Labor groups suing Hardin County Fiscal Court over right-to-work ordinance

01/15/2015 10:09 PM

The day after Hardin County Fiscal Court became the fifth county government to pass a right-to-work ordinance, a number of labor groups filed a federal lawsuit against the county alleging it violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Local governments have taken up the politically divisive issue with prospects for a right-to-work law grim in the Kentucky General Assembly. Warren, Simpson, Fulton and Todd counties are others that have passed right-to-work measures since Dec. 19, meaning unions in those counties can’t collect fees from workers who aren’t members.

Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, said unions with collective bargaining agreements in the Hardin County community filed the suit in U.S. District Court late Wednesday. Hardin County Fiscal Court approved the ordinance on a 8-1 vote Tuesday.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals has already weight in on the issue in a 1965 court battle between the AFL-CIO and Shelbyville, which attempted to enact a local right-to-work ordinance.

That case is at the crux of the unions’ challenge and a Dec. 18 opinion by Attorney General Jack Conway’s office finding federal law preempts local laws. While Hardin County is the subject of the lawsuit, a court reversal could endanger similar ordinances recently passed elsewhere in Kentucky.

“The law hasn’t changed, and this legal argument that the other side has been trying to use is specious at best,” Londrigan said in a phone interview with Pure Politics Thursday. “We certainly anticipate the federal court siding with us on this issue and nullifying these county ordinances as federal preempted.”

Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry could not be reached for comment, and an assistant in his office said Berry has a policy against discussing pending litigation. Hardin County Attorney Jenny Oldham declined comment on the matter because she is listed as a defendant, although she said the county had not been formally served notice of the lawsuit.

Right-to-work supporters, however, applaud counties for taking matters into their hands. Julia Crigler, Kentucky director of Americans for Prosperity, said her group has worked to build grassroots support for right-to-work, and about a dozen counties — such as Jessamine, Allen and Barren counties — are prepared to have first readings on similar right-to-work measures.

The courts will have the ultimate say on legal questions, she said, “but right now it’s the law of the land” in places like Hardin County.

“We’re filling these fiscal court meetings with activists and with people in those counties who want to see this happen,” Crigler said in a phone interview Thursday.

“… We’ve got folks who are willing to come to these fiscal court meetings in support, and they’re packing them in at rates that the unions, they can’t keep up. We’re moving on to the next county before they’re trying to deal with the last county that we came into, so I think it’s important to note that the organized grassroots is probably our best resource in this effort.”

While they differ ideologically on the topic, there is one area of agreement between the two sides: As long as the state’s House of Representatives remains in Democratic hands, the chances of the General Assembly passing a statewide right-to-work law are slim to none. And, as Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said when asked about the prospects of passing such legislation earlier this month, “slim left town.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, designated right-to-work Senate Bill 1 in this year’s legislative session, and the bill was sent to the House last week on a 24-12 vote, largely split along party lines.

“It takes (the debate) nowhere,” Londrigan said, referencing local governments passing right-to-work ordinances. “They can’t pass it at the state level so all their out-of-state backers including (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the Heritage Foundation have come in here with this other approach, this illegal approach knowing full well that they did not take control of the Kentucky House, that the voters rejected their so-called ‘Handshake with Kentucky,’ and they’re obviously trying to go down another avenue that is totally illegal and ill advised.”

Crigler said she hopes the local measures will prod state lawmakers to consider a right-to-work bill.

“We’ve got the support across the state in these counties,” she said. “People want to see it done, and if our state legislators fail to act, we’ll take it to the local level and we’ll do it there. It’ll be interesting to see what some of these state representatives, how they’re going to explain if they ever get to vote on Senate Bill 1, how they’re going to explain a ‘no’ vote when some of their counties are going right-to-work.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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