LOUISVILLE — The two leading candidates in next year's U.S. Senate race in Kentucky displayed marked differences Tuesday on the controversial labor issue of whether workers should be able to opt out of joining unions.
While Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes received an enthusiastic endorsement from the state AFL-CIO at its 30th biennial convention in Louisville, U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell pitched national right-to-work legislation and chided "Big Labor."
AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan said the labor group, which has about 220,000 members in Kentucky, backed Grimes because McConnell's "historical obstructionism must be stopped."
He said McConnell's push for right-to-work legislation was designed to kill unions and their political power.
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Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, said she opposed right-to-work because it was wrong for Kentucky and the nation. The only job McConnell is interested in keeping, she said, is his own.
"Labor has lifted millions out of poverty," Grimes said. "It is labor that is going to be the way we continue to grow the middle class in this state and make sure that everyone has an equal voice, especially at the bargaining table."
In a floor speech in the U.S. Senate about an hour before Grimes received the AFL-CIO endorsement, McConnell said U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, filed a one-page amendment Monday night to a workplace discrimination bill.
The amendment "merely calls for repealing the discriminatory clauses in federal law that allow, as a condition of employment, forcing workers to join a union or forcing workers to pay union dues," McConnell said. "In practical terms, here's what that would mean for middle-class folks in Kentucky and across America: If you want to join a union, you can. And if you don't want to join a union, you don't have to."
Twenty-four states have such laws. Republicans and business groups value it while unions despise it, calling the legislation "right-to-work-for-less" laws and citing studies that find it lowers wages.
Paul's proposed amendment was attached to the so-called Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar discrimination in the workplace for large businesses on the basis of sexual orientation or identity.
Londrigan said McConnell's action was "an attack on organized labor" and "a way for him to pay back his corporate cronies that are financing his campaigns."
McConnell's re-election campaign used his speech on right-to-work as a fundraising mechanism.
In emails, the campaign said "forced unionism" was harming American workers and the economy.
"Right now, federal law allows union bosses to force a worker to pay dues or fees for their job," the campaign said. "Then to add insult to injury, nearly a billion dollars per election cycle from these forced union dues are then spent to elect tax-and-spend, Big Government politicians."
The emails also ask people to sign a petition in support of the right-to-work legislation and make "a generous contribution."
On other subjects, Grimes told reporters she hoped the enrollment period for the new federal health care law would be extended because of difficulties in the process.
Asked about growing concerns surrounding surveillance techniques used by the National Security Agency, Grimes said: "It is a fine balance between personal protection and liberty. ... We all want to make sure the U.S. is protected and we are eliminating terrorist activities."
She answered questions from reporters for about four minutes before leaving the AFL-CIO convention.