Labor looks for the 'U' first, not the D or R Skip to content

Labor looks for the 'U' first, not the D or R

7 min read

Even in non-election years like this one, I hear people gripe that there’s no point in voting.

They claim that voting is a waste of time because there’s not much difference between most Democrats and most Republicans and because “they’re all crooks.” 

All politicians are not crooked. But “elections have consequences,” Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan often reminds us.

Don’t take Bill’s word — or mine — for it. If you pack a union card like we do, check out the AFL-CIO’s latest “Legislative Report Card.” The tally shows how members of the Senate and House of Representatives vote on “issues important to working families, including strengthening Social Security and Medicare, freedom to join a union, improving workplace safety, and more.”

The Report Card reveals a world of difference between Democrats and Republicans on union issues. Let’s look at Kentucky’s lawmakers.

Sens. Mitch McConnell (Louisville) and Rand Paul (Bowling Green), are Republicans. So are Congressmen Andy Barr (Lexington), James Comer (Tompkinsville), Brett Guthrie (Bowling Green), Thomas Massie (Garrison) and Hal Rogers (Somerset).

Congressman John Yarmuth (Louisville) is the sole Democrat from Kentucky.

On the Report Card, legislators are scored on a 0-100 percent scale similar to those we had in school.

  • Since they’ve been in office, McConnell and Paul have backed the AFL-CIO position on legislation 12 percent of the time, Barr, 10; Comer, 12; Guthrie, 12, Massie, 20, and Rogers, 16.
  • Yarmuth has favored AFL-CIO supported bills 98 percent of the time.

Look up other state delegations, and you’ll see a similar chasm between  Republicans and Democrats.

At one time, union-busting was bipartisan

To be sure, the divide wasn’t always Grand Canyon-wide. That’s notably true in the late 19th-century when the country rapidly industrialized and millionaire business owners and financiers routinely bought off politicians of both parties.

They got what they paid for. Most Republicans and most Democrats were happy to do the plutocrats’ bidding, such as by refusing to pass laws to protect workers against the rapacious greed that naturally stems from unfettered capitalism, and by keeping off the books laws that guaranteed workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.   

Union-busting was bipartisan. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, dispatched U.S. soldiers to help break the Great Railroad Strike. In 1894, Democratic President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to crush the Pullman Strike.

At the same time, many Republican and Democratic governors used state militia to smash strikes. Mayors of both parties did likewise with cops. No wonder a lot of union men and women said “a pox on both your houses” and flocked to short-lived labor and pro-labor parties.   

Historically, American labor’s big shift toward the Democrats started in the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

Union members didn’t ally with the Democrats because they were Democrats. Rather, they got behind Democrats because they wanted to help labor.

Union members didn’t ally with the Democrats because they were Democrats. Rather, they got behind Democrats because the Democrats wanted to help labor.

FDR’s Depression-fighting New Deal program put millions of jobless Americans to work. Roosevelt boosted unions more than any other president had. The landmark 1935 Wagner Act guaranteed workers the right to organize and required employers to recognize duly voted-in unions.

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

Gray is a devout Democrat. But he’s got his history right. 

That’s not to say there weren’t some Republicans who sympathized with unions to one degree or another. Sen. Jake Javits of New York comes to mind. He opposed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, legislation that led to state “right to work” laws, which unions rightly call “right to work for less.” More on that in a minute.    

Too, not all Democrats have been in labor’s corner either. Conservative, white supremacist southern Democrats like Sen. Strom Thurmond, who later turned Republican, made common cause with right-wing, anti-labor  northern and western Republicans in fighting unions. 

Dixie Democrats, who dominated the region’s politics for decades, feared unions as a dire threat to their Jim Crow system of segregation and African American disenfranchisement because in a union, everybody is supposed to be equal.

The racist background of so-called “right to work”

Not coincidentally, every former Confederate State is a “right to work” state. (Conservative Democratic lawmakers and governors teamed up to enact RTW laws.)

While Democratic minorities in the Kentucky House and Senate united in opposition to RTW, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and overwhelming GOP majorities in the state House and Senate made border state Kentucky a RTW state in 2017. (Precious few Republicans opposed RTW.) 

Of course, Republicans everywhere would prefer that the racist roots of RTW not be exposed.

“The drive for such laws was fueled by Texas businessperson and white supremacist Vance Muse, who despised the doctrine of human equality represented by unions,” wrote Roger Bybee in The Progressive.

Muse, a Klan fan, was “the Karl Rove-meets-David Duke brains behind the whole right to work movement,” wrote Mark Ames in nfswcorp.

With a right to work law, workers in a union shop can enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying the union a service fee to represent them. The idea is to weaken strong unions, destroy small unions and keep workers from organizing.

It is no wonder that in 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned that “in our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.

“Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.” 

Also in 1961, he reminded the 1961 AFL-CIO convention that “… the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

King’s words ring true today. But, again, judge for yourself. Almost always, lawmakers who score low on the AFL-CIO’s Report Card also receive poor marks on the NAACP’s Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card, which rates senators and representatives on “where they stand on policies that impact the Black community.” 

The grading scale is the same one I used when I taught in a community college: 100-90 is an A; 89-80, B; 79-70, C; 69-60, D, and 59-0, F.

None of the 7 Kentucky Republicans came anywhere close to passing on the most current Report Card. McConnell got a 13, Paul a 9. Barr, Comer and Guthrie also made 9s. Massie got a 25 and Rogers, 13.

Yarmuth earned a 97 and an A.

Look up the grades of lawmakers from other states, and you’ll see that almost all Democrats score higher than almost all Republicans.

Time was, most Republicans outscored most Democrats. After all, the GOP was for many years the party of “Lincoln and Liberty” and civil rights activism. The GOP got behind constitutional amendments that ended slavery, made African Americans citizens, and enabled Black men to vote.

But in the 1960s, the national Democratic party championed sweeping civil rights bills aimed at ending Jim Crow segregation and racism. After the bills passed, the GOP swerved hard right, abandoned its historic commitment to civil rights, and became what the Democrats used to be: the white folks’ party of “states’ rights” – the old white southern code words for slavery and Jim Crow racism. Like so many union members did in the ’30s, most African Americans began turning to the Democrats.   

While it grades candidates, the NAACP doesn’t endorse candidates. The AFL-CIO does. But it’s not the “D” or the “R” by the candidate’s name that determines who unions endorse. It’s the “U” word – union. Endorsements are based on how candidates stand on issues and values important to us and the whole working class. 

For example, the Kentucky State AFL-CIO has repeatedly endorsed Yarmuth, not because he’s a Democrat but because he’s been a consistent friend of organized labor throughout his Washington tenure. (Likewise, Gov. Andy Beshear got the state AFL-CIO nod because of his record, not his party affiliation.) 

A postscript: King also saw the labor and civil rights movements as natural allies. “As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined,” he said in a 1962 letter to the Amalgamated Laundry Workers.

In addition, King told the 1965 Illinois AFL-CIO convention: “At the turn of the century women earned approximately ten cents an hour, and men were fortunate to receive twenty cents an hour. The average work week was sixty to seventy hours. During the thirties, wages were a secondary issue; to have a job at all was the difference between the agony of starvation and a flicker of life. The nation, now so vigorous, reeled and tottered almost to total collapse. The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over our nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”

The late W.C. Young of Paducah, a national union and civil rights leader, marched with King in Frankfort in 1964. (The W.C. Young Award is the highest honor the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council bestows.) Young said he never went anywhere without his NAACP card and his union card in his wallet. Thousands of us across our state and our country leave home likewise.


Originally posted on the KY AFL-CIO web site.

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