In recent months, a coalition of anti-union groups have been promoting the idea of passing right-to-work ordinances on the city and county level. Recognizing the success of progressives in pursuing labor rights at the local level, these anti-union groups have decided to try their own version of small-scale warfare.
I outlined the anti-union arguments and some of the associated problems in an article for The Nation. A few days later, Politico’s Brian Mahoney reported (paywalled) from ALEC’s winter meeting that “specifically the groups are looking at counties in Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and — perhaps most aggressively — Kentucky.”
Well, the ball just dropped. Last week, a county in southwestern Kentucky, approximately halfway between Louisville and Paducah, voted for preliminary approval of a county-level right-to-work ordinance.
The vote, reported by Katie Brandenburg of the Bowling Green Daily News, appeared to come out of nowhere. It was listed on the agenda as “an Ordinance Relating to the Promotion of Economic Development and Commerce,” and one of the magistrates stated that he only found out about the ordinance on the morning of the vote.
If Warren County, Kentucky, takes the final step to passing its local right to work ordinance next week, it will represent the beginning of a long fight over the legality of such local laws.
Promoters of the effort argue that although federal labor law generally preempts any local ordinances, Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which permits right-to-work laws in “any state or territory,” is ambiguous as to whether it applies to cities and counties. They argue that counties are subdivisions of the state, and home rule cities have been delegated authority by the state, so these entities should be included under the term “state.”
While I think the anti-union argument is wrong, this has all the earmarks of an eventual Supreme Court case in the making. And recent caess have already shown that the Court is capable of some truly anti-labor decisions.
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Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.