Organized labor suffered its first major legislative setback due to the 2016 elections on Saturday, when Kentucky Republicans gave final approval to right-to-work legislation and repealed the state’s prevailing wage law. Both bills are expected to be signed into law by the governor, and will take effect immediately.
Kentucky is the last holdout in the South without an anti-union right-to-work law on the books. For decades, labor unions and Democrats fended off such measures, which diminish union membership and weaken the labor movement. But when Republicans captured the state House in November, they paved the way for passage of the legislation. The law will apply to all new labor contracts, but will not affect current agreements.
Unions and Democrats mounted a last-ditch effort to stop the legislation this week, holding protests at the state capitol building in Frankfort saying the bills would drive down wages. But Republicans now have overwhelming control of both the state Senate and the House. Kentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, is a Republican who won office in 2015.
“They’re cutting workers’ pay,” Bill Finn, state director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council, told The Huffington Post this week. “People voted for a change in this election, but they didn’t vote for this. They didn’t vote for pay cuts.”
Right-to-work laws forbid contracts that require all workers in a particular bargaining unit to pay fees to a union. Under U.S. labor law, a union must represent all employees in a unionized workplace, even those who may not want representation. Unions argue it’s only fair that all workers share the costs of bargaining and maintaining the union contract.
By allowing individual workers to opt out of paying union fees while benefiting from representation ― an arrangement unions call “free riding” ― right-to-work laws can drive down membership and weaken unions financially and politically. The conservatives who push right-to-work laws argue that they assure workers’ individual freedoms by not compelling anyone to support a union.
Labor leaders were equally troubled by the legislature’s move to gut the state’s prevailing wage law. Such laws require that employers pay certain minimum wages on work funded by public money. Backers of the laws say they help make sure companies accepting taxpayer dollars don’t drive down wages and working conditions. Opponents argue they inflate the cost of public works projects.
The repeal means prevailing wages will no longer apply to construction workers building schools and government buildings.
Charlie Essex, the financial secretary for Local 369 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Louisville, called the measure “an attack on union people.” He estimated that the prevailing wage law applied to more than 30 percent of union construction work in Kentucky.
Backed by business lobbies, Republican lawmakers around the country have been aggressive in pushing right-to-work bills and prevailing wage repeals in recent years. When Democrats lose control of a statehouse chamber or the governor’s mansion, they are often powerless to stop them.
Long confined to the South and West, right-to-work proponents have recently made inroads elsewhere in the country, including even the industrial Midwest. Since 2012, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia have all gone right-to-work. Kentucky will be the 27th such state, making it more the norm than the exception around the country.