Among the multitude of demonstrations that have taken place since the 2016 elections, one of Kentucky’s most pivotal displays of unrest among citizens took place at the state Capitol in response to the passing of the right-to-work act. House Bill 1 was signed by Governor Matt Bevin on January 9, 2017 and is summarized as “An act relating to right-to-work provisions involving a condition of employment or continuation of employment” (http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/17RS/HB1.htm). The strongest supporters of the bill are members of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, while union members are the most vocal about their disapproval of HB1.
What does right-to-work truly mean? The phrase is a little misleading. One might be inclined to believe it would mean that all individuals are entitled to jobs, but that doesn’t seem likely for a bill that’s mostly backed by Republicans (who are often keen to shout their disapproval for “handouts”). The meaning of the phrase is held within the bill, which “prohibit[s] mandatory membership in or financial support of a labor organization as a condition of employment.” So, even if a workplace is unionized, employees cannot be required to join the union or to pay union dues. However, even if a worker does not pay their union dues, they still reap the benefits of being a union member if their workplace is part of a union. Richard Becker, a Louisville union organizer, was intereviewed by WFPL and “likens this to getting a service you didn’t pay for” (http://wfpl.org/heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-right-to-work-law-kentucky/). Interestingly enough, this strongly Republican-supported bill is starting to sound like a handout after all.
Weird, right? Why would our red state go through with this? Well, it is alleged that many businesses will not even consider setting up shop in a state that isn’t right-to-work. For this reason, supporters of the bill believe it will lead to economic growth. The president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Dave Adkisson, was cited by WFPL as saying he knows of businesses that have transferred to nearby states because of their right-to-work status.
Mitch McConnell had the following to say on Kentucky’s passage of HB1:
“Right-to-Work is a smart way to get America on the path to real recovery, and it’s critical to empowering workers and giving them more freedom to keep more of their hard-earned dollars to spend as they choose. This is why I have continually supported legislation at the federal level to enact right-to-work nationwide. The passage of this state law will boost economic development and help put Kentucky on a level playing field with neighboring right-to-work states when it comes to competing for and attracting new businesses to create more jobs.” (http://www.wdrb.com/story/34206691/senate-passes-bill-making-kentucky-right-to-work-state)
Workers are opposed to the bill not only because of the possibility of it resulting in financial and political weakening of unions but also because they fear it will drive down wages. Research and policy associate for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, Anna Baumann, was another source of interest for WFPL regarding her opinions on right-to-work laws. She is quoted as saying, “Wages for workers in right-to-work states are about $1,500 lower a year.” Perhaps McConnell is misguided in his belief that HB1 will help workers “keep more of their hard-earned dollars.” WFPL also cites Baumann with the following information: “Work fatalities are higher in right-to-work states.”
Inevitably, the inability to have closed shops will speed the already steep decline in union membership in Kentucky. In addition to negotiating for higher wages, union contracts generally protect workers from being terminated under many circumstances. In the absence of a union or other contract, workers in Kentucky can be fired for any reason not prohibited by state or federal law. This is called employment-at-will. Being employed at-will means an employee can be fired at any time without warning and without the employer establishing just cause. This form of employment is often justified on the basis of an employee also being able to leave their place of employment without reason or notice.
With the decline of union contracts, the limited protections provided by federal and state law will become more important than ever. Certain exceptions to employment-at-will statutes are already in place, including that an employee cannot be fired for union-organizing activities, the prohibition of discrimination/termination based on race, gender, or age, and that you can’t be fired for whistleblowing.
Kentucky is the twenty-seventh state to pass right-to-work legislation, meaning that over half the country has such laws in place. Union organizers will have to work hard to ensure their efforts over the years do not get trampled by the right-to-work prerogative. One can only hope that the optimistic plans for this bill to result in economic growth for the state and a financial advantage for workers will come true.
Link to Bill: http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/17RS/HB1.htm