While the battle between Alison and Mitch overwhelms Kentucky politics, the Republican bid for control of the House and the threat that poses to pro-labor legislation goes largely unnoticed, except among politicos. In consideration of Labor Day and Election Day 2014, former Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe unearths some buried Kentucky labor history, including his own personal experiences working at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Factory and covering the Hyden Mine tragedy. — L.S.
Former C-J editor David Hawpe is a member of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, the Kentucky Humanities Council and the editorial board of the University Press of Kentucky, as well as senior aide to state Sen. Morgan McGarvey.
Here’s the skinny on what’s hot in Kentucky politics
Sure, there’s lots of heat in Alison Grimes’s effort to evict Mitch McConnell from the office where he has luxuriated for almost 30 years. But what’s really sizzling is the Republican effort to grab the levers of power in Frankfort, by ending more than 90 years of Democratic control in the state House of Representatives.
Control of the House is a really big deal, especially to organized labor.
If Republicans, who already run the state Senate, also take the House, they’ll eagerly enact a checklist of real change. At or near the top will be right-to-work and prevailing wage laws – passing the former and eviscerating the latter. That’s a fearful prospect for union types on Labor Day 2014.
Our Democratic governor will have to sit, glumly, in the big first floor office, helpless to prevent this, because his vetoes can be overridden by simple legislative majorities. For those who think unions are an impediment to good old freewheeling and unencumbered American capitalism, this would be great news. For those who think workers still need help and protection, not so much.
If you don’t know who is right about the need for protection in the workplace place, consider these facts, developed by the Kentucky Labor Cabinet:
(1) Last fiscal year alone, the Kentucky Office of Occupational Safety and Health issued citations carrying more than $3 million in penalties. In the same period, the Labor Cabinet had to collect back wages for 4,422 employees.
(2) State Employment Standards officials closed 2,250 cases relating to wage and hour, prevailing wage and child labor issues in Fiscal 12-13. The state also collected some $3.7 million in back wages for 9,451 employees, correcting 1,041 violations of Kentucky labor law.
And here’s the real stunner.
(3) The Kentucky Labor Cabinet collects an average of $4.5 million each year in restitution for an average of 9,800 employees because workers are subjected to “wage theft.” That is unpaid overtime, withheld final paychecks, illegal deductions and lower pay than minimum wage. It is misclassification of workers as independent contractors, unpaid breaks, time-clock shaving, mandatory employer-required tip-pooling and prevailing wage violations.
State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan says it’s obvious that employees need to have a voice in what happens to them — on the job, at the pay window and when they need health coverage. Some 226,000 Kentucky workers have someone to speak for them because they are represented by unions.
Ken Koch, president of the Louisville Area Central Labor Council (LCLC), which represents some 35,000 organized local employees, has an answer for those who believe workers do not need an advocate like a union: “What I say to them is just look at what’s happening in other places (where right-to-work laws have been passed). Wages are being cut. There is no such thing as seniority. A union gives you a say in the workplace whereas you don’t have any say at all without organized labor. A union gives you a choice.”
Some labor unions’ numbers have fallen, here and elsewhere, but when you add 20,000 Teamsters and more than 6,000 Jefferson County Teachers Association members to LCLC’s 35,000, there are still upward of 60,000 union employees locally. Which means an anti-union House agenda is of some real import in Louisville Metro.
“I can tell you the first thing they (a Republican House) will do,” Koch says. “They’ll try to bring right-to-work legislation to Kentucky. And the second thing they’ll do is end prevailing wage and they’ll bring low-wage jobs to the state.”
Glasgow’s Jeff Jobe, the GOP House candidate in District 23, sees it differently. He argues, “For more than 90 years, our Kentucky House of Representatives has been dominated by one party. As in most anything, like the old saying goes, ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The liberal agenda now in place in Kentucky is destroying the business climate for the industries we currently have, and it has placed us at a great disadvantage in recruiting new industry partners. While Tennessee is welcoming a company bringing 1,800 quality jobs, our regional industrial recruiters find themselves arguing over why we couldn’t lock down 18.”
Longtime Louisville Republican leader Bill Stone, president of Louisville Plate Glass, naturally is enthusiastic about more GOP power in Frankfort. He wants a “more reasonable” interpretation of the legal requirement that public projects pay the local “prevailing wage.” He says, “If you’re building a new school in Knott County in Eastern Kentucky and the nearest ‘prevailing wage’ they can find to apply is at some big city construction project in the Cincinnati area, then a $1 million school becomes a $1.2 million school.”
The question most asked of the state Labor Cabinet is how to apply the state’s prevailing wage law.
Still, Stone doesn’t put “anything like the priority on prevailing wage” that he puts on right-to-work legislation, and not because he thinks right-to-work will have real impact in the workplace.
Stone insists, “Right to work is very important but simply symbolic. People will be shocked at how little impact it has (in the workplace). My interest is not anti-union. I’m not anti-anybody. The problem is, without a right-to-work law our state doesn’t get a chance to show its wares in bringing new business and jobs here. Not being a right-to-work state puts our Commerce Cabinet on an unequal footing with other states. It’s psychological. Corporation location offices don’t put us on the list of places to bring businesses, even though, in every way that you judge lifestyle, we’re positive.”
The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Factory
Here the author of this story offers an upfront admission: My view of labor is affected by life experiences. If I hadn’t been a tray hanger one summer during college vacation, at the Brown & Williamson tobacco factory on Hill Street, I might see things differently.
As a tray hanger on the Viceroy floor, I had to make sure there was an empty on the back of all eight cigarette making machines to which I was assigned. When the one on the front had been filled, there had to be an empty sitting on the back. Otherwise, we would end up with freshly-cut Viceroys cascading onto the floor.
I barely managed to hang the eighth machine’s full tray on a conveyor – and replace it with an empty – before hot-footing it back to my first machine.
One memorable day I was given a ninth machine to service, which, as far as I could tell, was impossible. When the lead union rep saw me struggling to keep up, she shut down the Viceroy floor. I had never felt quite so powerful. After some heated consultation, the extra machine was removed, I went back to my job, and we went back to churning out Viceroys.
No Hometown Hero Banner for Labor Leaders
Are unions still important? Larry Clark, speaker pro tem of the Kentucky House and longtime Louisville labor guy, answers the question this way: “If the day of labor is over, then the gap between the haves and the have-nots will be greater and greater. You now have CEOs out there making 25 or 30 times what workers are making, and on top of that they get these huge bonuses.”
Clark argues that, in right-to-work states, wages are driven down, employees are less likely to have health insurance and worksites are more dangerous in right-to-work states. He and other labor leaders argue that right-to-work doesn’t improve business conditions and isn’t a decisive factor in business location. Proponents obviously disagree. Clark says, “All workers want is a fair share of the wealth they are creating. They want a seat at the table.”
Workers presumably also want respect. Sometimes they don’t get it. Take, for example, those murals on local buildings, honoring our Hometown Heroes. They don’t go unnoticed.
You’ve seen them. Some of them 60 feet high. But huge depictions of whom? Athletes (Bobby Nichols, Muhammad Ali, Pee Wee Reese, Mary T. Meagher, Pat Day, Phil Simms, Denny Crum, Darrell Griffith, Paul Hornung, Rudell Stitch, Will Wolford), a horse race (the Kentucky Derby), an educator who was a heckuva jock too (Tori Murden), a batmaker (Bud Hillerich), a couple of broadcasters (Bob Edwards, Diane Sawyer), a chicken tycoon (Col. Harland Sanders), a brilliant artist (Ed Hamilton), a great jurist (Judge Louis Brandeis), two famous surgeons (Kleinert & Kutz), two bourbon men (George Garvin Brown and Tom Bulleit), one dancer (Wendy Whelan), one musician (Patrick Henry Hughes) and one actor (Victor Mature).
Not a single labor leader. Not even Ron Gettelfinger, who began as a local Ford chassis line repairman in Louisville, back in 1964, and rose to one of the most powerful positions in the American labor movement: national president of the United Auto Workers, a job to which he was elected in 2002, and in which he served until 2010.
Does that time period ring a bell? Gettelfinger was at the center of the effort to see the American auto industry – and Louisville’s Ford operations – through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. His role was crucial, for Ford and for Ford in Louisville.
He’s not the first Louisville labor stalwart to have a powerful presence in Kentucky’s civic, economic and political life. Some will remember the thoughtful and influential state AFL-CIO leader Sam Ezelle, who led not only on labor issues but also in education. And Larry Clark was preceded in Frankfort leadership by the elegant labor leader Norb Blume, a Teamster executive who became a persuasive Speaker of the House. Blume was, and Clark remains, a major player in state government.
Lest we forget, there also was Thelma Stovall, who rose from Brown & Williamson tobacco floor sweeper to become twice state treasurer, twice secretary of state, and the first woman elected lieutenant governor of Kentucky. She also was, on occasion, acting governor. She seized one such opportunity to pardon three prisoners, one of whom could have spent life in prison for stealing $28. While Gov. Julian Carroll was out of the state, she vetoed the General Assembly’s rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and stood off a Senate floor assault by “ladies in pink,” who were furious that she had stood up for the ERA. She also called a special legislative session to cut taxes that she felt were unfair to the poor.
No banner for Thelma either.
The national argument over the value of unions continues, as Labor Day 2014 comes and goes. Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, recently said that opponents of labor unions were “rubbing their hands gleefully” earlier this summer when “Justice Samuel Alito and his band of right-wing brothers ruled that home care workers in Illinois didn’t have to pay ‘fair share’ fees to support a union’s work on their behalf.”
The National Right to Work Committee brought that case, Harris v. Quinn, on behalf of six Illinois home care workers, and won the day. But, says Saunders, AFSCME is not “hanging its head.” In fact, he notes, “while the court was deliberating on this case, we gained 92,155 new members, including 20,000 home care workers.”
That labor argument, pro and con, reaches far back into Louisville’s history, apparently into the 1830s. Some of the great names are forgotten, like Ethel duPont, who from her home base in Louisville spent much of the 20th century campaigning for women’s rights, racial justice and, pre-eminently, labor concerns. Her activism, teaching, organizing and newspaper columns made her a pariah in the very wealthy and socially prominent social circles into which she was born, until her death in 1980 at the age of 84. Among memorable moments, at a 1945 General Motors stockholders meeting she demanded (as an owner of stock) that GM’s books be opened to the United Auto Workers.
No banner for Ethel either.
We put banners up to honor those about whom we care the most.
The Hyden Mine Tragedy
Now for a concluding personal admission: In the winter of 1970-71, I was lead reporter at the disaster on Hurricane Creek near Hyden, Ky., where 38 men died in a non-UMW mine.
In the dry language of one report, “Coal dust was thrown into suspension and ignited by Primacord or by permissible explosives used in a nonpermissible manner or by use of nonpermissible explosives during the blasting of roof rock for a loading point (boom hole). Excessive accumulations of coal dust, and inadequate applications of rock dust in parts of Nos. 15 and 16 mines, permitted propagation of the explosion throughout the mines.”
In plain English, illegal blasting snuffed out the lives of 38 men, in a rush to blow a hole inside a mine where too much coal dust was lying around. I saw these men laid out on the floor of the Hyden elementary school gym. I watched the mothers and the widows lift covers from the scorched bodies. Some fell back in tears, some wailed, as their worst fears were realized. One petite widow collapsed into my arms, and I carried her down the school steps to waiting family.
The great coalfield journalist Ken Ward Jr. reported in 2011, “Union coal mines are significantly safer than non-union mining operations, according to a new report from a Stanford University law professor.” Alison D. Morantz had found a “substantial and significant decline in traumatic mining injuries and fatalities” at underground mines where workers were members of the United Mine Workers union.” As UMW President Cecil Roberts put it: “This is a groundbreaking study that quantifies the profound differences in safety underground coal miners experience when working union versus working non-union. The simple truth is that union mines are safer, and this study proves that.”
As the son of a Teamster, and grandson of a UMW coal miner who coughed himself to death in the Harlan hospital, I also thought these findings were … significant.