Kentucky is poised to become the 27th state, and the last state in the South, to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation.
|Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is confronted in the state Capitol building Jan. 4 by Kentucky union members for promising to sign three Republican-sponsored bills that would gut union protections in the state.
On the first day of the new legislative session, Republican members of the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee approved House Bill 1, a law requiring unions to negotiate for and represent people even when they refuse to pay dues.
The committee – called the Labor and Industry Committee until it was renamed by the new Republican majority-- also approved a bill repealing the state prevailing wage law and preventing cities and counties from having their own prevailing wage standards for projects not involving state money.
Finally, the committee approved legislation that would require unions to collect annual authorization cards to deduct union dues directly from paychecks.
All three bills won along straight party lines with no Democrats in support.
Each bill contains an “emergency” clause, meaning they go into effect the moment they are signed by the governor.
Gene Holthauser, the IBEW state political director and an assistant business manager of Louisville, Ky., Local 369, was at the state house in Frankfort Jan. 4 with hundreds of union members to hear the bills read out and make their opposition heard. Nearly all union members were excluded from the hearing room, and had to wait in the halls outside.
“It was like going to a funeral,” he said, watching the Republican legislators systematically dismantle the basic protections of the working class.
Holthauser expects the full House to vote on the bill Jan. 6 or 7. or Friday.
The bills have been a dream of Kentucky Republicans for years, but had always been blocked by a Democratic majority in the state House that went back to 1921. But in 2015, Republicans won back the governor’s mansion and followed that with a landslide victory in the House last November. Republicans flipped a 53-47 Democratic advantage statehouse into a 63-37 Republican majority.
“We got smoked, but it wasn’t for lack of effort,” said Fourth District International Representative Don Vidourek. “We called every member of the IBEW in the state before the election, and I believe they understood what was at stake, especially what the loss of prevailing wage would mean. They might have gone for Trump at the top of the ticket, but they voted their wallet the rest of the way.”
But, Vidourek said, too many other working people were drawn to Trump and simply ticked the box for a straight Republican ticket. Now, the first thing the new Republican majority did was take aim at them.
“It is pitiful,” he said.
The Kentucky Metal Trades reached out to all the incoming committee members before the vote, but the emergency session was so quick, some legislators only found out they were assigned to the committee the night of Jan. 3, hours before the bill was up for a vote. Outreach was made even harder because many of the incoming House members were so new they didn’t even have office or phone numbers assigned yet.
Despite the large numbers of union members in Frankfort and the attempts to reach new lawmakers, Holthauser said they made no headway.
“With that big a majority, it just isn’t doing any good,” he said. “Maybe things need to get really bad before people wake up.”