Kentucky workers got a little less safe in July when Republican
Gov. Matt Bevin issued an executive order eliminating an independent board that
oversees the state’s worker safety program.
|Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear says a recent order by Gov. Matt Bevin could weaken oversight of workplace safety—and may violate state law.
“This order takes labor out of the picture and threatens to make our workplaces less safe,” said Fourth District International Representative Frank Cloud, the coordinator for the IBEW’s grassroots political and legislative activism program in Kentucky.
The 12-member Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, chaired by the state’s Secretary of the Labor Cabinet, had consisted of representatives not just from organized labor, but also from industry, agriculture, and safety and health.
State Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, protested Bevin’s July 17 order, cautioning that the sole authority to publicize and eliminate rules affecting Kentucky workers’ safety and health now rests entirely with the Labor Cabinet secretary, a political appointee who is handpicked by the governor.
Beshear called on the Democratic minorities in the state General Assembly’s Senate and House of Representatives to join him in voicing opposition to the governor’s order.
“The promulgation and adoption of occupational safety and health regulations for Kentucky workers should be vested in an independent board, and not with the governor or his direct employees,” the state’s Senate Democratic Caucus wrote in a letter to Bevin.
As an appointee confirmed by the General Assembly, the Labor Cabinet secretary can do what he wants, Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) told the Louisville Courier Journal, “but you want some level of independent oversight. And you want more people involved — experts involved in that process and people whose constituency bases are affected.” The whole point of the board, Neal said, is “to ensure more safety for our workers, not less.”
In his letter, Beshear also suggested that Bevin’s order likely violated state law, noting that in the most recent legislative session, the General Assembly rejected language that would have abolished the board and instead amended existing law to bolster its authority. “The Governor’s action reverses and overrides this policy decision,” Beshear wrote.
“The men and women who are most knowledgeable of the safety and health of our workers must, by law, make up the board,” he said, “not an ‘at-will’ employee who answers to the governor and not our workers.”
Cloud said the board’s members, appointed by the governor for three-year terms, had a crucial responsibility for enforcing safety policies in the Bluegrass State.
“The governor is trying to take everything out of workers’ hands,” he said, adding that this was just one of a number of assaults that members of Kentucky’s executive and legislative branches have lodged against workers over the past couple of years.
Early in 2017, not only did the Republican-led General Assembly approve a law that made Kentucky a right-to-work state, it also repealed Kentucky’s prevailing wage law, a law that helped to level the playing field for IBEW members and other trade unions bidding against nonunion contractors for government-funded projects.
Fortunately, workers are beginning to find a measure of success as they continue to fight such attacks. In April, the General Assembly was forced to modify its controversial state pension reform bill after a statewide teacher “sick-out” led to temporary school closures across the state. Bevin has appealed a circuit court ruling that the law violates Kentucky’s constitution; the case goes before the state’s Supreme Court in September.
More recently, Kentucky’s Supreme Court on August 10 heard arguments in a case to determine the constitutionality of the 2017 right-to-work law — four days after voters in neighboring Missouri overwhelmingly overturned right-to-work there. An attorney representing several labor unions and the state’s AFL-CIO chapter argued that right-to-work — which allows workers to enjoy all the benefits of a union contract without paying the union’s dues — illegally targets labor unions and violates the Kentucky constitution’s ban on special legislation.
But even with activist interest and influence on the rise — in Kentucky and elsewhere — Cloud said IBEW members cannot afford to take anything for granted.
“As always, you’ve got to get involved and vote,” he said, noting that at least 40 teachers have been motivated to run for General Assembly seats in this fall’s general election.
Tuesday, Oct. 9, is the last day for eligible voters in Kentucky to register to vote ahead of that Nov. 6 election, where scores of local-level offices and all six of the state’s seats in the U.S House of Representatives are up for grabs. Visit vote.org to check your registration status.
Kentucky is one of five states that holds elections for statewide office in so-called “off years,” when there are no congressional or presidential elections; balloting for those offices will be conducted in 2019.