But McGovern, 87, has reemerged in recent months on the other side of the political spectrum, as a prominent foe of a key piece of the progressive agenda: the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act.
The liberal icon’s public break with the left has produced from his old allies anger, confusion and a failed campaign to persuade him to change his mind on the legislation, which would give workers the option of joining a union by signing cards rather than by voting in a secret ballot.
Instead, McGovern has stuck to his guns in an unlikely campaign that began in the pages of The Wall Street Journal , where he wrote that, for Democrats, abandoning the secret ballot would be “a betrayal of what we have always championed.”
Flirting with sacrilege, he compared his opposition to the bill to “my early and lonely opposition to the Vietnam War.”
McGovern’s stance may say more about the iconic, idiosyncratic former senator and Democratic presidential nominee than about the cause, but his words were repeated in television ads across the Midwest by business-backed groups, and labor leaders from Sioux Falls to Washington took note.
Workers “are very upset and at a loss of words on how an individual who has supported the labor movement on issues and concerns for many, many years can now be a voice for the powerful corporations,” Ken Mass, the president of the Nebraska AFL-CIO, wrote McGovern in February, in a letter shared with POLITICO by another labor leader.
A spokesman for the national AFL-CIO, Eddie Vale, said McGovern's embrace of "misinformation" is "disappointing."
McGovern’s conversion spurred a campaign to cancel his appearance at an event honoring the 100th anniversary of The Progressive, a venerable outlet on the left. And his stance has raised deep enough concern inside the labor movement that the AFL-CIO’s top lobbyist, Bill Samuel, flew to South Dakota a few weeks before last November’s election to change McGovern’s mind.
Samuel, who declined to comment on the meeting, and Mark Anderson, the president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO, sat down to breakfast with McGovern in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Samuel brought along a memento, Anderson said: a photograph of the then-presidential candidate with Samuel as a boy and Samuel’s father, who had been a close McGovern adviser.
McGovern “told us a story about how when he was in Congress, how he listened to the first person that talked to him, and he lost a whole lot of labor friends then over the right-to-work issue. He was insinuating that that’s what happened now,” said Anderson. “He told us he was going to stay out of it.”
Another labor source familiar with the meeting said it ended with the same impression: that McGovern had agreed to at least stay on the sidelines.
McGovern remembers it differently.
“What I told those men was that, in view of the fact they’d made such an effort to get to me, that I would look at it again,” he said. “I didn’t plan any big campaign against it, but I wasn’t going to modify my position unless I saw evidence that it should be modified, which I haven’t seen.”
But with another op-ed by McGovern appearing last week in The Wall Street Journal attacking a different element of the act, binding arbitration, labor leaders are now angrily accusing him of selling out.
“It’s pretty tough for working people and union members to get out and support Democrats here when their political icon from South Dakota is trying to wipe out the Employee Free ChoiceAct,” said Anderson, the local labor leader. “The only thing I can figure out is he&rsqo;s strapped for cash, and these corporate interests have gotten to him.”
In an interview, McGovern said he’d gotten “not a dime” for himself or for his McGovern Center at Dakota Wesleyan University from his opposition to the bill.
“It’s a matter of principle for me. I’ve always favored, on any really important decision, the secret ballot,” he told POLITICO.
Anderson and others in the labor movement point to McGovern’s unlikely relationship with Rick Berman, a leading corporate lobbyist who runs, among many groups, the anti-labor Center for Union Facts and the Employee Freedom Action Committee, an outlet for a corporate-financed campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act.
McGovern is listed as a "participant" on the website of one of Berman’s other organizations, and the two men are old friends, Berman said.
“I’ve known McGovern for a million years, and he took this one on himself,” Berman said. “McGovern asked me about it when he first heard about it. He thought it was strange.”
Another theory circulating on the left traces McGovern’s hostility to the bill to the hostility of the old-guard trade union leaders to his presidential campaign.
“The bright-eyed anti-war reform Democrats who formed the core of McGovern’s movement became locked in a civil war with the old-line union leaders who were as uncomfortable with reform as they were comfortable with the Vietnam War. It got ugly,” liberal historian Rick Perlstein wrote last summer .
Corporate agents “took an old man seething with bitterness from 36-year-old slights, and made of him an instrument of their will,” he wrote.
McGovern’s friends offer another theory: After he lost reelection in 1980, McGovern went into the hotel business, which gave him a different perspective on economics and made him an early proponent of tort reform, drawing fire from the era’s best-known consumer advocate: Ralph Nader.
“He really got a more business-oriented view toward life,” said McGovern friend Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
McGovern offered a similar explanation in his recent op-ed.
Running hotels “was an eye-opening introduction to something most business operators are all-too familiar with: The difficulty of controlling costs and setting prices in a weak economy,” he wrote.
“Despite my trust in government, I would have been alarmed by an outsider taking control of basic management decisions that determine success or failure in a business where I had invested my life savings.”
And, in the interview, McGovern dismissed his critics’ theories that, as he put it, “I’ve sold out to management.”
“There’s not enough money in Washington to convince me to say something in public that I don’t believe is in the best interest of the country,” he said. “I just decided I was on the right track, and I wasn’t going to change my mind.”