December 29, 2014
By Steve Wishnia
Kentucky’s Warren County became the first local government in the nation to outlaw the union shop Dec.19, when its Fiscal Court passed a so-called “right to work” law that prohibits workers from being required to join a union or pay “agency fees” for representation at their jobs.
The county, centered on Bowling Green, includes the General Motors Corvette plant, whose almost 900 workers are represented by United Auto Workers Local 2164. Two smaller counties—Simpson, just south of Bowling Green, and Fulton, in the state’s western tip—have preliminarily approved similar measures.
“This local ordinance is a slap in the face to the men and the women who work to earn a decent living in union organized jobs,” Local 2164 President Eldon Remaud, one of a few hundred union supporters who turned out for the vote, told the Associated Press. Unions have also criticized the way the law was enacted. When the Fiscal Court had its preliminary vote Dec. 11, the AFL-CIO says, the measure was part of a bill called “Promotion of Economic Development and Commerce for Warren County,” handed out 15 minutes before the panel voted on it.
The Warren County law is the first fruit of a campaign by far-right think tanks to get local governments to ban the union shop. Its backers include the Heritage Foundation, the American City Council Exchange (an offshoot of the American Legislative Exchange Council), and the Bluegrass Institute, a Bowling Green outfit whose president denounces “union fat cats” and is heavily funded by the Koch brothers. Kentucky presents a prime target, as it, West Virginia, and Missouri are the only Southern or semi-Southern states that don’t have such laws. Kentucky is unlikely to enact one at the state level, as Democrats retained control of the state House in this November’s elections, but Indiana, just across the Ohio River, became the first Midwestern state to enact one in 2012.
The law is almost certain to set off a legal battle. “We’ll see you in court,” Kentucky AFL-CIO President William J. Londrigan shouted after the vote, the AP reported.
Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 authorizes “any state or territory” to pass laws prohibiting the union shop. Does that mean that only state or territorial-level governments, not cities or counties, can do so? In an advisory opinion issued the morning of the Warren County vote, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway cited a 1965 decision by the state’s second-highest court that struck down the city of Shelbyville’s “right to work” law. That decision, he said “is clear that [federal law] pre-empts all political subdivisions of a state from enacting right-to-work laws, including counties as well as cities." Anti-union forces counter that a 1972 state lawthat gave county fiscal courts the power to enact ordinances for the “promotion of economic development” supersedes that decision.
“Right to work” supporters frame the issue as one of freedom, of helping workers avoid “forced unionism” and “compulsory dues.” “This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions,” a Heritage Foundation labor policy analystwrote after the first vote, saying that under the law, “Local 2164’s members may get a choice about where their money goes. This freedom will also probably bring them better services.”
Union supporters respond that these laws actually reduce workers’ freedom, because they undermine the most effective way for them to have a voice in their wages and working conditions. In reality, they say, workplace dissenters or complainers who don’t have union protection quickly get fired—and the only right these laws advance is the “right to work for less.”
“Unions are among the most democratic institutions in the country,” Chris Ormes, president of United Steelworkers Local 1241 in Bardstown, wrote in response to the Bluegrass Institute. “In this country no one is coerced into working where he or she doesn't want to work. This is not North Korea. So, if you don't want to work at a business with a union security agreement, then by all means go work in a non-union business. Of course, companies with unions are the most desirable places to work.”
Federal law requires unions to represent all employees in a workplace, but state right-to-work laws mean they have to represent “free riders” who refuse to pay any of the costs. “Since it is already illegal in the United States to require workers to join unions, the real focus of the measure is to weaken workers in negotiations with employers for decent wages and benefits,” the AFL-CIOsays.
The votes in Fulton and Simpson counties are scheduled for the end of the month.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, state Rep. Bill Lant says he plans to introduce “right to work” legislation in the 2015 legislative session. He told a St. Louis radio station Dec. 1 that “in the states where right to work was passed recently, the hourly rates may have dropped 2 to 3 dollars an hour, but the amount of days per year that the workers actually got to put in on the job increased dramatically.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Dissent NewsWire.