For Kentuckians, Jack Conway may be the last obstacle standing between conservatives and their dream of a right-to-work law that would prove devastating to the state’s working people.

The Nov. 3 election for governor, which pits Conway, the current attorney general, against Republican businessman Matt Bevin, is critical if Democrats hope to stymie the effort that has become something of an annual Kentucky tradition.

Every year, at least for the past several decades, the Republican-controlled Kentucky Senate passes right-to-work legislation, and every year, the Democrat-controlled House steps in to protect the state’s working men and women from the lower wages and decreased workplace protections that plague states who have enacted such laws.

But this year feels different. Having watched once solidly Democratic state legislatures turn Republican across the South over the last decade, the Kentucky House feels more and more like an anomaly. Seasoned observers fear 2016 may be the year the tide turns.

“This governor’s race is the most important first step to hanging onto the House next year,” said Gene Holthouser, political director for Louisville, Ky., Local 369, which has members working hard on Conway’s behalf.

“Matt Bevin’s top priority is to pass right-to-work,” Holthouser said, “and if he wins, the House isn’t far behind. Right-to-work will be a done deal.”

Indeed, the appetite for union-busting legislation in the state is strong. Since December, nearly a dozen individual counties have passed local right-to-work ordinances that are currently being challenged in the courts, and more could follow if the counties’ legal defense—partly funded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers—succeeds.

In a letter to members, Local 369 Business Manager Charlie Essex outlined the stakes in the upcoming election.

“Attorney General Jack Conway,” he wrote, “has joined our effort to defeat the [right-to-work] ordinances in federal court. ... Matt Bevin wholeheartedly embraces these attacks on our livelihoods.”

Citing Bevin’s description of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as “an unfortunate nuisance to many companies,” Essex wrote, “The radical agenda of Matt Bevin is an insult to every hard-working Kentuckian who strives to reach the middle class and provide decent wages, healthcare and retirement security for their families.”

Fortunately for Conway’s chances, Bevin has so far managed to run a disastrous campaign. Having failed to adequately fundraise, the millionaire businessman has loaned himself more than $1 million and his flailing campaign has been mostly abandoned by national Republicans.

Despite his lackluster effort, however, Bevin trails Conway in recent polls by as little as 2 percent.

“Those numbers are why it’s important we work as hard as we can to put Jack Conway in the governor’s mansion,” Holthouser said.

Along with the Kentucky AFL-CIO, Local 369 is calling members, knocking on doors and doing everything they can to show electricians the difference in pay between right-to-work states and their own. In some cases, it’s as much as $8 per hour.

“We’re getting good feedback from our members and positive responses toward Conway,” Holthouser said, so we’re hopeful that he’ll pull off a win.”

If he does, labor leaders are confident that Democrats will be able to hang onto power next year in the House, and continue to preserve the rights of working people in the state.

“Electing Jack Conway as our next governor,” Essex wrote, “is critical to union members throughout Kentucky.”


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Gage Skidmore