J. R. Gray Saw the "Silver Lining Shine Through ‘a Deep, Dark Cloud’ over Frankfort
By BERRY CRAIG
BENTON, Ky. -- J.R. Gray, Kentucky’s new Commissioner of Labor, says he wants to make the Labor-Management Conference “bigger and better than ever” and boost morale in the Department of Labor.
“There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Gov. [Ernie] Fletcher wanted to destroy the Labor-Management Conference that we have at Kentucky Dam every year,” Gray said. He added that after Fletcher issued an executive order to downgrade the Labor Cabinet to the Labor Department, employees “felt like the unwanted child at the family picnic.”
Gray, from Benton, the Marshall County seat, is expected to be elevated to labor secretary next spring when the new governor, Democrat Steve Beshear, restores the state labor cabinet by executive order. Beshear, who enjoyed strong union support, beat Fletcher, a Republican, in a landslide on Nov. 6.
“It’s my goal that [labor department employees]…will again be able to be proud to go to work. I want to make the Department of Labor, eventually the Labor Cabinet, the most admirable division in state government.”
Beshear’s new labor chief spent 26 years championing labor’s cause in the state House of Representatives. A Democrat, Gray chaired the Labor and Industry Committee for most of his tenure in Frankfort.
Gray represented the Sixth House District, which includes Marshall and Lyon Counties and a small part of McCracken County in western Kentucky. He had to resign to become labor commissioner.
“I want to express my heartfelt appreciation for all of the support that I have had from the various labor organizations throughout the Sixth House District and statewide,” he said. “I also want to express my deep appreciation to the voters in the district for all the confidence they have shown in me all those years.
“Number one, I hope that the people could have said on Wednesday, December the 12th of ’07 – the day my resignation took effect – ‘Well, J.R. was no different on his last day than he was on the first day he entered the General Assembly in early January of 1976.'”
Gray was elected to the House in 1975. He served from 1976 to 1989, when he lost in the Democratic primary. He won his seat back in 1994. A former Machinists Union official, Gray was one of labor’s most faithful allies in the legislature. Unions considered Fletcher one of the most anti-union governors in Bluegrass State history.
In 2006, Fletcher pushed the legislature to pass a right-to-work law and to repeal the state prevailing wage law on public construction projects. Gray led the fight against the governor’s proposals, both of which failed.
“I had mixed emotions about leaving the General Assembly because I had fought many, many battles and had won most of them,” Gray said. He said his sweetest victories were stopping Fletcher on right-to-work and on gutting the prevailing wage.
“Having that under my belt, and having chaired the Labor and Industry Committee for the overwhelming majority of my 26 years in Frankfort, it was a difficult decision to leave. But when Gov. Beshear asked me if I would consider [becoming labor commissioner]…and helping him straighten out [the labor]…department, then I felt an obligation to respond favorably to him.”
Labor had responded favorably to the Beshear campaign. The Kentucky State AFL-CIO and other Kentucky unions endorsed the Democrat. Union members worked hard for Beshear. Union voters went for Beshear over Fletcher 77 to 21 percent, based on the state AFL-CIO’s independent election-night poll.
In a Labor Day speech in Paducah, Beshear promised to bring back the Labor Cabinet and name “a card-carrying union member” as labor secretary. He repeated the pledge at labor rallies.
Also in the Paducah speech, Beshear said that when he was lieutenant governor under Gov. Martha Layne Collins in 1983-1987, “…we were the first administration to take the department of labor and turn it into a cabinet position.”
Gray expects to become labor secretary after the 2008 General Assembly adjourns. “I think that the governor wants to get the legislative session out of the way first,” he added. Meanwhile, Gray said the governor expects him “to more or less function just like I was a secretary of a cabinet.”
While he was a lawmaker, Gray never missed a Labor-Management Conference, an annual gathering at Kentucky Dam Village State Park, on Kentucky Lake in Marshall County. The conferences are held a week after Labor Day.
Gov. Julian Carroll, a Democrat, started the three-day meetings in 1977. The idea was to promote better labor-management relations by providing a relaxed setting where union and company officials could get together socially. The conferences are co-sponsored by the Department of Labor and the Cabinet for Economic Development.
In 2006, Fletcher tried to get the Labor-Management Conference shifted to a privately-owned hotel in Covington . The governor also wanted the meeting time reset to two weeks before election day. Unions and some business leaders protested the move. In the end, the conference stayed in September at the state park.
“We will try our best to keep it at Kentucky Dam Village from here on out,” Gray said. “I pledge that with the help of [Marshall County] Judge-Executive Mike Miller and other supporters, we’re going to try to make this year’s Labor-Management Conference bigger and better than ever.”
Gray plans to be the first labor secretary to attend the conference since Joe Norsworthy, who held the post under Gov. Paul Patton. Gray said he didn’t seek to follow Norsworthy, a Marshall County native and Gray’s longtime friend.
“I am extremely pleased with having been offered the position of commissioner of labor,” Gray said. “It came as quite a surprise to me because it was not something I was asking for or had been pursuing.”
Gray said, unknown to him, several state labor leaders -- “[State AFL-CIO President] Bill Londrigan, (shown below) Steve Earle [an international representative for the United Mine Workers] and a raft of others" -- had been urging Beshear to name him labor commissioner.
Gray still has a Machinists’ card in his wallet. From 1967 to 1986, he was directing business representative for Machinists District Lodge 154 in Calvert City, not far from where he lives.
Though Gray has vacated his House seat, he is not giving up his house. He said he and his wife, Yvonne, plan to keep their Benton home and find “some place we can get through the week with” in the state capital.
Gray said he won’t be an office-bound commissioner or secretary. “I will spend a significant amount of time on the road because I think that this governor wants his inner circle of people, so to speak, to be out there meeting with residents of the state and listening to their ideas and concerns and in turn bringing those ideas and their concerns back to him.”
One of Beshear’s concerns will be to call for a special election in the Sixth District. Will Coursey, a Benton banker, is interested in filling out the rest of Gray’s term. The Commissioner said he has heard “other names tossed around,” but added he’s not backing anybody. Gray said he is focusing on his new job.
The commissioner is shuttling between Benton and Frankfort. But he stopped at the Greater Louisville Building and Construction Trades Council Christmas party. He told the union members and their families that he was happy to be representing Gov. Beshear and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo who were busy in Frankfort.
Gray said that he saw “a deep, dark cloud” descend over the capital when Fletcher was elected in November, 2003. He said he was glad to watch it disappear at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2007, when Beshear was officially sworn in as governor.
“It was a thrill to be there,” Gray said. “Inside every dark cloud, there is a silver lining and Gov. Beshear and Lt. Gov. Mongiardo are indeed the silver lining that finally shone through.”