Kentucky Passes Right to Work Law; Missouri Likely Will Follow

Labor officials typically go all out to protect their authority under federal law to collect dues from unwilling workers covered by union contract. And they’ve been especially active in states considering passage of Right to Work laws designed to protect employees against such coercion. Add a “definite” and a “probable” to the list. On January 7, Kentucky Republican Governor Matt Bevin signed legislation passed only hours earlier by the Senate making the state the 27th in the U.S. with the Right to Work in place. A couple of weeks later, on January 25, the Missouri Senate approved a bill almost identical to one passed earlier by the House; Republican Governor Eric Greitens has announced that he will sign a compromise bill. Unions, not unexpectedly, are not happy about these developments.

Unions for decades have enjoyed certain monopoly privileges contained in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. One of those advantages is Section 8(a)(3), which authorizes a union at a work site it represents to insert a “security clause” into a private-sector collective bargaining agreement. Part of this section states that a security clause may compel an employer to fire any employee who either refuses to join the union or pay partial dues (“agency fees”) in lieu of joining. Congress put limits on this monopoly power a dozen years later. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, passed over President Truman’s veto, authorizes individual states to enact laws barring the imposition of security clauses. These Right to Work laws, whether created through statute or constitutional amendment, protect employees from having to fill union coffers as a condition of keeping their job. Unions despise these laws, knowing that less revenue means less institutional clout.

At the start of 2012, there were 22 states with Right to Work laws on the books. Most dated back to the 1960s or earlier. Since the mid-80s, in fact, only one state, Oklahoma, had gone Right to Work – and state officials spent two years fighting the unions in court to seal the deal. That was five years ago. In fairly rapid succession, Indiana (2012), Michigan (2012), Wisconsin (2015), and West Virginia (2016) since have passed laws despite bitter union opposition. In the cases of Wisconsin and West Virginia, labor officials last year obtained temporary court injunctions against enforcement. Yet as events in these states play out, Kentucky and Missouri have moved forward.

In Kentucky, where Republicans last November won control of that state’s General Assembly (i.e., House of Representatives) for the first time in almost a century, the Right to Work was a top priority. GOP lawmakers acted quickly, sponsoring a Right to Work bill. Union leaders and their supporters, to put it mildly, were riled. On January 4, GOP Governor Matt Bevin, elected in November 2015, testified before a House committee on behalf of the bill. He was lucky to make it to and from the hearing room in one piece. State troopers had to escort him through the crowd of unruly protestors, who later booed him and pounded on the walls during his testimony. Bevin ignored the protests, telling committee members that it was “going to be a fun day.” The Assembly passed the measure on January 4 by 58-39. Assembly Speaker Jeff Hoover, a Right to Work supporter, explained: “I personally have no problem with an individual opting to be part of a labor union…but government shouldn’t stand in the way of someone who opts not to join a union.”

The Assembly quickly sent the bill to the Senate. On Friday, January 6, a Senate committee approved the bill, sending to the full Senate, which passed it by a 25-12 margin the next day. Governor Matt Bevin signed it within hours. “This is not a piece of legislation that came easily,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page. The measure, which took effect immediately, included a provision prohibiting public employees from going on strike. A separate bill, which Bevin also signed, repealed the state prevailing-wage law, modeled after the federal Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees union-scale wages all but in name for public works projects.

Union leaders and state Democratic lawmakers responded by calling for a protest. They got one in short order. Hundreds of supporters packed the Capitol Building rotunda in Frankfort that Saturday. Labor officials insisted that working people were under attack. “The future of the fight is in, as best we can, trying to stop the erosion of wages, benefits and safety,” said Caitlin Lally, spokeswoman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227 and vice president of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council. DeLane Adams, field communications coordinator for the Southern Region of the AFL-CIO, noted: “Politicians didn’t create the labor movement, and politicians won’t destroy the labor movement.” And Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan called the measures just signed by the governor “some of the most extreme anti-worker bills in the nation today, slashing wages and silencing working people across the Commonwealth.”

The Missouri Right to Work legislation is an almost-finished work in progress. And the work was done during these last couple months by the Republican-majority legislature, buoyed by the prospect of Eric Greitens becoming governor in January; Greitens, a Democrat-turned-Republican, had defeated Republican-turned-Democrat State Attorney General Chris Koster in the November election. On December 1, State Rep. Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) sponsored a Right to Work bill. Patrick Ishmael, director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market Missouri issues think tank with offices in St. Louis and Kansas City, expressed support this way: “For the union and union members, I think it’s better they have the option to participate in the union or not. When you have a flexible labor market, employers can hire the folks they want to hire and employees can go to the companies they want to go to.”

Union leaders and their allies are taking a different view. “The ‘Right to Work’ is one of several proposals and tactics to try and eliminate the unions,” says Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO President Pat “Duke” Dujakovich. “They try to starve them to death by taking away the source of revenue to be able to do the job they need to do.” Dave Wilson, spokesman for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters’ Regional Council, states: “We call it the right to work for less.” And Missouri Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, has denounced the bill as undermining the middle class. “To undermine them (the middle class) by passing this legislation,” Walsh said, “is appalling and unbecoming of this hallowed body.”

Right to Work has been on the radar screen for a long time. Back in 1978, supporters sponsored a ballot initiative, only to be rejected by the voters. The issue stayed alive in the ensuing decades, especially as the unionized percentage of the Missouri work force declined. In 2015, lawmakers passed a Right to Work measure, only to have it vetoed by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon. But with Eric Greitens now governor, Right to Work is on the fast track. On January 18, the state House of Representatives voted in favor of the Rehder bill by 101-58. Then, a week later on January 25, the Senate, in an initial vote, approved the measure by 21-12 (in Missouri, the Senate must vote a second time to give final approval). The House and Senate bills are similar but not identical. The Senate version, in a gesture to the unions, includes a grandfather clause protecting labor contracts negotiated prior to the law taking effect; the House version does not have this provision. Once this discrepancy is ironed out, the measure is as good as signed.

The Right to Work movement is growing because it is based on the sound principle that workers have the right to choose whether to belong or pay dues to a union. The claim that non-paying workers at a unionized site are bottom-feeding “free-riders,” sucking resources from dues-paying workers, is highly misleading. Workers bear costs, not just benefits, in paying dues; it’s up to them to decide if they are getting their money’s worth. Second, unions voluntarily represent non-joiners as well as joiners; nobody is forcing them to represent those in the former category. Right to Work states, moreover, exhibit faster economic growth than non-Right to Work states. A new crop of governors, especially in Kentucky and Missouri, justifiably sees the Right to Work as an idea whose time has come.

Postscript: On Thursday, February 2, during the posting of this article, the Missouri House of Representatives, following two hours of heated debate, approved a compromise Right to Work measure by 100-59, virtually the same margin as the initial January vote. The legislation reflects the Senate bill’s grandfather clause protecting union contracts negotiated prior to the law taking effect, which is this August. The remaining step now is the virtually certain signature of Governor Greitens. In the Right to Work debate, events indeed are happening quickly.