By Adam Beam
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld a county right-to-work law in Kentucky, clearing the way for the some of the country’s first local ordinances banning companies from requiring workers to join a labor union.
The decision by a three-judge panel reverses a lower court ruling that overturned the law in Hardin County. The labor unions who sued to block the law say they will ask the full appeals court to reconsider the decision. If that fails, Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said they would probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kentucky is the only Southern state without a right-to-work law. Warren County officials say that’s a disadvantage when competing for jobs with nearby right-to-work state Tennessee. But labor unions say it would weaken their bargaining power and lead to lower wages and benefits.
Warren County officials, emboldened by local governments across the country passing ordinances to raise the minimum wage, decided to pass their own right-to-work law in 2014, becoming the only local government in the country to pass such a law. Other Kentucky counties, including Hardin, soon followed.
“We see it as an economic engine,” Hardin County Judge Executive Harry Berry said. “We thought it would give us more opportunity.”
In February, U.S. District Judge David Hale ruled local governments had no authority to pass such laws, saying that power lies only with state legislatures. But the appeals court ruled that a county government, as a political subdivision of state government, can pass the law. It said local governments cannot pass laws banning companies from deducting union dues from paychecks and letting labor unions have a say in who is hired.
Londrigan said the decision is “a total misinterpretation of federal law.” He said if some employees were allowed to refuse to join a union, they would still benefit from the collective bargaining agreements the union negotiates on their behalf.
“They would basically be able to have free services provided by the union that all the other union members are paying for,” he said.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court could take more than a year to decide. But the issue could be resolved by Kentucky’s new Republican-dominated state legislature.
The Republican-controlled Kentucky state Senate has tried for years to pass a right-to-work law, only to be blocked by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. But last week, Republicans won a majority in the Kentucky House for the first time since 1920. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has said he expects the new GOP majority to pass a right-to-work, although incoming House Speaker Jeff Hoover has not said what his agenda will be.