Larry Sanderson felt the energy

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories on the Fancy Farm picnic weekend festivities.


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J.R. Gray sported a black-and-white Donald Trump tee shirt at the annual pre-Fancy Farm picnic labor luncheon in Paducah.

“REPEAL & REPLACE,” the garment said in big capital letters.

“It’s sad,” said Gray, a retired state representative from Benton, who was Gov. Steve Beshear’s first labor secretary. “Think of all the blood that’s been shed for this country, and it looks like this man is willing to hand it over to the Russians.”

Gray, who was also a Machinists union official, wondered if the president was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s descendant.

Gray was among about 350 union members and retirees, labor-endorsed politicians, city officials and others who crowded Walker Hall for the traditional day-before-Fancy-Farm feed.

The combo meal and political speaking is sponsored by the West Kentucky Building and Construction Trades Council.

Featured speakers were Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear, who announced his candidacy for governor last month, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins. All three are Democrats.

Emcee Larry Sanderson, a retired UA international representative, introduced several union-endorsed candidates for the legislature and Democratic Congressional candidate Paul Walker of Murray. He, too, is labor backed.

Bill Finn, state building trades director, followed Gray into the hall. Finn, who works out of Louisville, is optimistic that labor-supported candidates will fare well Nov. 6.

“Working people have had enough,” he said. “I think people are starting to see that their vote matters, and they are more energized to elect candidates who will represent them and their families.”

Unions hoped Al Cunningham Jr. of Benton would be one of those candidates. The state AFL-CIO endorsed the retired business representative for Painters District Council 91. But he came up short in the May Democratic primary.  

Cunningham and the state AFL-CIO have rallied behind Linda Story Edwards, also of Benton, who won the primary. 

“People can see what’s been going on in the last year-and-a-half with the Republican policies,” said Cunningham, who thinks Kentuckians will vote accordingly.

In 2017, the GOP-majority House and Senate, with Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s blessing, passed a “right to work” law, a measure to repeal the prevailing wage, and legislation making it harder for some unions to collect dues through payroll deduction.

This year, the governor and Republican lawmakers teamed up to push through bills curbing public pension benefits, cutting taxes, mostly for better-heeled Kentuckians, and slashing workers' compensation and unemployment benefits.

“The Republicans talk the talk, but their policies say different,” added Cunningham. 

The GOP enjoys a 63-37 House majority. Republicans also control the Senate, 27-11. “This is our time to come back,” said Al Cunningham III, a District 91 organizer. “But we’ve got to get out and vote.”

Steve Earle was philosophical about the Democrats’ prospects for regaining the House majority. “We have nowhere to go but up,” said the Madisonville-based United Mine Workers International District 12 vice president.  “This is an opportunity to for us to take back a lot of House seats and, with a little luck, take back control of the House."

Earle wore a blue UMWA tee shirt, but several teachers opted for red apparel. Red is the unofficial hue of educators who flocked to Frankfort during the last session of the legislature to protest GOP cuts in public pensions and public education. 

Most of the teachers also wore Kentucky Education Association badges and buttons.

"The entire future of Kentucky’s public education is on the line,” said KEA member Adrielle Camuel of Lexington. “If we don’t network, if we don’t get the right people in office, we’re going to watch the entire educational foundation crumble in Kentucky. We will go to the last in the line.”

Denise Finley and Claire Batt came with Camuel. All three women joined the Capitol protests. “Now we’re involved in Cherlynn Stevenson’s campaign,” Finley said.

Stevenson, a state AFL-CIO-supported Lexington Democrat, was among the candidates Sanderson presented to the crowd.

“I’m here because I want to be part of the conversation and support candidates who are pro-public education,” Batt said.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Wiggins sat two tables away from Camuel, Finley and Batt. It was a homecoming for him; his office is in Frankfort, but he lives in Reidland, a Paducah suburb.

Wiggins jabbed Republicans with “Friends of Coal” tags on their vehicles. “They’ve got these license plates, and they pass this legislation to gut the black lung program for coal miners,” he said. “You can’t be a friend of coal, if you’re not a friend to coal miners.”  

Wiggins, a Steelworker, chowed down with some of his union brothers and sisters. “We’ve got to support candidates who will help keep us union people working,” said Donna Steele, president of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah. “This election is important for the future of our children and grandchildren,” added Jim Key, vice president.

The Local 550 hall is a tad more than two miles from Walker Hall. But Adam Bush of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 452 drove more than 350 miles from his home in Grayson.    

“We are down here to support labor-friendly candidates and make sure they know what our needs and views are and that they reflect them in their campaigns,” he said.

Sanderson, several years Bush’s senior, couldn’t have been happier with the turnout. His stepson, Kyle Henderson, is the local building trades president.

“I can really feel the energy here,” said Sanderson. "It’s like the old days when I had hair.

“I really feel like people want to make a change and get rid of these people who are against the working folks of this state. We’re going to make inroads; I don’t know if we're going to take the house back, but we’ll come close to it.”

Another veteran trade unionist, Jerry Sykes of Benton, said the November election “is one of the most important ones we’ve had in a long time.

"It all reverts to ‘right to work’ and prevailing wage repeal, and the way our current governor has turned the state upside down. If we don’t turn our state around quickly, we’re headed for even more disaster.”

Warned Sykes, a United Auto Workers retiree: “Labor has got to get out and support our candidates. There is always power in numbers."

Sykes’ friend and fellow Marshall countian Bubba Dawes added his admonition to union members who might not vote. “You better start looking at your pocketbook and your paycheck,” advised the directing business representative for Machinists Local Lodge 154 in Calvert City.