When McGovern and Human Events once agreed
“I knew if I waited long enough, Human Events and I would agree on something,” George McGovern told this reporter on the floor of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
The 1972 Democratic nominee and hero of his party’s left-of-center had been talking to me about what is perhaps the most controversial position he had taken since he broke with the Johnson administration early on during the Vietnam War: his opposition to the unions’ cherished Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which includes the controversial “card check” measure that McGovern (and most conservatives) insisted would end the secret ballot in union elections.
When he died Sunday at age 90, Democrats from Barack Obama and Joe Biden on down hailed South Dakota’s McGovern for the causes he championed as U.S. Representative (1956-60), U.S. Senator (1962-80) and presidential candidate. These ranged from his opposition to the Vietnam War to his fight against hunger in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Relatively little was mentioned in the tributes to McGovern about his opposition to “card-check”, or the abuse and invective he took from organized labor.
Four years ago, in both an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and a television commercial he cut for an anti-EFCA group, liberal icon McGovern said that the labor-backed legislation “runs counter to the ideals that were once at the core of the labor movement. Instead of providing a voice for the unheard, EFCA risks silencing those who would speak.”
When I brought up McGovern’s stand during a press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in 2009, both the outgoing and incoming presidents of the AFL-CIO blasted the South Dakotan for his position.
“McGovern is wrong,” said John Sweeney, who was retiring as head of the labor conclave, “He is saying things that are wrong, that aren’t true. He’s listening to the Chamber of Commerce and not working Americans.”
The outgoing AFL-CIO President went on to predict passage for EFCA in Congress because President Obama “will be supporting it after he gets health care.” Sweeney also said that Vice President Biden would also weigh in strongly for passage of the measure after a health care reform package is enacted. (EFCA never got off the ground in Congress, even after Obamacare was enacted).
Sweeney added his opinion that McGovern “still has bad feelings about the support we gave him in 1972” — leading columnist Mark Shields to quip “You mean lack of support?” That year, under the late President George Meany, the AFL-CIO did not endorse Democratic nominee McGovern in his race against President Richard Nixon. Fierce anti-Communist Meany could not stomach McGovern’s anti-Vietnam War position.
Rich Trumka, the AFL-CIO secretary treasurer at the time and its incoming president, was even stronger in his denunciation of McGovern.
“Poor George,” Trumka told the Monitor breakfast, “He was paid to do an ad [against EFCA]. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. We’ve had three or four wars since and he had nothing to say. Now he comes back on the field to make war against the workers.”
McGovern: “I don’t sell my ideas”
Less than an hour after Sweeney and Trumka weighed in against McGovern, I reached the 87-year-old McGovern at his home in South Dakota.
“No, the AFL-CIO’s position in 1972 had nothing to do with my opinion on EFCA,” the former three-term senator told me, “Yes, I was disappointed that George Meany said he couldn’t tell the difference between Nixon and me. I always had a very good record on union issues.
“My position on EFCA is what it is because I believe in the secret ballot in elections, including those for labor unions. To not have a secret ballot, I feel, is against the national interest.”
Was McGovern paid for the television commercial he cut for anti-EFCA Employee Freedom Action Committee, as Trumka said?
“No, I was not,” he replied without hesitation, “I don’t sell my ideas.”
McGovern went on to say that “I have never met John Sweeney or Rich Trumka. If I have, I don’t remember them. But I have talked to other officials of the AFL-CIO about this issue and I have made my position clear to them.”
George McGovern and Human Events were on opposite sides of virtually all issues throughout his long political career. But the South Dakotan remained—as he was on the occasions I interviewed him and in his reply to his detractors—a gentleman, first and foremost.