January 9, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
Frankfort, Ky.— Kentucky Republicans took advantage of controlling the state legislature for the first time since 1921 to ram through three antilabor bills in the session’s first week: to ban the union shop, repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law for public construction projects, and prohibit union dues from being deducted from paychecks without the employee’s written consent.
The three were among seven bills passed and sent to Gov. Matt Bevin on Jan. 7, along with restrictions on abortion without exceptions for rape or incest. Bevin signed the union-shop ban immediately, saying in a video that it would create “incredible new opportunities for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” He said he would sign all seven measures by Monday, Jan. 9, praising them as “seven substantive, meaningful, impactful, generationally changing bills.”
It was the first time in state history that the legislature has passed bills and sent them to the governor during the first week
Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan called the legislation “some of the most extreme anti-workers bills in the nation… slashing wages and silencing working people across the Commonwealth.”
“The labor movement is needed in Kentucky now, more than ever,” he said in a statement after the votes. “We will not let these politicians and out-of-state corporations turn back the clock on Kentucky’s hardworking men and women. We will work to make sure this message is heard in the living rooms and workplaces from Paducah to Pikeville and everywhere in between. We will continue to inform our members that elections have consequences and union members and their families will hold our elected representatives accountable for these egregious, harmful actions taken today.”
A few hundred union members and supporters packed the state Senate galleries during the debate Jan. 7. They cheered Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones, a Democrat from the Appalachia town of Pikeville, when he called the union-shop ban “an effort to destroy the bargaining power of workers’ right to negotiate with their employers” and said the prevailing-wage law was necessary because “skilled labor doesn’t come cheap, and cheap labor doesn’t come skilled.”
The bill passed by the legislature abolishes the state Prevailing Wage Review Board. It also prohibits local governments from setting their own prevailing-wage standards and requires contractors to certify that they have not hired any “unauthorized alien employees.”
When the governor emerged into a hallway outside the chamber after the vote, several dozen protesters greeted him with loud boos, obscenities, and chants of “No justice, no peace.” Bevin, who grew up in New Hampshire and moved to the state in 1999 to work as an investment manager, asked if any of them lived in Kentucky. “I was born and raised here. I’ve lived here my entire life,” one answered. “And I’m still here. It’s because of union wages and because of the union, sir.”
The “right to work” bill, sponsored by new House Speaker Jeff Hoover, prohibits any requirement that workers pay dues or representation fees to a union, although federal law will still require the union to represent them. Kentucky had been the last state in the South that still allowed the union shop. In the last five years, four of the seven states in the industrial belt running from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee—Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia—have enacted similar laws. Ohio enacted one in 2011, but it was overturned by a statewide popular vote that November.
“The main theme of the week is that we’ve delivered,” Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, a Chamber of Commerce member from the Lexington suburb of Georgetown, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Specifically, we are removing barriers to job creation and making a strong statement about Kentucky’s core beliefs about the sanctity of life.”