Kentucky Senate Passes Right to Work Legislation

Governor has pledged to make commonwealth 27th right to work state

Kentucky state capitol building
Kentucky state capitol building / Wikimedia Commons
January 7, 2017

The Kentucky state Senate approved legislation to end coercive unionism on Saturday, a move that all but guarantees it will become the 27th right to work state in the country.

The state Senate voted 25-12 to pass right to work, which bars making union membership a condition of employment. The law will allow workers in unionized shops the option to opt out of paying union dues without fear of losing their jobs.

The vote came two days after the House of Representatives approved the bill by a 58-39 vote. House Speaker Jeff Hoover led the fight to pass right to work in the opening days of the 2017 legislative calendar—the first time that the GOP has controlled the legislature in 95 years. He said that lawmakers saw right to work as an essential tool in boosting economic development in Kentucky,

"Kentucky is on the way to positioning itself as a national leader in job growth and economic attractiveness due to passage of critical Right to Work legislation," Hoover told the Washington Free Beacon.

Kentucky's unemployment rate of 4.8 percent is on par with the national average. However, it lags behind jobless rates of right-to-work states in the region, including Indiana and Wisconsin, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indiana became the first right to work state in the rust belt, a traditional union stronghold, in 2012.

That move inspired other neighboring states to pass such laws, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia where lawmakers overrode the Democratic governor’s veto in February 2016. The legislature in neighboring Missouri approved legislation in 2015, but did not have the votes to overcome Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto. Newly elected Republican Gov. Eric Greitens said he would sign it if it passed.

Hoover said that lawmakers were mindful of the spread of right to work in the region when they considered the bill.

"Kentucky is finally on the brink of joining 26 other states, including several neighboring states, in the highly competitive fight for jobs and business growth," he said.

Nearly 200,000 Kentucky workers belonged to unions in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership has grown since undergoing a retraction during the Great Recession; 11 percent of the workforce belongs to unions, a 28 percent increase from 2009.

Union protesters flooded the state capitol to protest right to work, as well as the repeal of prevailing wage laws, which mandate wage rates at union levels. The protest, which was organized by the Kentucky AFL-CIO, featured labor activists as well as lawmakers, some of whom wore buttons slamming "free riders"—a frequent union criticism against workers who receive union wages and work rules without paying dues.

The state AFL-CIO slammed the legislation in a blog post, taking aim at Gov. Matt Bevin, who has said he would sign the bill, which he was unable to do when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives before the November elections.

"Union-busting has been at the top of Bevin's agenda since he was elected in November, 2015," the post says. "The swift assault on organized labor was not unexpected."

Speaker Hoover disputed the notion that the bill would hurt workers. He said that right-to-work laws more fully reflect the right of workers to freedom of association and allow prospective employees access to jobs that they could be excluded from without joining a union.

"Right to Work is not an anti-union measure, but a pro-worker measure as Kentuckians will no longer be forced to join a union in order to work the job they choose," he said.

The National Right to Work Committee worked with lawmakers to rally support for the bill. Foundation President Mark Mix said the legislation will help the state employers and employees.

"This is the culmination of a long, hard-fought battle to end compulsory unionism in the Bluegrass State and make Kentucky America's 27th Right to Work state," Mix said in a release. "The Kentucky Right to Work law will free tens of thousands of Kentucky workers who have been forced to pay tribute to a union boss just for the privilege of getting and keeping a job so they can provide for their families. The law will also provide a much needed economic boost for Kentucky."

Associated Builders and Contractors also hailed the passage of both bills, saying that they would allow for increased competition and contract opportunities in the construction industry. The group called Kentucky's prevailing wage and closed-union shop policies "archaic" in a release, and said that reforms would improve the commonwealth's "business climate."

"By creating new opportunities for all Kentucky contractors shut out by the archaic and costly prevailing wage law, and allowing workers to freely decide whether to join a labor union, the Kentucky legislature has enacted needed improvements to the state’s business climate," spokesman Ben Brubeck said in a release.