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Kentucky Is The 27th 'Right-To-Work' State. Now What?

WKU Public Radio

Workers at unionized companies in Kentucky will be able to stop paying union dues or fees once contracts negotiated between their employers and unions expire.

The so-called “right-to-work” policy signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin last weekend forbids payment of dues as a condition to get or keep a job in Kentucky, though current collective bargaining agreements between unions and companies are still enforceable until they expire.

Bill Londrigan, president of Kentucky’s AFL-CIO, said the new law will have a negative impact on labor organizations and companies once some workers decide they don’t want to pay into the union anymore.

“There’s a negative impact on union financial capabilities and there’s also a negative impact on our solidarity in the workplace, which is a key component of us having a union,” Londrigan said.

Kentucky lawmakers quickly approved the right-to-work policy in the first week of the legislative session, the first time Republicans had held control of both legislative chambers and the governorship in state history.

Bevin made right-to-work a central plank of his 2015 race for office, and a legislative path for the policy emerged once Democrats lost control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 95 years in November.

Union advocates have criticized the policy as special legislation targeting labor organizations. Londrigan said he’s not sure how many workers in unionized companies will decide to stop paying dues.

“There may be a certain number of folks that decide that -- like across general society -- that decide they don’t want to pay and still get the benefits, which is what they’re going to be entitled to,” Londrigan said.

Supporters Prepared to Defend Law in Court

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 about 11 percent of Kentucky’s workforce were members of unions, while 12.1 percent were represented.

The discrepancy is due to some workers paying a “fee” rather than full-blown union dues paid to participate in votes on labor contracts.

Under the new right-to-work law, workers won’t be required to pay those dues.

The Virginia-based Right To Work Foundation has offered free legal help to people who encounter resistance trying to not pay dues while working in a unionized company and defend Kentucky’s new law as a whole.

“We expect because we’ve seen it in other states that workers will face resistance from union officials when workers seek to exercise their new right-to-work protections,” said Patrick Semmens, vice president of the Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation. “We also know that union officials frequently file lawsuits seeking to challenge right-to-work laws. And so we’re prepared to defend the laws in court.”

Semmens said he’s worried that unions will try to force unionized employees to pay dues even though they’re legally entitled not to.

Unions have had limited success challenging right-to-work laws in other states, most recently in Wisconsin and West Virginia.

In Wisconsin, a state trial court ruled that the law was unconstitutional seizure of union property since unions had to pay benefits of workers who don’t pay dues — the case is currently on appeal.

West Virginia passed a right-to-work law in 2016, but a court temporarily blocked it while a trial court considers a challenge to that policy. A ruling on that case is expected soon.

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