When the GOP lost organized labor in Kansas


August 22, 2018 - 10:39 AM

With Labor Day on the September horizon, we are reminded of a chilly divorce, a dramatic shift in the state’s political landscape. Sixty years ago organized labor left the Republican Party, ending what had been a relatively long and mostly happy relationship.
The party then was as strong as it is today, but it was also the party of organized labor in Kansas. The GOP had a history of reform, of coalitions with progressive Democrats that led to establishing a Federal Trade Commission, minimum wages for men and women, the prohibition of child labor, antitrust laws, and a federal income tax. They worked for a Federal Reserve Act, the Food and Drug Act, worker compensation laws, safety and health standards for various occupations and the eight-hour workday, among others. Republicans called for vigilance to reduce inequities in the distribution of wealth. Government, wherever necessary, became an agency of human welfare.
In Kansas, Republicans also were for hot lunches in schools, statewide polio immunization, construction of the turnpike, aid to schools, the poor, the elderly.
Then things began to go sideways. On the Kansas ballot in 1958 was a right-to-work constitutional amendment that burned with controversy. The amendment would prohibit people from being denied work for belonging or not belonging to a labor union. It also outlawed the union shop in Kansas.
In his bid for re-election, Gov. George Docking, a Democrat, avoided clear commitment. The less he said about the matter (privately, he supported it), the more money Republicans would spend to get the amendment passed, and the less his Republican opponent, Clyde Reed, would be able to raise as a result.
A majority of labor union members had been Republicans until the late 1940s and early 1950s and were native Kansans most likely to be Republicans. Labor leaders had always known who buttered their bread. They expected Republicans to win, and they had stayed on the GOP band wagon.
Because Republicans had been the labor party in Kansas, big business denounced Republican Gov. Ed Arn (1951-55) as loudly as his successor, Fred Hall (1955-57). Labor had made great gains under Gov. Frank Carlson (1947-50) and Arn. But big business ran the Republican Party and big business, at the time, was not satisfied. After Hall’s bitter defeat in the 1956 primary, the right-wing, right-to-workers sought to control the party. Labor had nowhere to go but to the Democrats. Thus, right-to-work as an issue gave the Democrats thousands of new dollars and voters.
In 1958, organized labor rolled up its sleeves for the expensive, back-breaking precinct work to help its cause and voted Democratic as it never had before. Docking won re-election by more than 100,000 votes. It was the first time Kansas re-elected a Democratic governor, and the first time in 24 years Kansas elected three Democratic (of six, then) congressmen.
This historic change had been cumulative, with gradual Democratic gains all over Kansas — in the House of Representatives, in the precincts, in courthouses.
Too many Republicans failed to see the trends. They were disillusioned with Fred Hall, disgruntled with liberals among them and determined to defeat labor. In throwing them all out, they had lost two elections — and organized labor — for good.
Today another Labor Day approaches in Kansas, dragging its ragged belongings and tattered history. Workers at election time are like travelers stranded at a busy intersection beset with directions and assurances, signpost fantasies of peace and prosperity. They know where they want to be, but no one yet can convince them how to get there.
— The Salina Journal

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