The U.S. Supreme Court's ban on public sector unions requiring government employees to pay fees for representation during collective bargaining should have little direct impact in Kentucky, labor leaders in the state said Wednesday.
Membership in public sector unions or employee associations already is voluntary for state workers in Frankfort, school teachers in Fayette County, firefighters in Lexington and elsewhere, the labor leaders said.
Kentucky's labor landscape was reshaped by state legislation passed last year that curbed the power of labor unions to collect dues from workers, as well as previously existing workplace laws and past litigation that made the state a more difficult place for unions to operate compared to union-friendly states, such as California, New York and Illinois.
"We don't deduct dues from anybody who doesn't want to be a member," said Jessica Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association, which represents about 1,600 employees of the Fayette County Public Schools. "You have to sign the membership form."
However, the National Education Association draws financial support from many states that will be affected by the court's decision, Hiler said, and its resources are likely to be diminished as a result. "So I think you will see an indirect effect on us, because we get a lot of assistance from the NEA," she said.
The Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision released Wednesday that government employees cannot be forced to pay dues to unions that represent them in contract negotiations for wages and other benefits in the process known as collective bargaining.
Labor leaders in Kentucky said they weren't surprised by the court's ruling, given the current political climate.
"I see this as an attack on public labor unions and, by extension, working-class Americans, but that's the world we live in now," said Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 526.
Bartley said about 510 of Lexington's roughly 530 firefighters choose to belong to his union and pay $46 a month in dues to be represented. In exchange, he said, the union works aggressively to represent their best interests with the city, and to back politicians from both parties who serve firefighters well.
"I do think that unions will have to rely on the work that they do representing their members to prove their worth," Bartley said. "We consistently demonstrate our value to our members, and being a union firefighter provides a significantly better standard of living and a safer working environment."
In Frankfort, David Smith said workers who enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without supporting their unions or employee associations "simply aren't paying their fair share." Smith is president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, which had nearly 5,000 members until the recent surge in retirements began to deplete its ranks.
"This ruling won't have any immediate impact on us in Frankfort because our members agree to join," Smith said. "But nationally, it's going to have a big negative impact on labor overall because it's one more attack on the unions that represent workers."