Kentucky counties could adopt right-to-work laws under federal appeals court decision

Individual Kentucky counties could adopt right-to-work laws under a decision handed down Friday by a federal appeals panel.

Such laws, which bar requiring all employees to pay union dues at companies that have unions — even those who don’t belong to the unions — are a hot-button political issue.

Supporters argue they make places more attractive for economic development, while opponents contend they undermine unions and hold down wages.

There are 26 states with statewide right-to-work laws. After Republicans could not get proposals for such a law in Kentucky through the legislature, a dozen counties passed their own ordinances.

They were the first county-level right-to-work laws in the nation.

In response, several unions sued Hardin County to overturn its right-to-work law.

U.S District Judge David J. Hale struck down Hardin County’s law in February.

Hale said only state governments have the authority to opt out of a federal law that allows what are known as closed-shop agreements, which require employees to join a labor union or pay dues regardless of whether they belong to the union.

The county appealed, resulting in Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals judges ruled that because Hardin County is a political subdivision of the state, the part of its ordinance barring employers from requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment is not preempted by federal labor law.

That means the county has the same authority to adopt a right-to-work law as the state.

However, the appeals decision upheld another part of Hale’s decision which said Hardin County’s rule against union hiring-hall agreements and dues-checkoff rules were preempted by federal law.

The ruling applies only to Hardin County, but obviously provides a precedent for other counties.

Supporters of right-to-work laws said the ruling was a clear victory, describing it as “huge” in a news release.

“Today’s success in the 6th Circuit court is a win for worker freedom in Kentucky, and has implications far beyond our Commonwealth,” said Juila Crigler, state director for Americans for Prosperity-Kentucky. “Being a union member and paying dues should be a decision that is left up to the worker, not the powerful unions that push for compulsory membership.”

Still, Crigler said the Kentucky legislature should adopt a statewide right-to-work law.

Gov. Matt Bevin and Republicans who will control the state Senate and House when the legislature convenes in January have said such a law will be a priority.

Louisville attorney Irwin H. Cutler Jr., who represented the unions seeking to block local right-to-work rules in Kentucky, said they will ask the full 15-member appeals court to reconsider Friday’s ruling.

Opponents of right-to-work laws argue it’s not fair when unions bargain for better wages and benefits for workers and then some workers don’t pay dues even though they benefit.

“It’s really a right-to-freeload,” Cutler said of right-to-work laws.