Politics

Two union groups have filed a lawsuit to try and block Kentucky’s new “right-to-work” law, which forbids employers from requiring workers to pay union dues.

In January, Kentucky became the 27th state to pass such a measure, which supporters say makes the state more competitive when trying to get companies to move to or expand in Kentucky.

Kentucky AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan said the new law is part of a political strategy to stifle union voices.

“Unions are being discriminated against as the only dues-member-supported organization that is required to provide benefits to those that do not pay a fee or pay union dues,” Londrigan said. “It’s basically an effort to undermine our financial resources, which prevent us from effectively representing the workers which we are federally mandated to represent whether they are paying dues or not.”

The new law was a top priority for conservatives in the state legislature, which was controlled by Republicans for the first time in state history this year.

Last November, Republicans won 17 seats in Kentucky’s 100-member House of Representatives. Democrats had controlled the chamber since 1921 and now face GOP supermajorities in both chambers and a Republican governor.

The complaint names Gov. Matt Bevin and Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey as defendants and argues that the new law forces unions to provide benefits to workers who don’t pay dues.

“The Governor and his out of state financial backers were sorely mistaken when they thought they could roll over Kentucky’s working women and men merely by buying a majority of our legislature,” said Fred Zuckerman, president of Teamsters Local 89. “The Kentucky Constitution is uniquely equipped to prevent unequal corporate special legislation and I am confident that HB 1 will be struck down.”

Bevin’s communications director Amanda Stamper said the unions’ lawsuit is politically motivated and threatens economic development.

“It’s shameful that groups like the AFL-CIO and Teamsters are playing political games at a time when Kentucky is experiencing unprecedented economic development growth,” Stamper said via email. “This frivolous lawsuit threatens to hurt Kentucky’s families, robbing them of high-paying job opportunities — a good example of which are the 550 jobs coming to northeastern Kentucky as a result of the new right-to-work law.”

Bevin and other top Republicans have credited the new law for recent economic announcements in the state, including a $1.3 billion investment by Braidy Industries to create an aluminum factory in Greenup County.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, issued a statement in defense of the new law.

“I am aware of the lawsuit, but I believe that House Bill 1 – passed in 2017 by the Kentucky General Assembly and signed by Governor Matt Bevin – is constitutional,” Stivers said. “I am confident that Kentucky will continue to be a right-to-work state for the foreseeable future.”

The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Indiana’s “right-to-work” law in 2014 after it was challenged that year.

Last year, a trial court in West Virginia blocked a “right-to-work” law and the case will be heard in the state’s supreme court this fall.

This story has been updated. 

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.