Kentucky Republicans assault unions and wages in first act of the year

Kentucky is now the country’s 27th so-called “right-to-work” state.

Protesters against Kentucky’s right-to-work law in the Capitol rotunda on Saturday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Protesters against Kentucky’s right-to-work law in the Capitol rotunda on Saturday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Last year, Republican Matt Bevin won the governorship of Kentucky, taking over from Democrat Steve Beshear. Then, in November, Republicans took full control of the state legislature after they gained their first majority in Kentucky’s state house in almost a century.

And the very first things the Republican majority did with its power this past weekend were to pass a so-called “right-to-work” law, which will likely weaken unions’ finances, and repeal a prevailing wage law that ensures government contractors pay decently.

Kentucky was the last of the Southern states that hadn’t gone right-to-work, but after Bevin signed the bill on Saturday, it now joins the rest — becoming the 27th state in the country to pass such a law.

Right-to-work laws create what critics call a free rider problem. Normally, all workers in a unionized workplace must pay dues to the union given that it’s bargaining on their behalf. But right-to-work laws allow people to opt out of dues, even if they’re still being represented, which means they can benefit from union negotiations over wages and working conditions but don’t have to give any money to support these efforts.

This dynamic can hollow out unions’ finances, since they still have to do the same work but potentially with less money. Those in non-right-to-work states are more than twice as likely to be in a union or protected by a union contract.

By weakening union power, research has found that right-to-work laws have negative impacts on all workers. These laws end up reducing wages — pay is about 3 percent lower in right-to-work states compared to those without such laws, which comes to around $1,500 less a year for a typical worker. They also lower the likelihood of receiving employer benefits like health insurance or a pension.

Kentucky’s new law also bans public employees from going on strike, a key labor right enjoyed by all other workers.

The legislature also passed a rollback of the state’s prevailing wage law this weekend, and Bevin has said he will sign it. These laws are intended to keep government contractors on from undercutting wages to offer cheaper bids. A lack of prevailing wage laws can lead to a race to the bottom as contractors seek to underbid each other. And while proponents say that getting rid of the laws keeps government costs low, research has not found that to be the case.