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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jan 5, 2017, 1:31 pm

Kentucky Right-to-Work Law Now a Question of When, Not If

BY Bruce Vail

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If such a law passes, as it looks likely to do, Kentucky will become the 27th state to go right-to-work. (Kentucky AFL-CIO)  

Elections have consequences.

This is no more clear than in Kentucky, where emboldened Republicans are moving fast in the wake of their election victory to make the state a right-to-work state.

If such a law passes, as it looks likely to do, Kentucky will become the 27th state to go right-to-work.

“As I see it, it’s pretty much a done deal,” says Joe Brennan, director of the pro-union Kentucky Labor Institute.

All the necessary votes are lined up in the legislature and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is ready to sign, Brennan says, so “it’s really only a question of when it will happen, not if it will happen.” 

The bill passed out of a House committee Wednesday and, according to local reports, could come up for votes in the legislature as early as this week.

“I think Joe Brennan is correct. We are very optimistic,” says Ashli Watts, vice president of public affairs for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which has been pushing the anti-union legislation for more than a decade. “It’s at the top of the list [for the Chamber of Commerce’s economic development agenda], so it could move very quickly.”

Also near the top of that list?

Repealing a law that guarantees workers the “prevailing wage” for public construction jobs. Such a bill also passed out of committee Wednesday.  

“Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and House Republican Leadership made hurting working Kentuckians their number one priority. They did not advance bills to increase education funding, raise wages, or fund vital services in our community.

“Instead they chose to give multi-national corporations more power to outsource jobs, cut wages, and reduce benefits at the expense of our workers, small businesses, and the local economy. This is shameful,” Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said in a statement.

Donald Trump easily carried Kentucky, garnering nearly 63 percent of the vote and helping Republicans win control of the state’s House of Representative in a rout that saw 17 Democratic incumbents defeated. The Courier-Journal called it an “historic shift” that gave Republicans control of the chamber for the first time since 1921 and toppled the “last Democratic legislative bastion in the South.”

But, as the Labor Institute’s Brennan points out, the anti-union push in Kentucky started well before November. It has been gaining strength in Kentucky for years.

“The whole labor situation in Kentucky is not looking good at all. We had a Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, until 2015 and he was good on labor issues. The new guy, Bevin, is awful,” Brennan says.

He cites declines in the manufacturing sector in the western part of the state and in unionized coal mining in the east.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that there were only 187,000 union members in Kentucky in 2015, representing 11 percent of wage and salary workers. An additional 20,000 workers were represented by unions, but not union members themselves, BLS reported.

Nevertheless, the labor movement in Kentucky is planning to fight the right-to-work bill and other anti-labor legislation like it with all its got.

“We will take this opportunity to grow the labor movement and organize like hell!” said the AFL-CIO’s Londrigan. “Politicians didn’t create the labor movement and politicians aren’t going to destroy the labor movement.”

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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