Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, recognized that there was an eternal struggle between toilers and those who exploited their labor. And he was pretty clear about has allegiance to those who “hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed; that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor.”

Theodore Roosevelt, whose presidency renewed and expanded the appeal of the Republican party at the beginning of the last century, argued that, “It is essential that there should be organizations of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.”

Dwight Eisenhower, whose presidency ushered in the era of modern Republicanism, was of the view that, “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice.”

So what happened to the Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower brand of Republicanism?

Was it discarded when the party lurched right to nominate Barry Goldwater, when Richard Nixon charted his “southern strategy,” when former labor leader Ronald Reagan set out to break the air traffic controllers union?

Did it disappear in the swamp of big money and corporate-interest, of Enrons and Abramoffs, that so defined the Bush presidency?

Not entirely.

For all the talk about how the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act pits pro-labor Democrats against anti-labor Republicans, there is a good deal of partisan nuance in the struggle over whether to remove barriers to labor’s ability to organize.

EFCA, which removes barriers that now block legitimate and popular union organizing drives, has 223 cosponsors in the House and, yes, the vast majority of them are Democrats. But more than three dozen House Democrats — most of them southern and western members, many of them aligned with the conservative “Blue Dog” caucus — and not signed on.

And a handful of House Republicans, including New Jersey’s Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith and New York’s John McHugh, have bravely added their names to the cosponsor list.

In the Senate, all the announced cosponsors are Democrats. But Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, who backed EFCA in 2007, is still likely to back the bill — despite intense pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other lobbying groups and the prospect of a bloody Republican primary fight in 2010. And labor groups have hinted that there might be a few other Republican backers of the bill.

Republican supporters are needed in the Senate not merely because it will take 60 senators — two more than the Democrats now have — to overcome filibuster threats.

GOP backers are also needed because a number of Democrats are shaky on EFCA.

Labor commentator Jonathan Tasini suggests that, when it comes to passing EFCA, “The problem is that there are a handful of Democratic Senators who are, at best, weak on labor, and, at worst, just outright shills for corporate interests in the Congress. Here is my list: Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln; it’s not clear to me what the replacement Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet will do on the bill, nor do I entirely trust Bill Nelson or Mark Pryor (on Pryor, maybe it’s a family thing: his father was one of two Democratic Senators who would not vote in the 1990s to break a filibuster on the legislation that would have banned striker replacements, dooming the bill and giving corporations even more power to intimidate workers). That’s seven Senators who, in my opinion, you cannot count as passionate champions of EFCA.”

Yes, Democrats are, on balance, more pro-labor than Republicans.

But this is an essential issue for American workers, too essential to let it be subsumed to pure partisanship. Highlighting Republican support for EFCA takes apart the argument that labor law reform is merely a political payout to labor groups that backed Democrats — along the same lines as pro-corporate legislation advanced by GOP leaders when there party was in power — and makes it tougher for southern and western Democrats to go astray.

There are Republicans who are getting EFCA right, and that is a detail that must not be lost in this debate. Where all House Republicans opposed the stimulus bill, the GOP caucus will not be so united on the question of workplace fairness.

Smart lobbying efforts will note and exploit this opening by putting pressure not just on wavering Democrats but on “possible” Republicans to embrace the position that when a majority of employees in a workplace want union representation they should have it.

After all, it was a lifelong Republican named John L. Lewis who said: “Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.”