Politics

Kentucky’s next governor will face a bevy of issues, ranging from a declining coal industry to a struggling pension system.

Then there’s right-to-work.

Right-to-work laws — which prohibit union dues as a condition of employment — have been adopted in 25 states. Proponents want to make Kentucky the 26th, arguing that the absence of such a law hurts the state’s economy. Opponents say right-to-work laws weaken organized labor.

Kentucky voters take to the polls next week, and the issue is at the heart of get-out-the-vote efforts on both sides.

As it happens, the major party candidates for Kentucky governor — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin — have taken opposing stances on the issue.

“We are the only state in the South that doesn’t have right-to-work legislation” Bevin told WYMT-TV in Eastern Kentucky this summer, arguing that it leaves Kentucky at a disadvantage for economic development.

He also acknowledged that union workers are concerned about the issue. In the same interview, Bevin said: “I have friends that work in unions that feel that this is somehow a threat to them. It’s not.”

Unions disagree.

Working America is the outreach arm of the AFL-CIO, one of the biggest labor unions in the country. Regional director Cory Medina said these laws are a serious blow to unions.

“When those laws are passed, you say, ‘Great. Unions, now you are responsible for protecting non-union members — and they don’t have to pay you for that,’” Medina said.

Union members made up 11 percent of Kentucky’s wage and salary workers in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. An additional 30,000 wage and salary workers in Kentucky were represented by unions without being members.

Kentucky’s union membership was on par with the national average in 2014 but below its peak in 1989, when union members made up 14.8 percent of the state’s wage and salary workers, according to the bureau.

Right-to-work has been a big issue for labor unions, and they’ve worked to stop moves toward a statewide law in Kentucky for years.

The Republican-controlled state Senate approved a right-to-work law during this year’s legislative session, but the bill foundered in the state House, where Democrats have an eight-seat majority.

For the upcoming election, Medina said his group has been targeting Democratic voters who will likely support Conway, who opposes right-to-work.

According to spokesman Daniel Kemp, “Jack Conway believes that making Kentucky a right-to-work state is a solution looking for a problem,” he said in a statement.

So far, Working America canvassers have knocked on more than 25,000 doors in Louisville and talked to more than 10,000 people, Medina said.

Becky Herlien is among a group of canvassers working in Louisville.

“We are just going house-to-house and asking people two really quick questions about what their issue is and who they plan on voting for for governor,” she said.

Part of their strategy is to address some voters’ ambivalence around the election. Herlien said there’s been a mix of people who are interested in the election.

“It’s really divided,” Herlien said. “I mean, we have a lot of people that have a very strong feeling about this and know it’s important. And then you have a lot of people that just don’t feel that the system works for them anymore.”

Another reason labor union allies are stepping up their ground game is that there are canvassers organizing on the other side.

“We’ve been hitting tens of thousands of doors on this issue specifically,” said Julia Crigler, an organizer with Kentucky’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

AFP is affiliated with the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers. It works nationwide pushing for right-to-work and other “free market” issues, such as school choice.

Crigler said not being a right-to-work state is holding Kentucky back.

“We are surrounded by states that have right-to-work, and we are losing out consistently by site selectors for not meeting that marker,” she said.

Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia have right-to-work laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Americans for Prosperity has made mobilizing voters on this issue a priority.

“We’ve been leading the ground game in the field on this effort, and we plan on continuing to do this on the local and state level,” Crigler said.

The race for governor remains tight — Conway led Bevin among likely voters 42 percent to 37 percent in a Bluegrass Poll late last month.

Medina said even if union allies are successful this round, he’s sure the issue will come up in future Kentucky elections. He described right-to-work in Kentucky as a “continual fight.”

While politicians and political groups fight it out over a statewide right-to-work law, several counties in Kentucky have already approved local laws. Those communities are awaiting a federal court ruling on whether local governments were within their rights in doing so.