January 26, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
Hoping to squelch an infestation of county laws banning the union shop, a group of Kentucky labor unions have asked a federal court in Louisville to invalidate them.
In a suit filed Jan. 15, they argue that under federal law, local governments are not authorized to enact so-called “right to work” laws, which make it illegal to require workers to join the union or pay a fee for representation. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 authorizes “States with a capital S and Territories with a capital T” to pass such laws, says David Leightty, a lawyer with the Louisville firm representing the unions in the suit. A state court struck down a local law on those grounds in 1965.
Five Kentucky counties have passed “right to work” laws in the last five weeks, beginning with Warren County on Dec. 19. A sixth has preliminarily approved one. There are plans afoot to push them in 17 more counties, says Eldon Renaud, president of United Auto Workers Local 2164 in Bowling Green, in Warren County.
The suit challenges the law enacted earlier this month in Hardin County, which stretches west along the Ohio River from Louisville’s suburbs. The unions involved are UAW Local 3047, the national UAW, the Chemical Workers, and United Food and Commercial Workers locals 227 and 970-C, says Leightty.
“For sixty or seventy years, it’s been consistently understood that only states have the power to pass such laws,” says David Suetholz, a lawyer for the Kentucky AFL-CIO. The reason, he says, is to have consistent labor laws throughout the state: “We don’t want to have a Swiss-cheese map.”
The forces pushing to outlaw the union shop, Suetholz believes, have opted for the county-by-county approach because they couldn’t get it passed on the state level. The state General Assembly, he says, “has rejected it every time it came up,” and Democrats held onto their majority in its lower house in last November’s elections. Kentucky has more significant union density than most states south of the Ohio, he adds, and people “recognize the value of labor organizations.”
Who are those forces? “We don’t know yet,” says Leightty, but “the people backing this have big coffers,” says Renaud. A Florida-based anti-union group called Protect My Check, a 501c4 nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose who’s funding it, will represent Warren County if it has to defend its law against a court challenge. Two recently established think tanks that have been campaigning against union shops, the Bluegrass Institute in Butler and the Wharton Project in Glasgow, are predominantly financed by the Koch brothers, Renaud adds.
“We know they’re around. We can smell that money,” he says.
Advocates of “right to work,” such as the Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk, cast the issue as one of workers’ freedom. No one should be forced to pay union dues to keep their job, they say. “I think the whole thing is a scam,” Renaud responds. “It’s voluntary to work here. You want to come to work here because the wages are good. Well, there’s a good reason the wages are good. It costs money to negotiate contracts.
“It’s a greed issue.”