Timothy D. Easley/AP
Union leaders speak to the protesters that fill the Kentucky Capitol rotunda in protest of Kentucky House Bill 1, Saturday, in Frankfort, Ky. The bill, making it illegal for workers to have to join a labor union or pay dues to keep a job, was passed by the Senate, and now awaits the Governor's signature.

Joining half the nation, Kentucky approves highly debated ‘right to work’ law

Kentucky became the 27th state to pass a right to work law Saturday, allowing workers to take union-represented jobs and receive benefits without paying dues to the bargaining body.

The Kentucky legislature voted Saturday to pass a “right to work” law, allowing workers to take jobs in union-represented facilities and receive union-negotiated benefits without paying dues to the organization in question.

With the vote, Kentucky becomes the 27th state to pass such legislation, and the last in the US South to do so. The laws, which stem largely from the work of Republican officials, have been described as anti-union, with opponents arguing that the provisions could hamper unions’ organizing power by dropping their revenue. Supporters of the laws say they have the potential to foster economic growth by adding jobs and making companies more competitive.  

The Kentucky law passed just two months after Republicans won a majority of seats of the General Assembly for the first time in nearly a century. With both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office under GOP control, it is expected that Gov. Matt Bevin will sign the law into effect in the coming days.

The move earned praise from other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

“Right-to-Work is a smart way to get America on the path to real recovery, and it's critical to empowering workers and giving them more freedom to keep more of their hard-earned dollars to spend as they choose,” he said in a statement. “This is why I have continually supported legislation at the federal level to enact right-to-work nationwide.”

But the debate over whether the laws hinder or boost local economies in states continues. The AFL-CIO has spoken out against such policies in the past, and notes that residents living in states where right to work laws are present are more likely to see lower wages and less health benefits, with more people living below the poverty level.

And for many families, unions have become the centerpiece of stability and security in times of hardship.

“My mother’s teaching career ended when cancer forced her into retirement,” Michelle Blau, whose mother worked as a teacher in Kentucky, wrote in a blog post for the AFL-CIO. “Because of her years working in a unionized profession, she was able to live on her pension, keep her health care, and get the treatment she needed… That’s the real value of a union contract. It’s a value that the GOP Assembly needs to learn before they drive our state off the rails in a fervor to put corporate special interests ahead of working people like my mom.”

Still, some wonder if the measures have the major sway over workers and economies that either side suggests. Studies of the laws in other states have failed to completely separate the impacts of right to work laws from other economic factors, leaving researchers to draw various conclusions. While some believe the laws bring a minor hit to workers’ wages, others found modest job growth.

And some have poured over data from various states only to come away without any meaningful conclusion.

“If RTW caused absolutely huge effects, then maybe you could detect it,” Timothy Bartik, who is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., previously told The Christian Science Monitor.

With more than half of states now hosting the laws on their books, large swaths on the nation and millions of union workers have become part of the continued experiment and ongoing debate. In Kentucky, hundreds of Democrats showed up to protest the law, and many have made it clear that the passage of the new legislation didn’t mean opposition has died.

"Politicians didn’t create the labor movement, and politicians won’t destroy the labor movement," DeLane Adams, spokesman for the AFL-CIO Southern regional office, told Reuters.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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