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May 2016

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Working Families Win in Bluegrass Special Election

Union members in Kentucky scored a big victory when Democrats won three of the four state House seats contested in a special election on March 8, thwarting an attempt by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and others to push a right-to-work law through the state Legislature.

The results mean Democrats hold a 53-47 edge in the House, a chamber they have controlled since 1921. The House is the only thing keeping Kentucky from adopting a right-to-work law and doing away with prevailing wage legislation. Republicans dominate the Senate and Bevin, a tea party favorite elected in a surprise victory last November, has made it no secret that he wants a right-to-work law passed and prevailing wage abolished.

"Word is getting out on right-to-work," Louisville Local 369 Political Director Gene Holthouser said. "[Neighboring] Indiana has right-to-work and jobs are leaving the state. It's something that's caught the attention of our members."

Right-to-work laws allow workers to enjoy the benefits of a union-negotiated contract without having to pay union dues. Prevailing wage laws require contractors doing business with state and local governments to pay their workers at a pre-determined level.

The winning candidates were Jeffrey Taylor in the 8th House District, which is in southwestern Kentucky near Fort Campbell; Chuck Tackett in the 62nd District in central Kentucky; and Lew Nicholls in the 98th District in the state's northeast corner.

"I don't want to be humble on this one," said Bill Finn, president of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council and a former Local 369 business manager. "[Union members] did it. They made it happen and it was across the board."

Labor's role in the election was noticed.

"Conventional wisdom is that much of the bite has been taken away from the state's labor unions as voters more and more cast ballots on social issues rather than their pocketbooks," a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the state's largest newspaper, wrote in an analysis of the results. "But with the GOP nearing a takeover of the House and promising so-called right-to-work legislation ... the unions were energized, especially in northeastern Kentucky, where voters witnessed what has gone on in West Virginia with the passage of such laws."

Holthouser and other IBEW leaders in Kentucky credited a strong ground game for the victories. IBEW members went door-to-door with other unions and leafletted throughout the four districts in play.

One business manager said working families are quickly tiring of Bevin, who hasn't tried to hide his disdain for unions.

"I know there are union members that voted for him for whatever reason," said Joe Dillow, president of Portsmouth, Ohio, Local 575, which has jurisdiction in District 98. "I think there's a lot of buyer's remorse and people already are tired of his arrogant approach toward labor in general. He's just belittling us."

Dillow and Holthouser said that voters in District 98 get most of their media coverage from West Virginia outlets. They were well aware that state had passed a right-to-work law last month. That wasn't terribly popular in a district that has about 6,600 union members and retirees.

Nicholls' Republican opponent sensed labor's importance and told voters he would vote against right-to-work and support prevailing wage, but Dillow said those words were hollow.

"He was kind of talking out of both sides of his mouth," he said.

Tackett got just over 51 percent of the vote in a district where a Republican previously held the seat.

In District 8, President Barack Obama recorded a robo-call in support of Taylor that voters heard around the district, which has one of the largest black populations in the state.

Taylor, who was the only African-American candidate in the four races, won with 59 percent of the vote. He retired from the Tennessee Valley Authority and is the current chairman of the Christian County Democratic Party. He also is the first African-American to represent the district.

Jimmy Evans, business manager for Paducah, Ky., Local 816, said the combination of Taylor's appeal and union members traveling in from around Kentucky to campaign for him led to an overwhelming victory.

"He got people to vote who normally don't vote," Evans added. "He convinced them that working people need the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives."

The battle with right-to-work supporters is far from over. All 100 House seats will be on the November ballot and the GOP will make another major push to gain control, relying heavily on funding from groups outside the state to do it. The Kentucky House is the only legislative body in the South controlled by Democrats.

But Holthouser, Dillow and Evans all say they are optimistic. Many union members are concerned by what they have seen in Indiana and West Virginia and are becoming more politically involved, Holthouser said.

Each winning campaign convinced voters they were voting in a statewide race because of its potential impact on working people, Holthouser said.

"I really believe that our folks are paying attention," he said. "I hate to say it, but I think there had been a lot of apathy. People thought issues were important, but there was an attitude of 'Let someone else do it' or 'We've got others to manage that.'


The twin spires tower over Louisville's Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby. Democrats won three of the four races in a special election held to fill four open Kentucky House seats on March 8.

Photo used by Flickr/Creative Commons agreement with Greta Polites.