee. The unions’ poll shows 70 percent of Colorado voters support the concept – not surprising, considering many voters are probably shocked to discover that most states allow employers to terminate workers for any reason not already outlawed by existing anti-discrimination statutes. Your boss doesn’t like that you root for a particular professional sports team? Unless the ballot initiative passes, you can be fired “at will” for that and more in Colorado – and the initiative’s conservative opponents will be arguing that’s A‑OK by them.
Perlstein notes that after his anti-labor strategy backfired in 1958, Nixon “hardly said an ill word about the labor movement in public again.” He learned a lesson today’s conservatives have forgotten – namely, that the public punishes those who overtly denigrate workers. If these initiatives end up on the ballot in a state garnering so much election attention, voters will have the chance to teach the right that crucial lesson once again.