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  • “As Great an Issue as Slavery or Abolition”: Economic Populism, the Conservative Movement, and the Right-to-Work Campaigns of 1958
  • Kim Phillips-Fein (bio)

A few weeks before the 1958 California gubernatorial election, the Republican candidate and Senator William Fife Knowland arrived for a scheduled speaking engagement at the Fontana United Steelworkers Union Hall, a mammoth structure seating more than one thousand people. Knowland, the son of the powerful publisher of the Oakland Tribune, had been admired by conservatives throughout his Senate career. He had voted against the censure of Joseph McCarthy, and he had contributed an article to the inaugural issue of National Review. An ardent Cold Warrior, he was dubbed the “Senator from Formosa” because he consistently advocated that the United States should support anti-Communist forces in China, instead of focusing only on the Soviet Union. His name had been circulated in the conservative press as a possible presidential candidate in 1956.1

But in 1958, as he sought the governorship of California, Knowland sought to appeal to a group of people to whom conservatives in the 1950s rarely turned for support: union members. He did so even though the central issue in his campaign was the passage of a right-to-work ballot initiative, bitterly contested by the California labor movement and the national AFL-CIO: Proposition 18, which made it illegal to require union membership as a condition of employment. While the Knowland campaign knew that labor’s leaders would oppose right-to-work legislation, the candidate nonetheless [End Page 491] attempted to sway union members and other working-class voters to support the measure by presenting the proposition as a matter of individual rights and union democracy. Knowland sought to demonstrate that right-to-work was actually carrying forward the legacy of the New Deal and of the labor movement, fulfilling the cause of economic justice and embodying the promise of civil rights.

In 1958, these efforts failed miserably in California. Few people showed up at the Steelworkers Hall to hear Knowland (most of the dozen or so who were there had in fact only come to do interviews for jury duty), and he spoke before a largely empty hall. On the door of the union offices outside the auditorium was a handwritten sign: “Offices Closed. Attending Pat Brown Meetings.” (Attorney General Edmund “Pat” Brown was the Democratic candidate for governor.) Union officials condemned Knowland, saying that the campaign had exaggerated the plan for him to address a meeting of rank-and-file workers: “Every one of our locals has endorsed Pat Brown and unalterably expressed opposition to Knowland and his wreck-labor policy through Proposition 18.”2 It was a sign of his campaign’s fate. Knowland lost the November election by a margin of more than a million votes (the turnout was 5.2 million). California was not the only state where right-to-work was defeated in 1958. The measure had been on the ballot in five other states as well (Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Kansas, and Ohio), and in all but one of them (Kansas) it lost. Learning from the debacle, later in the century Republican candidates such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would studiously avoid the issue.3

Despite these public failures, however, the 1958 right-to-work campaigns—especially in California—foreshadowed the development of an important new tactic for the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally. They represented the attempts of the conservative mobilization to appeal to voters on the grounds of economic populism, arguing that the overgrown power of organized labor and the welfare state ultimately limited, rather than expanded, the freedom and prosperity of working-class people. Even though the right-to-work issue itself would not remain central to conservative politics, the campaigns helped to revive a rhetorical framework and interpretation of the oppressive power of labor unions that would prove important to the popularization of the economic ideas associated with the conservative movement later in the twentieth century. In their efforts on behalf of the right-to-work, conservative activists sought to take a cause that had previously been seen as reactionary and antiunion—and that was still bitterly opposed...


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pp. 491-512
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