'We're still standing' this Labor Day


AFT Local 1360

“We’re still standing” is the theme of the Labor Day parade in Paducah, Ky.

It’s appropriate.

In January, the Republican-majority Kentucky General Assembly, egged on by a tea party GOP governor, tried to kayo organized labor in the Bluegrass State.

The legislature delivered a pair of haymakers. Republican lawmakers passed a “right to work” law and repealed the prevailing wage.

Gov. Matt Bevin giddily signed the bills. 

“The Republicans tried to destroy us, but we’re still standing,” said Larry Sanderson, a retired UA international representative and Paducah parade organizer. “That’s the theme of our parade this year.” 

Go ahead. Say unions are toast. Accuse Sanderson--and me--of whistling past the cemetery.

But as Sept. 4 nears, I’m again thinking of something Mark Twain supposedly quipped: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

The same is true for organized labor.

Don’t get me wrong. Those of us who pack union cards had our winter of discontent. We’re still stuck in soul-trying times and not just in the Bluegrass State, where I’ve lived all 67 of my years.

It’s as bad or worse in Washington.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump said he liked RTW states better than non-RTW states. He ran on a platform calling for a national RTW law and for repealing federal prevailing wage rules.

National RTW and federal PW repeal bills have been introduced in congress. All that would keep them from passing would be an almost certain Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

In Kentucky, the GOP’s holy war against unions isn’t over. Republicans lawmakers will almost certainly try to gut the state workers’ compensation program when the legislature convenes in January. Doubtless, they have other anti-union bills in mind.

The Democrats will have a hard time stopping the GOP juggernaut. The Republicans enjoy a 64-36 majority in the House and a 27-11 edge in the Senate. 

Nonetheless, unions have been deeply down before.

The Republicans were sure organized labor was a goner in the 1920s. But GOP union-busting and trickle-down—“trickle on” is more like it--economics brought on the Great Depression.

FDR and a New Deal Democratic Congress helped put the country back to work and guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively.  An historic surge in union membership followed.

Hogs will fly before Trump and the congressional Republicans do anything to boost organized labor. His much ballyhooed infrastructure bill has proved to be a sham. How many union jobs would the measure supposedly generate? Mum’s the word from the Bloviator-in-Chief.  

When Trump and the Republicans tout “free enterprise,” they mean union free. 

Bevin is arguably the most anti-union governor in Bluegrass State history. Few, if any, sessions of the General Assembly were more harmful to organized labor than the 2017 gathering.

Yet if history is a guide, unions will rebound, though I’m the first to admit that when and how is uncertain.

“But you’re never going to stop working people from fighting for their rights,” said Jeff Wiggins, president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council. 

Like a lot of labor leaders, especially in rural Red States like Kentucky, Wiggins is frustrated over rank-and-filers who still fall for the nearly 40-year-old GOP social issues scam.

Sanderson calls them “The Three Gs—God, guns and gays.” The Republicans take extra careful aim at union members who are partial to hunting and other shooting sports.

“[The gun issue] is the one thing that will spin the blue-collar union member away from his union,” former Wisconsin State AFL-CIO researcher Joanne Ricca quoted ex-National Rifle Association bigwig Neal Knox in her report, “Politics in America: The Right Wing Attack on the America Labor Movement.”

The copiously documented study is 15 years old. But it’s as timely as ever.

Since Ronald Reagan challenged President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the GOP and the NRA have been yelping that the Democrats want to seize everybody’s shooting irons.

The Dems have yet to do so.

Nonetheless, I saw the social issues con work on some union members back when Reagan took on Carter. I helped cover a Carter campaign stop at a UMWA coal mine in southern Illinois.

Richard Trumka, then UMWA president, accompanied Carter.

I spotted some young miners brandishing Reagan-for-president signs. I asked them they why they were backing him. They replied that they liked his stand on guns, abortion and school prayer.

On the other side of a coal pile stood a group of middle-aged miners. They were waving Carter signs.

When I asked them why they were behind the president, they looked at me like I was nuts. They politely reminded me that it was the Democrats who gave workers the Wagner Act, the Mine Safety and Health Act and shepherded through Congress every other significant bill that has benefited workers.

Reagan turned out to be the most anti-union president since the GOP’s unholy trinity of union-despising presidents in the 1920s—Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Trump may trump—pardon the pun—Reagan.

I’ve told the coal mine story in union halls many times. Every time, it provokes knowing nods and sparks similar stories.

“Working people are going to have to wise up and smarten up and start voting on pocketbook issues--on union issues,” warned Wiggins, who is also president of USW Local 9447. 

It shouldn’t be a tough sell. But Bevin, Trump and the GOP prove it can be.

The old Knights of Labor, an early union organization, tried “to teach the American wage-earner that he [or she] was a wage-earner first and a bricklayer, carpenter, miner, shoemaker, after; that he [or she] was a wage-earner first and a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, white, black, Democrat, Republican, after,” explained historian Norman Ware.

Unions have been hammering home the same message since, but not with uniform success.

The Knights embodied the motto of my native state: “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” The Knights stressed that whatever else divided working people, work itself was what they all had in common. Work was, by far, the most important factor in their lives. Thus, workers should unite as members of the working class. 

The Knights are long gone. But the union’s basic principle is still relevant, maybe more than ever: Working people, no matter what jobs we have, are wage earners first. “An injury to one is the concern of all,” was the Knights’ famous motto. It still rings true.