Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes has received a major labor endorsement ahead of next year’s election.

The AFL-CIO of Kentucky announced before a packed house of union members in Louisville that it is formally backing Grimes in the 2014 race, citing her commitment to workers and their families.

“Labor has literally lifted millions out of poverty and it is labor that is the way we’re going to continue to grow the middle-class of this state,” says Grimes.

The endorsement comes shortly after Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell joined fellow Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to introduce a so-called “right to work” bill.

That proposal would prohibit labor contracts from requiring employees to join unions.

This issue marks a key philosophical difference between the Grimes and McConnell, and one that both campaigns are hoping to capitalize on.

McConnell and Paul attached their measure to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which seeks to bar discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, McConnell said “right to work” gives workers a choice free from the pressure of labor groups.


But Grimes says the bill would hurt Kentucky workers and middle-class families while taking jabs at McConnell and Paul.

“The only job that they’re interested in looking out for is their own,” says Grimes. “Here in the state of Kentucky we need someone who is putting the people first and ending the dysfunction we’re seeing in Washington, D.C. and as you heard from the resounding applause that was here today, ‘right to work’ is simply wrong for the state of Kentucky.”

“Enacting Right to Work legislation, Kentucky would essentially be eliminating what we have worked so hard for so many years for, which is to make sure everyone has their voice at the bargaining table.”

Many states, including Indiana and most of the south, have enacted right-to-work legislation. The state of Michigan, which is considered the heart of labor by many, passed it last year though the “sweeping changes” both sides predicted have failed to materialize.

Opponents argue “right to work” bills gut labor unions, lower pay allows non-members to benefit from their bargaining agreements. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, for instance, found wages in states with “right to work” suffer and are about three percent lower than in states without the law.

But those who favor the measure argue it will give businesses room to hire more workers and unburdens employees who don’t want to be forced to join unions.

“The union bosses, the entrenched special interests and the professional left may have stood in united, militant disagreement, but Michigan’s soft-spoken governor was right,” McConnell said. “And the more venom big labor directed at hi, the more it seemed to confirm the suspicions of many of the middle-class workers Snyder was trying to help: he was on their side.

Other labor groups have made their endorsements in the Senate race, including the Kentucky firefighters and construction unions which have endorsed Grimes. Last month, the state Fraternal Order of Police announced its support of McConnell.