This post originally appeared at the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.
Hundreds of union members who rallied at Kentucky’s Capitol against a trio of Republican union-busting bills surely knew the legislation was unstoppable.
They bundled up against biting cold and came anyway.
“At the end of the day, you still have to show up,” said DeLane Adams, AFL-CIO Southern region communications coordinator. “It’s important for politicians to see the faces of people who are going to be affected by what they do.”
By “what they do,” he meant pass a “right to work law,” repeal the prevailing wage and endorse a measure making it harder for some unions to collect dues by payroll deduction. The bills sailed through the GOP-majority General Assembly at warp speed.
The throng of union members and supporters who cheered, clapped, chanted, unfurled home-made banners and waved union signs proved “solidarity,” that grand old union byword, is still alive and kicking in the state whose motto is “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
At the same time, the protesters ought to serve as a reminder to Republicans who stuck it to unions that organized labor may be down, but we're not out.
The three bills topped tea party-tilting GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s legislative agenda. His deep disdain for unions is hardly a secret.
“Out of all the issues we are facing in the state of Kentucky, he considered these his number one priority,” Adams said. “Instead of trying to make us a better state, he chose to go after 11 percent of the population [Kentucky men and women who belong to unions]. He used his office as a bullying pulpit instead of caring for all Kentuckians.”
Bevin, House Speaker Jeff Hoover, Senate President Robert Stivers and the rest of the GOP brass might think Kentucky labor has finally met its Waterloo.
Call it whistling past the graveyard if you will. But Adams is betting on a union comeback, if not right away.
“History is on our side,” he said.
A century or so ago, unions found themselves in similar straits. Organized labor was under almost constant attack from millionaires in business, industry and finance.
The old Robber Barons bankrolled politicians to do their bidding. They lavished money on anti-union propaganda groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, which demonized unions and hyped the "open shop," a forerunner of “right to work.”
Similarly, Citizens Alliances scorned unions as “evil and un-American" and they condemned the labor movement as “the heaviest oppressor of the workingman.”
Too, almost all of the mainstream media was fiercely anti-union. The country’s tiny labor press battled back as best it could.
“Again, let the unions understand that they may expect nothing of value from their natural enemies—and in the final analysis the question is sifted down to and rests upon and is controlled by the economic interests of the employing class as opposed to those interests of the working class,” the feisty Louisville-based Ohio Valley Worker warned in 1904.
The paper called for a stronger labor media. “The workers must awaken to a proper defense of their interests, and this can be done only by and through the press, which they own and control, and not through the press that gives labor the hot end of it in every great issue and on every great question.”
NAM and the Citizens Alliances claimed the “open shop” was actually good for workers. Bevin, Hoover and Stivers are preaching the same phony line.
So is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the most anti-union lawmakers in Washington. “This is a great day for Kentucky workers who will no longer be forced to pay dues to be members of unions if they fail to represent their best interests,” gloated Kentucky’s senior senator after RTW passed.
He described union leaders as “Big Labor bosses.” He chided 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.”
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. Naturally, none of them would ever admit that unions largely built the middle class.
The GOP grandees also are aware that nearly all of the poorest states are right to work states. Mississippi, right to work since 1954, is dead last. Mum’s the word from the GOP bigwigs about that, too.
Nor would the Republican heavyweights 'fess up to the fact that right to work, prevailing wage repeal and their paycheck deception bill are rooted in bare-knuckles politics, not economic development.
The bills are about power, not jobs.
Most Republican lawmakers are pro-business and anti-union and vote accordingly. Only a handful of GOP House members voted no on the bills.
Unions mostly support Democrats because Democrats mostly support unions. Every Democrat but one who voted opposed the three union-busting bills. (A House Democrat voted for prevailing wage repeal.)
Unions have been a big part of the Democratic base since 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 they’re voted in.
“History will tell you that the Democrats ramrodded every meaningful piece of legislation for the benefit of working people,” said J.R. Gray, a former Democratic state representative, Machinists union official and Kentucky labor secretary.
Obviously, the fewer union members, the less muscle unions have—and the less money they are able to contribute to candidates, usually Democrats. (Contrary to claims from the union-busters, political contributions from union members are strictly voluntary.)
So right to work, prevailing wage repeal and paycheck deception—are a twofer for the Republicans: they weaken the Democratic Party by drying up union contributions. They also sap the strength of unions at the bargaining table, thus enhancing the profits of business owners and investors who, in turn, can, and do, give more generously to pro-business and anti-union politicians. Nearly all of them are—you guessed it—Republicans.
Not surprisingly, Dave Adkisson, president of the fiercely anti-union Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, couldn't be happier over the happenings in Frankfort. “This put a sign on the front door of Kentucky that we're open for business," he crowed after right to work passed.
That’s more phony sloganeering like “open shop” and “right to work.”
“Kentucky has always been open for business. Kentuckians take pride in what they produce, whether it is the Corvette in Bowling Green or the ‘Truck of the Year’ coming out of Louisville,” Adams said.
Members of UAW Local 2164 make the classic Chevy sports cars. The 2017 Ford Super Duty, Motor Trend magazine’s truck of the year, is made by the men and women of UAW Local 862.
Added Adams: “Some of Kentucky’s best-known products are union made—the Louisville Slugger [baseball bat made by members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1693]. Super Bowl weekend is coming up, and some of the best bourbon in people’s living rooms across the country will be union made [the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)].
“And some of the state’s largest construction projects are union [unions affiliated with the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council].”
Adams is no Pollyanna. He prefers to leave the cheerleading and sloganeering to the Republicans. He said for unions to go forward, they’ve got to recognize that the road will be steep and rocky and adjust their strategy to the tougher terrain.
Exit polls from Nov. 8 revealed that while most union members voted for labor-endorsed candidates, many did not.
President-elect Donald Trump won 62.5% of Kentucky’s vote. At the same time, the Republicans maintained their 27–11 state Senate majority and flipped the House from 53–47 Democratic to 64–36 GOP.
There’s no denying that union votes, at least to some extent, helped raise the Republican tsunami in the Bluegrass State.
“We need to work harder to put out information that draws comparisons between politicians who have our best interests at heart in terms of a paycheck and a better life, and those who don’t. We don’t need to tell people who to vote for. We just need to better educate them.”
Right to work will enable workers at a union job site to enjoy union-won wages and benefits without belonging to the union or paying the union a fair share fee, or service fee, to represent them.
How many union members will ultimately opt out is, of course, a big worry to state union officials. “We have to sit down with our members and make sure they take pride in being in a union,” Adams said. “We have to collect stories about how unions benefit members.”
He acknowledged that the heyday of labor papers like The Ohio Valley Worker is gone for good. Adams said that as unions go forward, they should redouble their efforts to spread the word through Internet websites, blogging and social media.
He cited Michelle Blau, a native Kentuckian who is the Washington-based AFL-CIO deputy director of digital strategies. Before the legislature passed the anti-union bills, she blogged about her mother, a school teacher who died from cancer.
The late Claire Ruth Blau belonged to the Kentucky Education Association-National Education Association.
“My mother’s teaching career ended when cancer forced her into retirement. Because of her years working in a unionized profession, she was able to live on her pension, keep her health care and get the treatment she needed.
“Thanks to her union and the skilled hands of the folks at the [University of Kentucky’s] Markey Cancer Center, we got two extra years with her. She was able to die in peace without worrying about medical debt or how we were going to get on. That’s the real value of a union contract. It’s a value that the GOP Assembly needs to learn before they drive our state off the rails in a fervor to put corporate special interests ahead of working people like my mom. The statistics on why right to work is wrong speak for themselves. If the new Assembly was serious about working families, they would stop repealing the protections that made our state stronger and gave my mom life.”
Added Adams: “These are the stories we need to tell to make people understand what it means to be in the union. We’ve got to do a better job of telling these stories.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky unions know the deck is now stacked taller against them, like it was in 1904. But like unions 113 years ago, it doesn’t look as if organized labor is ready to go gently into that good night.
The old unions kept fighting—sometimes against scabs, cops and state militia who broke strikes at the behest of plutocrats and their pet politicians. The unions called that labor's “heritage of struggle.”
The struggle continued through turn-of-the-century times into the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when FDR and the Democrats, as part of their depression-fighting New Deal program, championed unions.
The result was an unprecedented surge in union membership.
"The President wants you to join the union!" proclaimed UMWA signs in the coal fields of Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and in other mining states.
“If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I'd do would be to join a union,” Roosevelt said.
I’d bet the farm that President-elect Donald Trump, a right to work fan, won’t say any such thing.
Anyway, unions obviously hope for a quicker comeback in this century than in the last one. “But we’re not giving up,” Adams said. "Politicians didn’t create the labor movement, and politicians won’t destroy the labor movement."