ASHLAND, Ky. — Local union leaders lambasted two of the seven bills that became law Monday after torching through the Kentucky General Assembly and Gov. Matt Bevin’s office.
Enacting right-to-work legislation and repealing prevailing wage had long been the vision of the Kentucky GOP. Thanks to a new supermajority of Republicans in the House and commanding control of the Senate and executive branch, that vision is reality in the commonwealth.
Right to work abolishes the requirement that workers must pay fees to a union. Under federal labor law, a union must represent all employees in a unionized workplace, even those who don’t want to be represented. In turn, the employees pay fees to the union, but right to work allows workers to opt out of paying dues to the bargaining body while still receiving union benefits.
Proponents of the new law believe workers should not be forced to contribute to a union, even if it bargains on their behalf. Other, high-profile backers of right to work — from Kentucky Chamber of Commerce CEO Dave Adkisson to Bevin — argue the new law will make Kentucky more appealing to outside businesses, thus stimulating economic growth.
But critics believe right to work cripples unions by depleting resources used to collectively bargain for higher pay and better working conditions. They point to analysis by the Economic Policy Institute and other agencies that reveal workers in right-to-work states are paid less and sometimes work in harsher conditions than workers in states that don’t have the law.
“I think it’s a blunt attack on unions and the middle class,” said Russell Montgomery, president of Iron Workers Local 769. “Both are going to suffer from it. If we’re weakened, and we will be, it’s going to hurt the middle class, certainly in this region.”
Local Steelworkers union chairman Clint Poplin offered a similar rebuke of the new law, which was the first bill crafted by the new Kentucky House last week.
“It’s not a good thing. It drives down wages for everybody in the region. It’s not beneficial, it’s not right to work, it’s ‘right to work for less,’” he said.
Montgomery was equally critical of the legislature’s repeal of prevailing wage. The law guaranteed construction workers on most public projects are paid the prevailing wage of the region in which the project is built, if the project costs an estimated $250,000 or more.
The prevailing wage is typically based on union scale wages. Like right to work, the majority of the state GOP had long pushed for a repeal of the 76-year-old law. Proponents of the repeal argued the measure catapulted the cost of publicly funded projects by creating an inflated, artificial wage rates that cost the state an upward of 16 percent more on the projects as a result. Superintendents from throughout the state had also lobbied for the repeal, citing rising costs of renovation projects.
Montgomery said the repeal of prevailing wage “hurts organized labor just as badly as right to work does.”
He said the prevailing-wage law leveled the playing field because nonunion contractors had to bid at the same rates as unionized companies. “I can guarantee you’re going to have out-of-state contractors coming into this area and paying workers $10 to $15 an hour to do shoddy work, because now they don’t have to compete with the union contractors,” he said.
Both the repeal of the prevailing-wage law and passage of right to work will damage union apprenticeship programs, Montgomery said.
“Since we won’t be as competitive, our man hours are down, which means less money we can contribute to our apprenticeship programs.”
Montgomery said the local iron union was considering taking in a new class of 20 apprentices, most of whom are graduates of Ashland Community and Technical College. “Now we’re going to have to take a step back and look at what we’re going to do with those applicants,” he said.
Montgomery pointed out what he perceives as “hypocrisy” by Bevin, who has praised and pushed for more apprenticeship programs across the state.
“Then he turns around and does this,” said Montgomery. “It’s been a sad week for the working people of Kentucky.”
Most voters in Boyd, Greenup and Carter counties did not want either new piece of legislation, as evidenced by the reluctance of any state representative candidates in those respective districts to back the legislation. Neither Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, or newly elected Rep. Dan Bentley, R-Russell, voted for the bills.
Kentucky joins 26 other states, including the entire South, to enact right-to-work legislation.