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Supporters Predict Right-To-Work Swell If Court Rules In Hardin County's Favor

Kentucky state Capitol
Kentucky state Capitol

A ruling is imminent in a federal lawsuit that will determine whether Kentucky counties are allowed to pass local right-to-work laws.

Right-to-work supporters say scores of counties in Kentucky and across the country are poised to pass local right-to-work laws if Hardin County’s law is upheld.

Jim Waters, president of the conservative think tank Bluegrass Institute, said 50 counties have requested a copy of a model right-to-work law.

“There’s just too many opportunities for counties — especially along the borders with right-to-work states like Tennessee and Indiana — there’s too many opportunities that are being lost,” Waters said.

In December, Warren County lawmakers approved a right-to-work law, which prohibits unions from forcing workers to pay dues as a condition of employment in a unionized company. Another 11 counties passed similar laws, modeled after a policy put forth by the American City County Exchange, an offshoot of the conservative think tank American Legislative Exchange Council.

Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway issued an opinion against Warren County’s policy, saying local governments lack the authority to approve right-to-work legislation.

In 1965, Shelbyville passed a right-to-work law that was later struck down by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled that the National Labor Relations Act only allows states to enact such legislation.

Right-to-work supporters argue that the policies are valid because Kentucky’s “home rule” law allows counties to pass their own economic policies. They also argue that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of local regulatory power in cases involving pesticides and intrastate transportation.

If the judge's ruling is favorable to Hardin County's policy, other states that give "home rule" authority to local governments and have favorable political climates — including Ohio, Illinois and Maine — may follow suit, said James Sherk, a fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

“This could be fairly widespread in states where there’s enough support at the local level to push right-to-work, there’s not enough to get it statewide through both houses of the legislature and the governor’s signature, but there’s also not enough opposition to it that the legislature and the governor would say you can’t do this,” Sherk said.

Waters said counties have a "wait-and-see” attitude about whether to move forward with right-to-work legislation until the court provides clarity to the issue. If the court rules against the local policy, he said Kentucky supporters will renew their push on a statewide level.

The Republican-led state Senate approved a right-to-work bill in the first days of last year’s legislative session, but it was blocked in the House, which has a slim Democratic majority.

Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, said the House will continue to block legislation as long as Democrats have the majority. He said a handful of Republicans also oppose right-to-work laws.

“It’s a tight margin, but we have been successful in holding it, and we’re going to try to expand it with people, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that oppose this kind of anti-union, anti-worker legislation,” Londrigan said.

Londrigan said a right-to-work law would be a gateway to other conservative policies, including a prevailing wage law and charter schools.

“It’s an incredible basket of regressive legislation that results from giving a majority status to those who are not supportive of those that work every day for a living in any real and constructive way,” Londrigan said.

Conway, who is also the Democratic candidate for governor, opposes right-to-work legislation. Republican Matt Bevin says the state “can’t afford not to pass it.”

There are 25 states with statewide right-to-work laws on the books.