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Warren County Government Approves History-Making Right-to-Work Law

Lisa Autry

Against the advice of Kentucky’s attorney general, Warren County Fiscal Court has passed a local right-to-work law, becoming the first county in the nation to do so.

In a 5-1 vote Friday morning, magistrates gave final approval to a measure that would allow private sector workers to choose whether to join a union and pay dues.  The atmosphere was tense as union members from all over the state packed into the courtroom.  An overflow crowd stood outside the chambers, many of them holding signs and wearing union garb.

"Right-to-work is right-to-work for less," said Alton Haycraft with the Carpenters Local 175 in Louisville.  "It's a right to lose your job and be fired for no reason."  Every right-to-work state last year reported a billion dollars or more in lost income taxes due to falling wages."

Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan expressed disappointment after the meeting.

"It was a disrespectful thing they did to the workers of this community who work so hard to build cars and products here," Londrigan told WKU Public Radio.  "Why don't they go after the folks who are shipping our jobs overseas?  Why don't they talk about raising the minimum wage?  Why don't they talk about doing good things instead of interfering with the rights we have to collectively bargain with employers like General Motors?"

Supporters believe right-to-work laws make the state more competitive in attracting jobs.  Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Dave Adkisson spoke in favor of the ordinance before the vote was taken.

"Clearly, Kentucky is losing industries and jobs to other states that are right-to-work," Adkisson suggested.  "When I was an economic development director myself in my hometown of Owensboro, I was in the room when we lost prospects.  We lost jobs for our citizens that would go to another state."

Magistrate Tommy Hunt cast the lone "no" vote, in part, because of the cost of defending the ordinance in anticipated lawsuits.

"The cost to taxpayers will be enormous and we've seen what can happen when conflict occurs within the county.  Look at our school systems, half-a-million dollars or more," remarked Hunt.  "Truly, when you look across the room today, there's not a single person in here that's not impacted by the General Motors plant here in Warren County."

In an opinion issued just prior to the meeting, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said local governments lack the authority to pass such a law and only state legislatures can approve right-to-work laws.  Warren County Attorney Amy Milliken believes local measures are allowed under the state’s “County Home Rule,” passed by the General Assembly in the 1970s.  The law delegates the state’s authority to counties to pass laws for the protection and benefit of their citizens, and for the promotion of economic development. 

Efforts to pass a state right-to-work law have failed over the years in the General Assembly.  Representative Jim Decesare has been one of the champions of right-to-work.

"I think this is a trend you're going to see not only in the commonwealth but in other states, as well," commented Decesare.  "We are going to have a legal battle ahead of us, but I look forward to hearing that play out, as it should, but when it's all said and done, I think we'll have standing to have this ordinance in Warren County."

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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