Politics

To date, Kentucky supporters of right-to-work laws have run into multiple roadblocks — namely, the Democratic-controlled House and a Democratic governor.

But in December, one of those obstacles could disappear when a new governor takes office.

Right-to-work laws forbid labor unions from making agreements with employers that require members to pay dues as a condition of employment. With the potential of a Republican governor, Kentucky labor groups are paying close attention to the 2015 governor’s race, and their interest was on full display with a strong turnout at the Fancy Farm picnic on Saturday.

“I think that is right-to-work-for-less is what that means,” said Gary Freeman, a union member who lives in Benton, a city in Marshall County.

“I’m afraid that’s what he’d like to do,” Freeman said, referring to Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin. “Majority of the time, Republicans don’t back the working man — they buck against him.”

Right-to-work legislation was the Republican-led Senate’s top priority in the 2015 General Assembly; senators approved a right-to-work bill in the first days of the session.

But the legislation languished in the House. And Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear could have vetoed any bill that reached his desk. This summer, he called right-to-work an “artificial political issue.”

Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for governor, opposes right-to-work legislation. But if Bevin is elected governor in November, the Democrats’ 54-46 House majority would be the only thing keeping right-to-work from becoming state law.

“We can’t afford not to pass it,” Bevin said of right-to-work legislation during a debate held by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in July. “It costs us nothing in absolute dollars. The opportunity cost of it is too high for us to bear.”

Supporters say it would make Kentucky more attractive to businesses, especially manufacturing companies looking to relocate to the state or expand. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce doesn’t endorse political candidates but supports the passage of a right-to-work bill.

“Right-to-work legislation is needed to put Kentucky on a level playing field with surrounding states when it comes to business recruitment,” the chamber said in its 2015 Legislative Agenda.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan has called Bevin a “Scott Walker clone,” comparing him to the Wisconsin governor known for anti-union politics.

“He’s everything that we’re opposed to along those lines,” Londrigan said. “(The) right-to-work law really undermines the ability of all workers to have a decent standard of living by undermining the ability of unions to negotiate effective contracts.”

In addition to efforts for a statewide right-to-work law, supporters have also tried to get local governments to take up the issue. Several Kentucky counties’ fiscal courts have approved local right-to-work policies.

A lawsuit against Hardin County’s law will be heard Tuesday in a U.S. District Court in Louisville.

WFPL reporter Ashley Lopez contributed to this story.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.