Politics & Government

Bevin, GOP lawmakers push anti-union bills as angry workers chant in hallways

Angry union workers confront Gov. Matt Bevin

Gov. Matt Bevin discussed a proposed ban on mandatory union dues with a group of angry union workers in a hallway of the Kentucky Capitol Annex on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.
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Gov. Matt Bevin discussed a proposed ban on mandatory union dues with a group of angry union workers in a hallway of the Kentucky Capitol Annex on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Angry union workers packed the hallways of Kentucky’s Capitol Annex on Wednesday as Republican lawmakers pushed ahead with bills that would ban mandatory union dues and repeal a law that requires regional prevailing wages for workers on public construction projects.

The chants of union workers were little deterrent to Gov. Matt Bevin and his GOP colleagues in the Kentucky House and Senate, who have made approving the bills their top priority of the 2017 General Assembly.

Shouts and banging could be heard from the hallway, but the meeting room itself was packed with supporters as the House Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment passed House Bill 1, which would allow workers to avoid paying union dues even if they work under a union-negotiated contract, and House Bill 3, which would repeal the prevailing wage law.

Members of Americans for Prosperity in Kentucky, a conservative political advocacy group, had gathered for a breakfast of Chick-fil-A in the committee room, ensuring every seat was filled by the time workers opposed to the bill arrived.

The bills are expected to get a vote on the House floor Thursday.

Supporters argue that “right-to-work” laws spur business growth by attracting companies that hope to avoid being unionized, but opponents contend the proposals reduce wages across the economy.

Major studies disagree over the economic impact of such laws, but almost all of them find that bans on mandatory dues weaken unions by reducing membership and finances, therefore reducing the bargaining power of the union.

Governor Matt Bevin encounters protesting union workers outside committee room hearings on a so-called "right to work" bill on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Supporters of the bill argued Wednesday that it wouldn’t hurt unions, citing growth in union membership in states that already have the law.

“Where jobs are growing, there is opportunity for both union members and non-union members,” Bevin told the committee, speaking over union members in the hallway who were banging on the wall and chanting. “That’s the reality. This is not a threat to any particular form of employment.”

That statement is true in Tennessee, where union membership is much lower than Kentucky, based on the latest information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership in Tennessee, a right-to-work state, increased from 5 percent of employed people in 2014 to 5.4 percent in 2015.

But it comes with a caveat. While union membership increased, so did the number of people who are represented by a union but don’t pay dues. That number increased from 0.6 percent of employed people in 2014 to 1.1 percent in 2015.

In Indiana, another state with the law, union membership dropped between 2014 and 2015, as did the number of people represented by a union who don’t pay dues.

Bevin and House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, also argued that it’s unfair to make workers join a union in order to gain employment at a specific company.

“I personally have no problem with an individual who wants to opt to join a labor union.” Hoover said. “However, I don’t think government should stand in the way of a worker opting to not join as well. And given the ability to negotiate on their own if they so choose.”

Opponents of the bill argue it is unfair because it encourages free riders — people who get the benefits of a union without having to pay a fee. Unions are required to represent every worker in a unionized workplace under federal law.

“This creates divisions among the bargaining unit between employees who pay fees or dues and those who do not, yet are still guaranteed the same rights under collective bargaining,” said Bill Londrigan, the Kentucky President of the AFL-CIO.

Union members made up 11 percent of the workforce in Kentucky in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Republican-led committee also approved nixing a regulation that sets a minimum salary for construction workers on government projects.

Supporters of the repeal say it would save taxpayer money by eliminating inflated labor rates. Opponents counter that it would lead to shoddy construction.

In 1992, the General Assembly repealed prevailing wage for educational institutions, only to reinstate the regulation in 1996.

Later in the day, the Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee approved a bill called the “paycheck protection act,” which would require workers to opt-in to union membership rather than having to opt-out of membership.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the bill would protect workers who don’t support the political actions of unions.

“It is to protect those individuals that don’t want opinions expressed that they don’t agree with,” said Stivers, the sponsor of the bill.

Opponents of the bill said it would put a regulatory burden on unions because they would have to collect the signatures of employees each year, since the bill requires a yearly opt-in.

“We see this as special legislation that is designed to hamstring our ability to efficiently collect membership dues from the clients that we represent,” Londrigan said.

The bill also requires unions to collect money used for political expenses separately from union dues, a rule that Londrigan said is already in place because of federal law.

Unions typically donate heavily to Democrats and the 2016 election was no exception. A majority of political action committee donations to Democratic lawmakers in Kentucky comes from unions. For example, the Kentucky Education Association spent around $95,000 on Kentucky House Democratic candidates last fall while only spending around $5,000 on Republicans.

The bill passed on a party-line vote.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics