- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The battle over whether a company can force its workers to pay union dues landed in a Kentucky federal courthouse Tuesday as a handful of labor unions sought to persuade a judge to throw out a series of local laws designed to end closed shops.

States have had the ability to outlaw mandatory union dues as a condition of employment for decades. Twenty-five states have passed so-called “right-to-work” laws while the rest, such as Kentucky, have had political battles raging for years. In Kentucky, after the state’s largest city passed a law increasing the local minimum wage, at least 12 counties in the western part of the state passed local right-to-work laws.

The local laws prompted a lawsuit from a band of labor unions, making Kentucky the center of a legal battle that could impact hundreds of thousands of workers.

“There is no legal answer right now. Whichever legal argument prevails will be making new law,” said Jenny Oldham, the elected county attorney for Hardin County whose local right-to-work law is being challenged in federal court.

Labor unions say the issue has already been settled by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The court overturned Shelbyville’s local right-to-work law in 1965. But Hardin County’s attorneys argued that ruling came before the Kentucky state legislature enacted a home rule law, delegating some powers to local governments that up until then had been reserved for the state.

“I just cannot believe … that in 1947 Congress intended to allow every county in the country … to enact their own right-to-work law,” said Irwin Cutler, a Louisville attorney representing the labor unions. He argued that a hodgepodge of labor laws at the local level across a state would create regulatory chaos.

But John Lovett, an attorney representing Hardin County, pointed out Kentucky already has a hodgepodge of rules governing employment contracts in Kentucky. Not every company is required to have a closed shop. Some do, and some do not depending on what they negotiated with the labor union. And he argued that the local law is actually a state law because local governments derive their authority from the state government.

“Local governments are included in the word ‘state,’ even though they are not expressly mentioned,” he said.

The right-to-work debate comes at a time when counties and states are competing furiously with one another to attract big manufacturing companies and the thousands of jobs associated with them. Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear opposes right-to-work laws by pointing out his state had the most economic development projects per capita in 2014 of any state in the country, according to Site Selection magazine.

But counties along the Kentucky line with Tennessee, which does have a right-to-work law, say they are having trouble competing with their southern neighbor to attract new jobs.

“If there is something that you can eliminate as an obstacle to a large company moving to your community, why wouldn’t you do that?” said Brad Richardson, president of the Hardin County Chamber of Commerce.

Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, dismissed those arguments, saying some of Kentucky’s local officials have been hoodwinked by outside special interest groups.

“You would end up with a crazy quilt of different labor laws,” he said. “It would disrupt labor relations and result in lower wages for our workers.”

Kentucky workers make about $20 more per week than Tennessee workers, a state that has a right-to-work law, according to federal statistics.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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