Kentucky’s Attack on Unions Provides a Glimpse into the GOP’s Impending War on Workers

(Photo: AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Union members look over the balcony as protesters fill the Kentucky Capitol rotunda to protest right-to-work legislation, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Frankfort, Ky. 

While Donald Trump supporters celebrated their candidate’s massive upset on Election Day, Kentucky Republicans were joyous for an additional reason: They had just seized control of what had been the last majority Democratic legislative chamber in the South. For 95 years—all the way back to 1921, when Warren G. Harding was president—Kentucky Democrats had maintained control of the state House of Representatives.

When Tea Party darling Matt Bevin, who ran as the “right-to-work” candidate, rode the national GOP wave and succeeded Democratic Governor Steve Beshear in 2014, the Kentucky House became the sole bulwark blocking the implementation of his anti-union agenda. Naturally, heading into the 2016 elections, the right wing turned all its firepower against the Democrats’ six-seat house majority. It worked—and it wasn’t even close. Republicans won an astounding 13 seats to gain a commanding 64-36 majority, making Kentucky one of 25 states with GOP trifecta-control.

It didn’t take long for Republican legislators to introduce their stable of anti-union measures: a right-to-work bill that bans unions from requiring mandatory dues for all workers covered by their contracts; a repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law, meaning that public construction projects would no longer be required to pay their workers based on a community survey (usually meaning a union pay-scale); and banning public-employee unions from striking and from using member dues for political contributions.

With Democrats completely out of power, unions had little recourse—beyond workers protesting in the chambers—to combat the legislative onslaught. Over the weekend, Republicans passed all three bills (in addition to a 20-week abortion ban) with emergency clauses ensuring they would be implemented immediately after Bevin signs them into law. Kentucky is now the 27th right-to-work state, and the last state in the South to pass such a law. “It’s an attack on the working people,” Chris Kendall, a member of a Kentucky Plumbers and Steamfitters Union local told the Lexington Herald-Leader as he protested right-to-work at the state capitol in Frankfort on Saturday. “It’s almost like we’re the enemy somehow, that it’s the politicians against us. And all we’re trying to do is earn an honest day’s wage.”

It’s also the first of many attacks on unions that will materialize during the Trump presidency.

In public, conservatives argue that right-to-work is about ensuring freedom in the workplace by using fear-mongering rhetoric about mandatory union membership. But they fail to mention that, by law, union membership can’t be mandatory; it’s the payment of union dues for collective bargaining services—which benefit all workers in unionized shops—that is required with union security clauses. The reality, as research consistently shows, is that, on average, workers make less—about 3.1 percent—in states with right-to-work laws compared with states without those laws. Right-to-work’s other effect is to create a “free rider” problem for unions, which are forced to provide services for all workers in union shops without any compensation from the non-members they bargain for and represent in disputes with management.

Conservatives also argue that prevailing wage laws are a leading cause of bloated government spending. What surveys have shown, however, is that there are no adverse affects associated with government projects that pay a prevailing wage.

Attacking unions is a top GOP priority not because of actual concern for workers or public services. Rather, it’s about undermining the left’s most effective tool for convincing working people to vote for more pro-worker candidates, who are almost invariably Democratic, and curtailing unions’ ability to finance Democratic candidates. Right-to-work laws and bans on political contributions from dues are primarily about draining unions’ coffers and breaking up concentrated worker power. 

Kentucky was once a union stronghold, thanks to strong membership density in the state’s heavy-industry sectors like coal mining and manufacturing. But, as those types of jobs have disappeared and the GOP’s war on unions ramped up, Kentucky’s union membership dramatically eroded—a trend that has played out across the country. The state’s union membership reached its peak in 1989, but has fallen since then. In 2015, 11 percent of Kentucky’s workforce— about 187,000 workers—was unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Right-to-work will only further accelerate that decline.

The Bevin-led attack on Kentucky workers comes straight out of the right-wing playbook for states. Since the 2010 elections, Republicans, with ample funding from the Koch brothers, have pushed through right-to-work and prevailing wage repeals in such former union strongholds as Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. With statehouse gains in 2016, Republicans are also expected to pass right-to-work measures in Missouri and New Hampshire. But that’s not all.

With Trump’s win and the GOP’s continuing majorities in the House and Senate, the party now has unified federal control for the first time since 2006—and in those 10 years, the party’s anti-union strain has become even more mainstream and vitriolic. Republicans in the House and Senate will soon begin pushing for a national right-to-work law and a repeal of the Davis Bacon Act (the federal prevailing wage), bringing to the national stage what has for the past decade been limited to state-level fights. Trump has already indicated his support for a national right-to-work law and his top allies, from Vice President-elect Mike Pence on down, have close ties to the Kochs’ anti-union political crusade in the states.

The challenge for unions in a right-to-work landscape becomes a battle for relevance—and convincing members that the services unions provide are still important. Whether they can do that in Kentucky, and soon, nationwide, is a question that looms large for the future of the labor movement. 

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