After Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. George McGovern died Sunday, most of obits unsurprisingly focused on the fights that made his name synonymous with liberalism: his opposition to the Vietnam war, his support for civil rights and his work to eradicate hunger.
Few mentioned McGovern's final crusade: opposing the Big Labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act, more commonly known as the "card check" bill. Card-check opponents credit McGovern's advocacy for winning over enough wavering Senate Democrats to prevent it from coming up for a vote.
That wasn't out of character for McGovern either. Going all the way back to the mid-1960s, McGovern often clashed with Big Labor despite -- or perhaps because of -- his support for workers' rights. He represented a view of liberalism that emphasized individual rights -- including the right not to join a union, if one so chooses.
Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, told me that McGovern had volunteered to be the face of his group's anti-card-check campaign.
"We were having drinks one day, and I told him about this legislation. He told me he couldn't believe that the Democrats in the Senate were pushing that," Berman said. A short while later, McGovern was appearing in ads and writing op-eds.
Card check would have radically simplified union organizing of workplaces, allowing it to essentially be done by petition rather than through a federally monitored secret-ballot election. Unions had high hopes for its passage under an Obama administration.
Critics seized on the argument that without a secret ballot, workers could be bullied or intimidated into signing up. McGovern agreed.
"I worry that there has been too little discussion about [card check's] true ramifications, and I think much of the congressional support is based on a desire to give our friends among union leaders what they want," McGovern wrote in the Wall Street Journal in August 2008.
"I have been told been by some people in organized labor that it was the most important development in the campaign," Berman said.
McGovern's stance only shocked people who hadn't followed his career closely. His home state of South Dakota, which he represented in the Senate from 1963 to 1981, is also a right-to-work state, and McGovern fought to protect that. In 1966, he voted against cloture on a bill that would have revoked right-to-work laws nationwide.
McGovern wasn't a knee-jerk labor-basher by any means. His overall voting record was quite pro-union. He was even a labor historian, having written his dissertation on a brutal 1914 coal miner crackdown. But Big Labor was, well, much bigger in the 1960s and 1970s and more part of the political establishment. That put it at odds with McGovern's liberalism, which embraced the 1960s counterculture.
Then-AFL-CIO President George Meany so despised the anti-war Left that when McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 on an anti-war platform, he worked to deny McGovern the AFL-CIO's endorsement. McGovern was the only Democratic nominee not to get that endorsement in modern times.
McGovern lost out among labor elsewhere too. The Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon that year. In his later years, McGovern grew more sympathetic to business. After he opened an inn, he wrote, again in the Wall Street Journal, about how regulations contributed to its failure.
"I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day," he wrote.
McGovern was chastened by the experience and began talking with pro-business groups like Berman's. That's how they became friends and eventually allies. McGovern never saw this as a change, though. Quite the opposite. He saw it as in keeping with his definition of liberalism.
"While it is never pleasant to stand against one's party or one's friends, there are times when such actions are necessary -- as with my early and lonely opposition to the Vietnam War," he wrote in the Journal. "Because as Americans, we should strive to ensure that all of us enjoy the freedom of expression and freedom from fear that is our ideal and our right."
Sean Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.