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Unions Challenge Right to Work Laws in Kentucky

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With a fifth Kentucky county joining other counties in the state who have passed local ordinances establishing themselves as “right to work” locales, nine labor groups have filed a lawsuit in response saying, such legislation violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or “the Act”). The local ordinances prohibit unions from requiring members to pay dues in exchange for representation. Among the unions challenging the right to work law are the United Autoworkers, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Right to work laws established in 1947, when the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the union shop rule, simply state that an employee cannot be compelled to join or pay the equivalent of dues to a union as a condition of employment, nor can the employee be fired if he joins the union. Opponents of right to work laws say that unions will lose power in those locales in collective bargaining negotiations, leading to reduced wages that can adversely impact the communities where workers live. There is some evidence to support that variable, but there is also substantive data indicating that unemployment rates are lower in right to work states. Proponents of the right to work laws advocate that they are an established tool to attract new business and/or keep existing businesses within their borders.

The outcome of this lawsuit may potentially set precedent as it targets the county’s authority, with the unions arguing that the NLRA “authorizes a State or Territory to enact laws prohibiting the execution or application with the State of union security agreements that are otherwise authorized and regulated by the NLRA.” The unions went on to argue that the defendant Kentucky county is not a State or Territory as contemplated by the NLRB and therefore not authorized by the Act.

Several Kentucky counties have tried this in the past, and failed legal scrutiny back in 1965. However, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the County Home Rule Statute in 1972, which delegates broad authority to local governments to enact a wide array of laws within their geographical boundaries. This latter Act has given rise to speculation by many legal scholars in the state that a challenge this time around by the unions may fail.

Right to work laws exist in 24 states, and it remains to be seen if this will pass the unions’ challenge. We will follow the progress of this litigation carefully and report back to our membership with any updates.

Hilary Atkins

Posted In: Legal

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