The New Dealer: General Assembly should protect the rights of workers

Published 7:03 pm Thursday, January 13, 2022

Regardless of what party you are registered with, or what your particular political affiliation may be, I think there is one fact which we all can agree on: we in the United States, and here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, would have nothing at all without the sacrifice made by the working people in our country.

America has built the greatest economy, and has become the richest country, in the history of the world, and all through the hard work, dedication, and unrestrained spirit of workers, who have built our roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools; who have served our communities in countless different careers; who have given everything that they have in their work to help create a country that we can be proud of. I believe we can all agree on this.

And in spite the division which has too often characterized our politics, I think there is one further point that we can almost all agree on: our laws ought to benefit working people themselves. What’s more is that, seeing as how the Kentucky General Assembly is beginning a three-month long legislative session, they have a perfect opportunity to do just that.

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You see, there is one law which is already on the books in Kentucky—it was passed in 2017 during former Governor Bevin’s administration—that can significantly hurt working people.

House Bill 1 of 2017 enacted so-called “right to work” legislation in Kentucky. The law makes it a lot more difficult for labor unions to operate in Kentucky; basically, the law allows for all employees in a workplace—both union and non-union—to enjoy the benefits of a union contract, even if non-union members do not pay the dues to join the union.

As a result, unions have had to represent more workers without having adequate enough resources to do so, through a lack of enough dues-paying members; as a result, union membership has decreased, which has potentially made it more difficult for unions to negotiate for better wages and for workers.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that wages in non-right to work states are 3% higher than right-to-work states like Kentucky. Not only that, but right-to-work laws prevent make it much more difficult to negotiate for better working conditions and better benefits. The truth is, “right to work” hurts working people, plain and simple.

After five years, it is clear that Kentucky’s “right to work” law is nothing but a complete and total failure. Since its passage, union
membership has declined in Kentucky, but at the same time, so has economic growth—Kentucky’s economic output was below 2% from 2017 to 2019.

Unemployment stayed roughly the same in that same time, at around 4%—it rose dramatically at the
beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but has leveled off again and currently sits at around 5%.

Most significantly, however, “right to work” has not caused substantial wage growth. Instead of helping working people, Kentucky’s “right to work” law has been, and still is, nothing more than simply an attack on labor unions. And when labor unions are weakened, so too is the collective power of workers to demand exactly what each of them deserve: good wages, good benefits, and safe working conditions.

The answer to this problem is clear: action. The General Assembly should move immediately in 2022 to overturn Kentucky’s “right to work” law.

Doing so will make it easier for labor unions to operate in Kentucky, but more importantly, this will allow for workers all across the Commonwealth to be better equipped to negotiate better wages, better conditions, and better benefits for themselves and their coworkers. These demands are nothing less than what working people across our state—and indeed, across our country—deserve. The most effective weapon against rising economic inequality is to give power to workers.

That’s what so many folks right here in Harlan County fought for in the 1930s: the right for workers to effectively stand up for themselves. That is the very job of a labor union, and “right to work” laws make this nearly impossible.

If the General Assembly wishes to stand up for working people, the most effective way that they can accomplish this is through overturning right-to-work in Kentucky.

A native of Harlan County, T.J. Hensley is a student at Georgetown College.