by Berry Craig
Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo Campaigns at Union Rally in Paducah
The Kentucky House is standing firm against right to work
Proponents of county right to work ordinances in Kentucky claim most Bluegrass State citizens are pro-right to work.
It may be an old cliché, but the only poll that counts is the one on election day. Last November 4, right to work lost.
Almost every Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives pledged to help make Kentucky the 25th right to work state. A right to work law was a central plank in the GOP’s “Handshake with Kentucky” platform.
On the stump, in a flurry of campaign fliers and in a seemingly endless round of radio and TV commercials, Republican House hopefuls vowed to pass a right to work law if the GOP flipped the General Assembly’s lower chamber. (The state Senate has a pro-right to work Republican majority.)
Yet the Democrats held their 54-46 edge in the House of Representatives.
Oh, at first, the Republicans seemed pretty sure they’d win the House, where most Democrats – and even some Republicans – oppose a right to work law. Such laws allow workers at a unionized jobsite to enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union and paying dues or paying the union a service fee. Under right to work laws, unions must also represent non-union workers to management.
But by late summer, it looked like the GOP’s confidence might be waning. Or, at least, the Republicans seemed to be devising a Plan B.
In early September, state Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, sought an opinion from Attorney Gen. Jack Conway on whether counties could legally pass right to work ordinances.
In late December, Conway’s office, citing federal labor law, said no.
The GOP’s Plan B kicked in anyway. Minutes after Conway’s opinion was issued, the Warren County fiscal court approved a right to work ordinance. Simpson, Fulton and Todd counties have followed.
In addition, Hardinand Cumberland counties have passed right to work ordinances on first reading. Butler County is considering one.
Not surprisingly, right to work backers claim Conway, a Democrat, is biased in favor of unions. Yet even the GOP-friendly, anti-union National Right to Work Committee warns “there is zero reason to believe that any local Right to Work ordinances adopted in Kentucky or any other state will be upheld in court.”
At any rate, unions are expected to challenge the ordinances in court this month, labor attorney Dave Suetholz of Louisville told the Simpson fiscal court. The Kentucky State AFL-CIO is working closely with the national AFL-CIO on the issue, added Suetholz, who represents the state AFL-CIO.
Meanwhile, Todd County attorney Harold Mac Johns doubts the county right to work measures will stand up in court.
“I think the state has pre-empted that” (locally enacted right to work ordinances), he told Hopkinsville radio WHOP. “It’s my hope that the county is not forced to expend any general fund resources to defend this.”
Johns also thinks the right to work ordinance is more of a political statement, according to the radio station.
So having failed to grab the House, the state GOP and its anti-union allies evidently went hunting for fiscal courts comprised of anti-union Republicans and like-minded conservative Democrats and encouraged them to pass local right to work ordinances.
The idea apparently was to make the ordinances appear to have bipartisan support. No doubt, too, the ordinances were timed to pressure the legislature, which has just convened. But it looks like hogs will fly before House Democrats cave on right to work.
“I think the recent attorney general’s opinion on this issue is crystal clear: Local communities cannot pass right-to-work legislation on their own,” said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who was Kentucky’s attorney general in 2003-2007.
“There is no mention of that authority in the law governing fiscal courts, and there is no way in the world we in the House will consider changing that. This initiative is being pushed by interests outside of Kentucky who only care about weakening our labor unions and cutting the wages of hardworking families.”
Anyway, I don’t know Johns. But if he’s an I-told-you-so kind of guy, I’d bet the farm his day is coming. It’s not a question of if the courts will overturn these ordinances, it’s when.
Berry Craig is recording secretary of the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, a member of AFT Local 1360 and the webmaster/editor/chief writer for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO webpage: http://ky.aflcio.org/