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By Richard Becker
A Huffington Post article cited the recent nationwide oil refinery strike as an example of organized labor getting its groove back. The piece flew in the face of much of the armchair labor journalism these days, most of which bemoans the collapse of the American labor movement. With union membership growth flagging, Republicans in Congress using every fiduciary and procedural maneuver imaginable to de-fang the National Labor Relations Board, and anti-worker elected officials winning across the country in 2014, labor’s prognosis, the pundits declare with relish, is not good.
In Kentucky, however, things look a little different. Here, nearly 13 percent of workers are represented by a labor union, almost 2 percentage points higher than the same number nationally. The recent passage of a minimum wage increase in Louisville was a shot in the arm to local economic justice activists and was supported by organized labor.
At UPS, the state’s largest unionized employer, members of Teamsters Local 89 challenged their own international union by opposing a company contract proposal seen as regressive, voting down the contract overwhelmingly multiple times.
Earlier this year, hundreds of union members and supporters packed the state capitol annex to listen to the House Labor & Industry Committee consider a so-called “Right to Work” bill as well as a law that would repeal prevailing wage laws for school construction projects.
“Right to Work” (RTW) is a type of law typically passed at the state level, which allows workers in a unionized facility to opt out of paying for union representation services, even as the union itself is legally obligated to represent everyone at the facility equally. This sets up a scenario in which freeloaders in a bargaining unit can squeeze all the benefits out of unionization without bearing any of the costs associated with it. These laws are anti-union, pure and simple. Kentucky remains the last Southern state without RTW, and as such, bears a bright red target on its back.
As expected, the House committee definitively shut down both pieces of legislation. This was another victory for Kentucky workers. However, in spite of this strong defeat in the General Assembly, the RTW battle didn’t end in Frankfort.
Counties across the state, at the behest of out-of-state financiers, have been adopting or considering adopting so-called “Right to Work” ordinances.
This most recent spate of local attempts to pass RTW is not the first time anti-worker forces have attempted the local ordinance ploy. In the 1960s, Shelbyville attempted to implement a similar law. The Kentucky AFL-CIO, a confederation of labor unions, filed suit against the mayor of Shelbyville and won in the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The court found the law “invalid and unenforceable.” In spite of this clear ruling, 40 years later, the specter of local right to work laws has appeared once again.
Here, too, though, organized labor in Kentucky is showing its strength.
In county after county after county where these ordinances are emerging, union members and their supporters are showing up. The proponents of these ordinances confidently predicted in late 2014 that dozens of Kentucky counties would pass the ordinance by the end of January 2015. As of this writing, a mere 12 counties (out of Kentucky’s 120 counties) have passed such laws. In March, dozens of union activists and supporters filed into the Oldham County fiscal court meeting to witness that county — in which all nine court members are Republican — table the RTW ordinance, declining to consider it further.
This is a testament to the shrewd on-the-ground organizing in which Kentucky organized labor has been engaged. RTW pushers have been held to a number of counties far lower than they predicted last year and while their push continues, they seem to have lost their verve. Within two weeks, a Facebook page for union supporters to show their opposition to RTW garnered over 3,000 likes and keeps its followers updated daily on the latest counties in which RTW has reared its ugly head.
Unions have filed a federal lawsuit against Hardin County, one of the counties that has passed a RTW ordinance, and the case awaits a hearing before a federal judge later this spring. The case against Hardin County is based on long-standing legal precedent, and the courts are expected to rule in favor of Kentucky’s working families. But while the law is one of many tools in labor’s toolbox, it is not enough to turn the tide.
If Kentucky’s labor unions are to sustain their current strength, they must continue engaging with their community supporters instead of merely relying on their own membership numbers as they have in the past. Unions must engage with members of the public who share their vision for economic justice and a sustainable future for all workers.
The facts about right-to-work are clear: states with these laws have lower average incomes, higher rates of workplace fatalities, less investment in education and lower overall standards of living. Passage of such a law in Kentucky, even at the local level, would be devastating to workers both union and non-union. That’s what’s at stake in Kentucky.
Elected officials across Kentucky have the opportunity to display for all to see whether they are a friend to Kentucky’s working families, or a foe. Labor may be taking it on the chin nationwide, but in Kentucky, for now, organized labor is activating its members, engaging with the community, and standing strong against corporate efforts to turn back the clock on workers’ rights.
Richard Becker is an organizer with Service Employees International Union (NCFO) in Louisville and serves on the board of the Kentucky Labor Institute.