Kentucky is poised to become the 27th right-to-work state in the country after the state's House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday evening.
The Republican-controlled House voted 58-39 to end coercive union dues just a day after a House committee advanced the bill. Though Kentucky has long sent Republicans to Washington, D.C., Democrats controlled the statehouse for nearly a century before the GOP won majorities in both houses in 2016. John Cox, spokesman for Senate President Robert Stivers, said the party sees right to work as part of the mandate it received from voters.
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"Kentuckians made it clear that they were ready to see pro-business measures taken in the General Assembly to create more jobs," Cox told the Washington Free Beacon.
Kentucky has one of the highest union membership rates in the south, in part because it is one of the only states in the region without a right-to-work law, which bars union membership as a condition of employment. About 200,000 Kentucky workers were dues-paying union members in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership has grown in recent years, with a membership rate of 11 percent of the workforce—a 28 percent increase from 2009.
Several of Kentucky's neighbors are right-to-work states. Indiana became a right-to-work state in 2012, spurring several traditional union strongholds to adopt similar measures. Michigan and Wisconsin passed right-to-work legislation in 2012 and 2015. West Virginia became the 26th right-to-work state in February 2016 after lawmakers overrode the Democratic governor's veto to pass the bill. Republican lawmakers in neighboring Missouri have passed right to work over the past few years, but have been unable to overcome the veto of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. Newly elected Republican Gov. Eric Greitens has pledged to pass right to work.
Cox said that Republicans have the votes to pass right to work in the Senate, and see it as pivotal to creating jobs and enticing businesses to relocate to Kentucky rather than its neighbors.
"We fully expect the right-to-work bill to pass on Saturday, which we believe will send a message to companies across the nation and around the world, that ‘Kentucky is open for business,'" Cox said.
Unions are mobilizing against the law. The Kentucky AFL-CIO will rally on Saturday against right to work, as well as the potential repeal of prevailing wage laws, which force companies to pay union rates for labor. The union said on its website that lawmakers are waging a "war on workers."
"Anti-union lawmakers in Frankfort are trying to ram through bills that will hurt our ability to have strong unions and good jobs in our state," the union says on its website. "Lawmakers are being asked to vote yes or no on dangerous, destructive bills like right to work, paycheck deception and elimination of prevailing wage without even a chance to think about the consequences."
The National Right to Work Foundation, which lobbies for legislation and provides legal assistance to states and workers embroiled in union lawsuits, said the legislation will help protect worker freedom by giving them the option to leave unions without fear of reprisal. Foundation President Mark Mix said the legislation will improve the state's economic competitiveness by giving employers relief from union pressure campaigns.
"The passage of Right to Work yesterday in the Kentucky House was step one in freeing Bluegrass State workers from the shackles of forced unionism," Mix said. "Kentucky law finally appears close to reflecting that overwhelming support for workplace freedom."
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who did not return a request for comment, has pledged to sign the bill if it is approved by the legislature. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill on Saturday.