Why Workers Everywhere Should Be Scared by Kentucky's Assault on Unions

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. (Photo: AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Why Workers Everywhere Should Be Scared by Kentucky's Assault on Unions

Workers should be preparing to push back as the Republicans who control the White House and the Congress bring their anti-union agenda to Washington.

"A lot of working people voted for change in this election," argued Bill Finn, the director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council. "They didn't vote for this. They didn't vote for a pay cut."

Finn got that right. Kentucky Republicans launched the new year with a race to enact sweeping anti-labor legislation, and they aren't concerning themselves with the question of whether they have a mandate to assault labor unions and undermine wages and workplace protections in the Bluegrass State. They are moving immediately, aggressively, and thoroughly to implement an across-the-board assault on workers and the unions that represent them.

And with just two weeks to go before Donald Trump is inaugurated as president, Kentucky Republicans are doing something else. They are providing a powerful reminder of the threat to working families that arises when Republicans gain "trifecta control" (taking charge of the executive branch and both legislative chambers) of the governing process. Until this year, Democrats controlled the Kentucky House of Representatives and were able to block anti-labor legislation that was advanced by Republican Governor Matt Bevin and his allies in the Republican-controlled state Senate--with strong backing from national anti-union groups financed by the Koch brothers and other billionaire donors. But in November Republicans won a majority in the Kentucky House. That gave them complete control of the process, and they have made it their first priority to approve anti-labor measures.

Union busting is on a fast track in Kentucky, where Republican legislators have refused to even consider the arguments of workers, community leaders, responsible business owners, and academics who explain that assaults of worker rights do little or nothing to promote economic development--and much to harm working families. Among those expressing thoughtful opposition to the anti-union measures that are rapidly advancing in Kentucky was Bishop John Stowe of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, who the Kentucky AFL-CIO reported wrote in an open letter that "The weakening of unions by so-called 'right to work' laws, has been shown to reduce wages and benefits overall in the states where such laws have been enacted. This cannot be seen as contributing to the common good."

"When Republicans take full control of the executive and legislative branches of government, workers are threatened."

Unfortunately, there was no stopping Kentucky's newly empowered Republicans. They were on a deliberate and determined mission that was not going to be delayed by economic, social, or moral arguments. "The chants of union workers were little deterrent to Gov. Matt Bevin and his GOP colleagues in the Kentucky House and Senate, who have made approving the bills their top priority of the 2017 General Assembly," the Lexington Herald-Leader reported on Wednesday afternoon. "Shouts and banging could be heard from the hallway, but the meeting room itself was packed with supporters as the House Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment passed House Bill 1, which would allow workers to avoid paying union dues even if they work under a union-negotiated contract, and House Bill 3, which would repeal the prevailing wage law."

Kentucky is just one state. But Republicans there are following a playbook written by Republican governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker. It suggests that, upon grabbing the reins of power, Republicans should move immediately to undermine unions that often support Democrats and that argue for maintaining public services and public education. Former Indiana governor Mike Pence, the incoming vice president, is a Walker-allied anti-labor zealot. And he is already working closely with House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Walker ally from Wisconsin, on the new administration's agenda. Trump has already sent a strong anti-labor signal, with the nomination corporate CEO Andrew Puzder, a harsh critic of proposals to raise the federal minimum wage, to serve as secretary of labor.

No one should be fooled by this president-elect's attempts to portray himself as a friend of workers. Trump and Pence were elected on a militantly anti-labor Republican platform that is dismissive of the federal minimum wage, declaring (in a stance similar to the one Trump appears to have evolved toward) that decisions about base hourly wages "should be handled at the state and local level." It endorses the anti-union "right-to-work" laws enacted by Republican governors such as Walker, and calls for taking the anti-union crusade national with a proposal "for a national law" along "right-to-work" lines. The 2016 GOP platform also attacks the use of the Fair Labor Standard Act to protect workers; rips the use of Project Labor Agreements to raise wages and improve working conditions; and proposes to gut the 85-year-old Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees "prevailing wage" pay for workers on federal projects.

There may still be a few Republicans who recognize the historic GOP position, as stated by President Abraham Lincoln, that "Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." But they are few and far between. And the evidence from Kentucky suggests that the combination of a Republican president with a Republican House and Senate should be recognized as a threat to workers.

"Trump's true priority [is] assaulting the rights of working people and helping corporate CEOs line their pockets."

Last July, after Trump selected Pence as his running mate, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said,

Everything Donald Trump says shows he is desperate to be working people's friend, but everything Donald Trump does proves he is our enemy. This decision proves that he does not stand with working families. Mike Pence might be the right choice for Donald Trump, but he's the wrong choice for America. We need leaders who will bring us together, not tear us apart. Mike Pence once again proves Donald Trump's true priority of assaulting the rights of working people and helping corporate CEO's line their pockets.

Trumka was right to be wary. Workers should be preparing, with a sense of urgency, to push back as the Republicans who control the White House and the Congress bring their anti-union agenda to Washington.

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