LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes pocketed an endorsement from the Kentucky AFL-CIO on Tuesday, while the longtime Republican senator she wants to unseat was promoting a national right-to-work proposal seen by union leaders back in Kentucky as an effort to undermine organized labor.
The events underscored a clear policy contrast between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his leading Democratic challenger with a year left before the 2014 election. McConnell, who is seeking a sixth Senate term, faces a GOP primary challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
McConnell joined fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in sponsoring the right-to-work proposal that would prohibit requiring workers to pay union dues or fees.
McConnell called it a matter of "basic fairness" that would update the nation's antiquated labor laws and spur economic growth.
"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," McConnell said in a Senate speech Tuesday. "And if you don't want to join a union, you don't have to."
Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, said the right-to-work measure was wrong for Kentucky and would threaten gains made by workers over decades.
"It's about recognizing and knowing that labor has literally lifted millions out of poverty, and that it is labor that is the way we're going to continue to grow the middle class ... and make sure that everyone has an equal voice, especially at the bargaining table," she said.
McConnell and Paul want to attach the right-to-work proposal to legislation that would bar workplace discrimination against gays.
That strategy drew a sharp rebuke from Grimes, who called it "further proof that neither believes in the Golden Rule."
Grimes supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
"No Kentuckian deserves to be discriminated against in the workplace," she said. "My grandmothers always taught me to follow the Golden Rule and treat others as I would like to be treated."
Grimes drew loud cheers from a roomful of labor supporters as she picked up the state AFL-CIO endorsement. The crowd booed when told of McConnell's right-to-work plan. State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said the proposal would fuel further anti-McConnell sentiment among labor supporters.
Londrigan said McConnell's motivation was to "undermine trade unionism so he can pay back his corporate cronies that are financing his campaigns."
Kentucky is home to more than 220,000 union members, and Londrigan said the goal is to mobilize them as a voting bloc for Grimes.
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said Grimes was standing with union bosses while McConnell was striving to protect Kentucky workers from being forced to pay union dues against their will.
"This is yet another example of how out of touch Alison Lundergan Grimes is with Kentucky's working families and how she will side with the well-heeled special interests funding her campaign against the best interests of Kentucky," Moore said.