Union members in Kentucky scored a big victory when Democrats won three of the four state House seats contested in a special election on Tuesday, 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 no secret
wants a right-to-work law passed
and prevailing wage abolished.
|Jeffrey Taylor, winning candidate in House District 8 in southwestern Kentucky.
“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 Eighth
District, which is in southwestern Kentucky near Fort Campbell; Chuck Tackett
in the 62nd District in central Kentucky; and Lew Nicholls in the 98
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,
wrotein 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.
|Lew Nicholls, winning candidate in House District 98 in northeastern Kentucky.
“I know there are union members that voted for him for
whatever reason,” said Joe Dillow, President for 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
a right-to-work law last month.
That wasn’t terribly popular in a district
that has about 6,600 union members and retirees. There are a little more than
43,000 people in each district.
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.
“Gov. Bevin was coming up here for fundraisers for him.”
Nicholls, a retired circuit and district court judge, won
with 57 percent of the vote.
a farmer, won a close election in District 62,
which includes voters
employed by the University of Kentucky and other colleges and universities in
the area, Holthouser said. Many of those voters are upset by Bevin’s proposed
cuts to education.
Tackett got just over 51 percent of the vote in a district
where a Republican previously held the seat. One Republican-backed group tried
to label him a “government insider” because he previously served on a county
fiscal court, which is similar to a county executive board or legislature in
In District 8,
President Barack Obama recorded a robo-call in support of Taylor that voters
heard across the district,
which has one of the largest black populations
in the state.
Taylor, who was the only black 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 Eighth District does not have many IBEW members, but 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.”
|Chuck Tackett, winning candidate in House District 62 in central Kentucky.
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.
Bevin also is proving to be a divisive figure. Many
political observers thought he
his hand when he posted a Facebook video on Monday of himself in an empty House
In it, he mocked Democrats for not yet submitting a budget and
not even meeting to do so. Democrats noted the entire House was involved in previously
scheduled committee meetings when Bevin filmed it and were meeting in the
chambers later in the day.
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.’
“They’re seeing what happened last November.”
“We got people involved in this process that had never gone
door-to-door or made a phone call for a campaign before,” he said. “There are
more engaged people in Kentucky than there ever have been. They see what’s
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