Working families are under attack with a surge in right-to-work laws in recent years in states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. West Virginia became the 26th right-to-work state in February.

The next battleground is Kentucky, where a March 8 special election will fill four open seats in the state House. Democrats have a 50-46 advantage and have controlled the House since 1921. That Democratic majority is all that is keeping Kentucky from passing a right-to-work law and leaving Maryland as the only state below the Mason-Dixon Line without one.

“If we would lose the House, it’s over,” Louisville Local 369 political director Gene Holthouser said. “It will just be a matter of time.”

The House will split 50-50 if the Republicans sweep the four seats, something that has never happened. But Republicans already have overwhelming control of the state Senate and now have the governorship after Matt Bevin beat Attorney General Jack Conway in last November’s election. The first plank of Bevin’s campaign platform called for passage of a right-to-work law.

GOP legislative leaders have made clear they will pass such a law if they gain a majority and the governor is expected to sign it.

“Kentucky is a lot like West Virginia,” said Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council director Bill Finn, a journeyman wireman and former Local 369 business manager. “We’re just in a terrible political climate and it’s trending more Republican every year.”

The election last November of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin led to a renewed effort to pass a right to work law in Kentucky.
By Gage Skidmore under a Flicker/Creative Commons agreement.

That’s why the IBEW and other unions are fighting back in advance of the March 8 election. Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of paying membership dues, even when they receive the benefits of a union contract. Most right-to-work states rank near the bottom in terms of wages and benefits for workers.

Two of the seats came open when legislators holding them were elected to statewide office. Both were Republicans. The others came open when Bevin appointed those legislators to state government positions. Both were Democrats.

The openings are in the 8th District in the southwestern part of the state near Fort Campbell; the 54th District in central Kentucky; the 62nd District, just north of Lexington; and the 98th District in Greenup County in the northeastern corner of the state.

In the special election, Local 369 has endorsed the four Democrats running for the openings. Letters have been sent to IBEW members around the state urging them to get out to vote. Holthouser and Fourth District International Representative Don Vidourek are speaking to members of other unions in the four House districts to remind them of the election’s importance.

The Kentucky state basketball tournament began last week and members of Portsmouth, Ohio Local 575 – which has jurisdiction in northeast Kentucky – handed out leaflets to fans at games in an area that includes House District 98 in Greenup County.

Right-to-work opponents need a good ground game. Arch-conservative outside groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, are expected to spend more than $1 million on the race. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, also is making a push to flip the House.

“The Republicans definitely have the wind at their backs and we’re just hanging on by a thread,” Finn said.

Right-to-work opponents got a morale boost earlier this month when a federal judge struck down a right-to-work law in Hardin County, writing that only the states – and not individual counties --- can pass statutes to exempt themselves from the National Labor Relations Act.

But the upcoming election and the fact the Republicans control most of state government left little time to celebrate. Kentucky voters saw earlier this year why the March 8 vote matters so much.

The state Senate passed legislation that would have seriously scaled back the state’s prevailing wage law, but it failed to make it out of the House’s Labor and Industry Committee. The vote there was along party lines except for one Republican who voted against it.

“When you lose the prevailing wage, the contracts will bring in these low-wage workers from out of state,” Holthouser said. “These guys will work for next-to-nothing. The money will go out of state along with the tax revenue.”

Finn said he’s urging contractors from around the state to speak out. Much of the work they have counted on will go to out-of-state competitors if right-to-work passes and prevailing wage laws are scrapped, he said.

Prevailing wage laws require contractors doing business with the government to pay their workers at pre-determined levels. They were put in place to assure local tax dollars used on local projects stay in the community and go back to working people in the area. Without them, states are more likely to hire out-of-state companies with workers from outside the area.

“This is really going to affect their business,” Finn said. “[The contractors] are becoming more concerned. We’re trying to get them to contact their legislators. A lot of them are Republicans and the business side needs to be heard. We’re counting on them.”

Former Local 369 President Scott Pulliam takes some hope from elections in 2014, when Republicans pushed hard to gain control of the House, but Democrats maintained an eight-seat edge. Two Democrats flipped to the GOP after Bevin’s election last November, but he said the election showed that right-to-work opponents still can win when facing unfavorable trends. McConnell was seeking re-election and was at the top of the Kentucky ballot that year.

But it’s going to take a strong turnout from IBEW members, said Pulliam, who continues to lobby state legislators even in retirement. He’s also written letters to the Louisville Courier-Journal to counter attacks on working people.  He’s hopeful that younger IBEW members who haven’t been involved in politics much in the past take a more active role.

“I don’t see how anyone can consider the facts of the case and go on to vote for right-to-work,” he said.

The four candidates endorsed by the IBEW are Jeffrey Taylor in the Eighth District; Bill Noelker in the 54th District; Chuck Tackett in the 62nd district; and Lew Nicholls in the 98th District.

Home page photo credit:  By Don Sniegowski under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement.