If you want to build Corvettes in Bowling Green, Kentucky, you have one option: Join a labor union.
The General Motors plant in Warren County is a closed shop, meaning its 888 employees must pay union dues in order to work there. But the Warren County Fiscal Court passed a local law Friday banning that practice in the future, defying the state's Democratic attorney general and taking the first step toward trying to overturn a 49-year-old state Court of Appeals decision.
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The small county along the Tennessee border is the only local government in the country to approve a so-called "right-to-work" law, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. It's the latest example of a Kentucky local government enacting policies that have repeatedly failed at the state and federal level.
Twenty-four states have passed right-to-work laws. But efforts to do that in Kentucky have been blocked by Democrats in the state House. Likewise, Republicans have halted Democrats' efforts to raise the state's minimum wage. On Thursday, the Louisville Metro Council voted to increase its minimum wage to $9 per hour by 2017, becoming the first Kentucky city and the 21st local government in the country to pass its own minimum wage law.
Both decisions are expected to be challenged in court.
"(State lawmakers) seem to be more responsive to their political party than ... to their citizens," Warren County Judge Executive Mike Buchanon said in explaining why the county pushed ahead with the law despite the likelihood of an expensive legal battle. "We've had some union members that don't want to pay the union dues but don't want to lose their jobs."
Warren County magistrates said the law would affect future collective bargaining agreements, not ones already in place. They said the ordinance would help to compete for jobs with neighboring Tennessee, which has a right-to-work law. At least two other Kentucky counties near the Tennessee border are also considering right-to-work laws.
But as soon as Warren County magistrates cast their votes, the president of the Kentucky chapter of the AFL-CIO yelled out: "We'll see you in court!" Labor unions say the law would hurt their negotiating power and lead to lower wages for workers. They got some help Friday morning from Jack Conway, Kentucky's Democratic Attorney General who is also running for governor in 2015.
In an advisory opinion, Conway said local governments lack the legal authority to pass right-to-work laws. Conway said a 1965 Kentucky Court of Appeals decision that overturned Shelbyville's right-to-work law "is clear that (federal law) pre-empts all political subdivisions of a state from enacting right-to-work laws, including counties as well as cities."
But right-to-work supporters pushed back with a letter signed by two former chief justices of the Kentucky Supreme Court — a Republican and a Democrat — arguing Warren County does have that authority.
The former justices argue the 1965 court decision is out of date because it came seven years before the Kentucky General Assembly gave county governments broad powers to pass laws relating to economic development.
"The conclusion is inescapable. Congress authorized states to enact right to work statutes and many have done so," Joseph E. Lambert and J. William Graves wrote. "The Kentucky General Assembly authorized counties to perform many state law functions."
Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, drove to Bowling Green for the hearing to congratulate the county for passing the law.
"There will be other communities in Kentucky who do the same and join you because you have plowed the ground and provided the leadership," Adkisson said.
But hundreds of union workers from across the state also showed up — so many that police removed some people from the meeting room to avoid overcrowding.
"This local ordinance is a slap in the face to the men and the women who work to earn a decent living in union organized jobs," said Eldon Remaud, president of UAW Local 2164, which represents Bowling Green's Corvette plant. "We have made good wages. We have spent our money here. Why should we spend our money here if people don't support us and the right to earn a decent living?"