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Unions look past party labels and endorse candidates who stand with labor

By BERRY CRAIG

The almost-concluded session of the General Assembly has provided more proof—as if more proof were needed—that there’s a world of difference between most Republicans and most Democrats on labor issues.

The disparity is as plain as how lawmakers voted on HB 1, “right to work”; HB 3, prevailing wage repeal; and SB 6, a paycheck deception measure. Republicans drafted, sponsored, introduced and passed the legislation.

Only five of 64 GOP House members broke with their party and Gov. Matt Bevin to vote "no" on HB 1. Seven opposed HB 3 and a half-dozen rejected SB 6.  One GOP senator voted against all three bills. 

Every voting Democratic lawmaker opposed the legislation, except for one House member who supported HB 3. (Three House Democrats who were absent later recorded "no" votes; an absent Republican senator added his "yes" vote.)  

The tea party-tilting Bevin giddily signed HB 1, HB 3 and SB 6. The archconservative Republican ran in 2015 on a platform with RTW and PW-repeal planks.

This year was the first time ever that the GOP has controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Heretofore, only a 53-47 Democratic-majority House had saved organized labor from union-busting bills.

The Trump tsunami turned the House 64-36 Republican, while the GOP maintained its 27-11 Senate edge.

HB 1, HB 3 and SB 6 passed, rapid-fire, early in the session. “The vehemence and speed with which these bills were moved through the legislative process, including the unprecedented Saturday legislative session, demonstrated the intention of the new majority to exact retribution for their long inability to pass any of these harmful initiatives,” said Bill Londrigan, Kentucky State AFL-CIO president.

Anyway, in Washington, too, Democrats are far more likely to support union and union-supported issues than Republicans are.

“History will tell you that the Democrats ramrodded every meaningful piece of legislation for the benefit of working people,” said J.R. Gray of Benton, a former Democratic state representative, Machinists union official, and Kentucky labor secretary.

Few legislators have been a better friend to labor than Gray who, as longtime chair of the House Labor and Industry Committee, stopped cold RTW and other anti-union bills. 

Gray is right about history, the subject I taught in a community college for two dozen years.

Unions have been a big part of the Democratic base since Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Democratic-majority New Deal Congress gave workers the legal protection to organize and bargain collectively with their employers—and required employers to recognize unions when workers voted in unions.

"If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I'd do would be to join a union," FDR said.

Most Democrats in Washington are still in labor’s corner. Check out the AFL-CIO’s online Legislative Record, which rates House and Senate members on how often they vote the labor position on legislation.

The contrast is stark, nowhere more so than in Kentucky’s congressional delegation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both Republicans, want a national RTW law. Republican President Donald Trump is pro-RTW.

Since he’s been in the Senate, McConnell has voted the union way just 12 percent of the time. Paul’s lifetime score is 14 percent.

Here’s how four of the five GOP House members from the Bluegrass State--all of them are pro-RTW--rate on union support over their careers: Brett Guthrie, 10 percent; Thomas Massie, 20; Hal Rogers, 20, and Andy Barr, 5.

Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, Kentucky’s lone Democrat on Capitol Hill, has scored 98 percent, lifetime.

The tallies only go through 2015, so freshman Rep. James Comer, also a Republican, is not rated. But when he unsuccessfully ran for governor against Bevin in the 2015 GOP primary, he, like Bevin, favored RTW and opposed Prevailing Wage.

The Democrats are not a labor party like the one in Great Britain, which grew out of Britain's trade union movement.

The national AFL-CIO and the Kentucky AFL-CIO are independent of political parties. Efforts to form labor parties have been short-lived and unsuccessful.

In any event, unions look past party labels and, with input from the rank-and-file, endorse candidates who support unions. Since FDR and the New Deal, most of those candidates have been Democrats because most Democrats support organized labor, and most Republicans don't. 

Moderate, pro-labor Republicans are virtually extinct. Like Bevin, McConnell despises unions.

In hailing the Kentucky RTW law, McConnell smeared union leaders as “Big Labor bosses.” In a statement, he crowed that they “should know that the new Republican majority in Frankfort is determined to use their mandate to fight for Kentucky workers, Kentucky jobs, and a stronger Middle Class.”

Votes on HB 1, HB 3, SB 6 and other anti-union bills show almost every Republican lawmaker is fighting against workers, Bluegrass State jobs and a better-off middle class. 

The middle class has shrunk as union membership has declined, in Kentucky and nationwide. Millionaire McConnell knows that. So do Bevin, who is another millionaire, and the rest of the Republicans who rule the roost in Frankfort--and Washington. Naturally, they would never admit that unions largely built the middle class.    

The GOP grandees also are aware that nearly all of the poorest states are RTW states. Mississippi, RTW since 1954, is dead last. Mum’s the word from the GOP bigwigs about that, too.   

Nonetheless, "union" was the word from Democratic state Rep. Will Coursey of Marshall County, a former student of mine, when the GOP was steamrollering RTW through the House.  

The state AFL-CIO-endorsed Coursey rose in the marble-walled chamber to explain why he was against RTW. Though brief, his remarks packed a powerful punch.

“I’m proud to be a product of union wages,” he declared"My daddy was a member of the 181 Operating Engineers, and my mother was a Steelworker….I’m proud to have worked with the Kentucky Pipe Trades Association. [The union is] in my blood. It’s put groceries on my table, Mr. Speaker.”

Coursey, who succeeded Gray, warned that RTW was “about destroying the middle class” and he concluded, “Mr. Speaker, it’s obvious that the majority is going to rule today, and you’re going to get what you want. But I’ll say this, our heads are bloodied but they are unbowed–you may have won the battle, but the war continues on.”

The GOP hasn't always been an anti-union party. "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital," President Abraham Lincoln said. "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

"I have no use for those — regardless of their political party — who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass," President Dwight  D. Eisenhower said.  "Today in America unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice."

Sadly, the Republican party of "The Great Emancipator," Ike and "the Global Kentuckian," Sen. John Sherman Cooper, is long gone. 

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-- Berry Craig of Mayfield, where he was born and reared, is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah. He is a member of the Graves County Democratic Executive Committee, the Kentucky State AFL-CIO Executive Committee and the author of a half dozen books on Bluegrass State history including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo.