While Louisville became the first city in the South to increase its minimum wage last month, Bowling Green was picking a showcase fight with organized labor.
Warren County, whose seat of government is Bowling Green, became the nation's first local government to enact a so-called right-to-work law.
Neighboring Simpson County and Fulton County on Kentucky's western edge quickly followed suit. Hardin, Todd and Cumberland counties are in the process of enacting right-to-work ordinances.
In Warren and Simpson counties, supporters of the anti-union measure said it would help them compete with nearby Tennessee, one of 24 states that have right-to-work laws.
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Yet Warren and Simpson counties outpaced Tennessee, Kentucky and the nation in job creation during the past five years, according to a new study for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
They did even better in manufacturing. A 14-county area around Bowling Green and Hopkinsville created new manufacturing jobs at more than triple the national rate and double that of Tennessee. Growth in manufacturing wages in the 14-county area also outpaced Tennessee, Kentucky and the nation.
With so little recent evidence of a competitive disadvantage, the flurry of anti-union activity has little to do with local economic development strategies. It's more about a political agenda being pushed by outside organizations and their proxies in Kentucky.
A new dark-money nonprofit called Protect My Check has promised to bankroll the legal battles, reports the Bowling Green Daily News, relieving elected officials from having to spend tax dollars to defend ordinances that appear to conflict with federal labor law, as the Kentucky attorney general's office recently advised.
The New York Times reports that Warren Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon said he was put in touch with Protect My Check by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul or one of his aides, and was promised that the county's legal bills would be covered. Protect My Check, incorporated in Florida, does not disclose its donors.
The Times also reported that the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by the oil and pharmaceutical industries and the Koch brothers, are working to foment a wave of local anti-union laws, starting in Kentucky, in hopes of precipitating a showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In other words, Warren, Simpson and other counties are pawns in a much larger game. The players don't care if Kentuckians prosper but are intent on holding down wages and benefits, weakening unions and reducing labor's ability to support Democrats.
Given the years of court battles that local right-to-work laws likely face, employers looking at a county with such a law would see uncertainty and possible strife that might well push the new jobs elsewhere.
The innocuously named right-to-work laws are popular in public-opinion polls because most people resent being "forced" into anything, including paying union dues, especially when workers think the union isn't doing much for them. By allowing workers to receive union-negotiated benefits without paying dues, the laws cost unions money and weaken organized labor.
It's instructive to contrast the sneaky way the anti-union laws are being rushed onto the books with the six months of spirited public debate and compromise that preceded the Louisville council's decision on minimum wage.
The increase to $9 an hour over three years will amount to an extra $3,640 a year pre-tax for a full-time worker — not a lot, but almost all of it will flow right back into Louisville's economy.
The public, including 800 United Auto Workers members who make Corvettes in Bowling Green, was cut out of the right-to-work decision.
In Warren County, there was no public notice. Magistrate Tommy Hunt said he didn't know about the ordinance until the morning of the meeting, when it appeared on the agenda as "an Ordinance Relating to the Promotion of Economic Development and Commerce."
He cast the only no vote and said the decision deserved more deliberation and a public hearing — solid points.
If local right-to-work laws are such a great idea, their proponents should be willing to defend them in open debates with plenty of public notice.