FRANKFORT — Labor groups filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court on Thursday claiming the recently passed Kentucky right-to-work law violates the state constitution’s prohibition on illegal takings and unequal treatment.
The Kentucky AFL-CIO and Teamsters Local 89 are asking the law be thrown out and seek an injunction prohibiting its enforcement, claiming it discriminates against unions while not prohibiting forced dues collections by other volunteer member organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Bar Association.
The suit alleges that the law violates the constitutional bar on “illegal takings without just compensation” because it robs unions and their members of unreimbursed expenses for negotiating wage and benefits for workers who choose not to pay union dues or join the union.
After Republicans captured control of the state House of Representatives last year, giving the GOP control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, the General Assembly quickly passed right-to-work legislation in the first week of the 2017 General Assembly. The law prohibits unions from requiring workers at union work places to pay dues in support of collective bargaining expenses.
Republican Matt Bevin urged its passage and credits the legislation for subsequent announcements by Braidy Industries to construct an aluminum mill near Ashland and Amazon to expand operations in northern Kentucky.
“It’s shameful that groups like the AFL-CIO and Teamsters are playing political games at a time when Kentucky is experiencing unprecedented economic development growth,” said Amanda Stamper, Bevin’s spokeswoman.
“This frivolous lawsuit threatens to hurt Kentucky’s families, robbing them of high-paying job opportunities — a good example of which are the 550 jobs coming to northeastern Kentucky as a result of the new right-to-work law,” she said.
House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, who sponsored the legislation, said he’s confident it will stand up in court.
“Not only am I confident the Kentucky Right-to-Work Act is constitutional, but we are also seeing results we predicted when the bill was passed.”
But AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan called claims that right-to-work laws improve a state’s overall economy a “total falsehood” aimed at attracting low-wage industries and dividing workers.
“In other states where right-to-work laws have been implemented,” Londrigan said, “wage rates have gone down. We found that across the United States when we compare right-to-work states to non-right-to-work states, there is a significant amount of wages that workers make, ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 a year less a year in right to work states.”
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the law is constitutional and pointed to a recent federal district court that dismissed a suit challenging Wisconsin’s right-to-work law.
But Irwin Cutler Jr., one of the attorneys for the AFL-CIO and Teamsters, said that’s only half the story.
That suit challenged the Wisconsin law under provisions of the federal constitution. But a second suit that challenges the law under the Wisconsin constitution won a favorable lower court decision. So did a similar suit in West Virginia. All three suits are under appeal.
Cutler and William Johnson, another attorney representing the union groups, said they are challenging the law under Kentucky’s constitution because it has stronger “illegal takings” and equal treatment provisions than the U.S. Constitution.
“In each state, you have to look at how the law that was passed comports with the constitution of that state and we think that is a strong point in our suit,” Johnson said.
Cutler said federal law requires unions to represent all workers at a worksite with a collective bargaining unit, even if they can’t collect dues from some workers.
“Under this law, unions still have the obligation to represent every worker in the plant, and yet the only ones who pay for that service are the ones who decide they want to,” Cutler said. “That constitutes, under the Kentucky Constitution, an unlawful taking of the services, the property, of the labor union and its members.”
The suit also contends the right-to-work law is discriminatory because it applies only to unions but not to other groups which require membership dues. (In fact, the law specifically exempts several membership organizations, including chambers of commerce and the Kentucky Education Association.)
Cutler said Kentucky law actually requires Chambers of Commerce to collect dues to pay for their services — “yet unions are required to pay for their services and are prohibited from charging dues unless someone voluntarily wants to pay for that service.”
Chapter 102.020 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes authorizes chambers of commerce and specifies articles of incorporation. It says in part: “The annual dues of the members of this corporation shall be not less than twelve dollars ($12), payable as provided in the bylaws of the corporation.”
Ashli Watts, Vice President of Public Affairs for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, didn’t dispute the language of that statute but said it is open to interpretation. She said the state chamber supports right-to-work.
“As the last southern state to pass right to work, Kentucky is already benefiting from this law that’s only been in effect 5 months. The point to be made is that membership in the Kentucky Chamber, and other chambers of commerce, is voluntary,” Watts said. “We are confident that the law will be upheld, like it has been in other states.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.