In 1955 Utah's predominantly Mormon and Republican legislature passed its version of a "right-to-work" law and Governor J. Bracken Lee, a conservative non-Mormon Republican, signed the bill. Utah thus became the eighteenth state, and one of the few outside the South, to enact this type of legislation. The passage and retention of this law, outlawing all forms of union security in Utah, has deep historical roots associated with the locally dominant Mormon Church, which has had a long history of conflict with the labor union movement.
The beginning of official church resistance to union security provisions, usually incorrectly viewed only as closed shops, was seen as early as 1886 in an editorial of the church-owned and controlled Deseret News. The editorial condemned unions, then growing rapidly in Utah under the aegis of the Knights of Labor, for preventing men from doing work which their fellow union members refused to do as well as hindering capital from hiring whomsoever it wished. The conflict escalated over the next few years, with local strikes aimed at securing closed shops. The News saw these strikes as "a breach of the liberty of conscience." Attempts by the American Federation of Labor-affiliated Typographical Union to impose a closed shop on the News in the 1890s stiffened that newspaper's resistance.
The Mormon leadership was publicly brought into the conflict early in the twentieth century as it sought to bring Utah into the American political and economic mainstream. In the process, Mormons had essentially discarded their cooperatives and United Orders, seen by many as forms of socialism, and were becoming integrated into a capitalistic economic system. In 1902 the church's president, Joseph F. Smith, considered to be an authoritative prophet by devout Mormons, while not objecting to union membership itself, denounced attempts to "prevent men from working who do not belong to labor unions." This has subsequently been a consistent, publicly stated theme of those Mormon leaders who have addressed the subject of union security provisions in labor contracts.
This resistance to closed shops peaked three times over the succeeding decades. The first was during the 1920s. With the close of the First World War, there was loud criticism of unions as tools of communism, producing a climate of intense opposition to unions, couched in terms of patriotism or Americanism. The nationwide so-called American Plan resulted, Utah playing a substantial role in its development. In the early years, the plan was seen as an "open shop" movement in which workers would be free to join or not join a labor union. Official church support became apparent with the public involvement of the presiding bishop and the church president, Heber J. Grant, in the affairs of the Associated Industries, the primary sponsor of Utah's American Plan. By the end of the decade, American and Utah industry had essentially become non-union, with union men and women systematically excluded from employment by most employers.
The second peak of official resistance to union security provisions came with the resurgence of unionism in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with consequent increased demands for closed shops. While the Mormon Church president, Heber J. Grant, was without question opposed to compulsory unionism, it fell to a member of the church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Joseph F. Merrill, to take a strong public position against compulsory unionism in the general conferences of the church. Closed shops were seen by him in 1941 as "Satan's club and therefore destructive of human rights." Such clauses were viewed as taking away from able-bodied men the "right to work," and he proposed a "right-to-work league" to assure all who wanted to work that privilege.
The editors of the Deseret News consistently supported this public stance during these years, and when a conservative, anti-union Congress was elected in 1946, they urged it to outlaw the closed shop. Their position reflected the general attitude of the American people, and in 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other restrictive measures, outlawed the closed shop. The law did legitimize lesser forms of union security such as the union shop, agency shop, and maintenance of membership clauses. However, it also permitted states to pass laws more restrictive than the federal law regarding union security questions. The result was the national "right-to-work" movement and a subsequent flurry of state laws outlawing all forms of union security. In 1955, as mentioned, the Deseret News came out in strong support of Utah's version and an increasingly Mormon and conservative legislature, with the support of the governor, made it into law.
One additional major development over the right-to-work question occurred in 1965. In that year, Congress was considering the repeal of the legislation permitting state laws to outlaw all forms of union security provisions. At that time, Mormon Church President David O. McKay and his counselors issued a letter to the twelve Mormon congressmen from various western states, urging them to vote in favor of retaining the existing legislation, thereby protecting the state right-to-work laws, averring that doing so would maintain the essential "free agency" principle.
The letter was seen by many, including several of the Mormon congressmen, devout and otherwise, as an improper intrusion of church influence into political affairs. One devout Utah Mormon congressman, David King, opposed to right-to-work laws and faced with a dilemma, considered resigning his seat until he was informed by one of the church president's counselors that the letter constituted only an opinion, not a binding injunction, in his mind releasing him to vote his conscience. He voted to change the existing law and was defeated in the next election, being seen by many devout Mormons as having defied the church leadership. However, no official church sanction was imposed against him, and he was later made a bishop and a mission president.
It might appear that the question of Utah's right-to-work law was and is strictly a religious one, imposed by the Mormon Church leaders. However, in actuality it is tied up in the political, social, and economic development of the state. A 1959 survey of church leadership at the regional and local levels showed that they were at that time overwhelmingly Republican. While there is no known survey of the political affiliation of the general authorities of the LDS Church, they are probably also predominantly, though not universally nor publicly, Republican. This would seem to predispose church leadership at all levels to be opposed to compulsory unionism. However, it must also be recognized that contemporary church leaders generally have middle- and upper-middle-class roots, as they primarily come from the professional, managerial, and owner ranks; and they consequently tend to have negative attitudes toward unions based on economic self-interest. Few have been manual workers, who would more likely favor unions and union security provisions in labor contracts.
In addition, it should be pointed out that while the survey showed that regional and local Mormon leaders opposed closed shops and automatic union dues, they overwhelmingly approved voluntary dues and the continuance of membership clauses in labor contracts. They also were close to evenly split on union and agency shops. However, all of these lesser forms of union security are in effect outlawed by Utah's right-to-work law.
Another survey in 1966 showed that while 83 percent of Utah Mormons surveyed favored the state's right-to-work law, 69 percent of the non-Mormons also favored it. Even when Utah's Democrats have controlled the governorship and state legislature, as they did during Governor Calvin Rampton's tenure, Utah's right-to-work law has survived essentially unchanged. With that kind of public support, and with an increasingly conservative, Republican-dominated state legislature, there is little wonder that the state's right-to-work law has been retained.
J. Kenneth Davies