Right-to-work, prevailing wage bills set for House vote after clearing committee on partisan votes

01/04/2017 06:01 PM

FRANKFORT — Two of the House’s priority bills passed on party-line votes Wednesday in the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee, setting them up for floor votes on Thursday.

The packed committee room was already full when scores of union supporters showed up, leaving them shouting in the hallway for most of the hearing on House Bill 1 and House Bill 3. At times, they could be heard chanting and pounding on the walls of the room in the Capitol Annex.

Both HB 1 and HB 3 were sent to the House floor on 17-8 votes, with Republicans supporting both measures and Democrats in opposition.

Gov. Matt Bevin, who spoke in favor of the bills, entered and left the meeting to a chorus of boos from the labor crowd.

HB 1 would make Kentucky a right-to-work state while HB 3 would repeal prevailing wage requirements on public works projects.

Bevin said right-to-work, which would disallow unions from collecting dues from non-members and bar membership as a condition of employment, would prove advantageous to the state’s business and industrial prospects.

“The irony is that those who are opposed to this feel that this will somehow come as a threat to them and to job creation, but the facts, and I would defy you to find any study done by anyone that shows the opposite because there is none, over the last 10 years the states in which there is right-to-work legislation have actually seen an increase not only in overall jobs, but in union jobs,” the governor said.

House Speaker Jeff Hoover, HB 1’s sponsor, also noted that union membership has grown in right-to-work states like Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana since passing the laws.

Hoover, R-Jamestown, said “nothing could be further from the truth” in opponents’ claims that supporters of right-to-work legislation want to use the measure to weaken labor unions.

“I personally have no problem with an individual who wants to opt to join a labor union nor do I think other supporters of this legislation have a problem with that either,” he said. “However, I don’t see why government should stand in the way of a worker opting to not join as well and be given the ability to negotiate on their own if they so choose.”

But Bill Londrigan, head of the state’s AFL-CIO, said the implication that unions can mandate membership as a condition of employment is a myth. Labor groups in Kentucky are currently allowed to collect dues for services rendered for non-members, such as collective bargaining.

“The claim of compulsory unionism is designed to undermine public support for unions by portraying us as forcing workers to join something they oppose, which is clearly un-American,” Londrigan said. “The claim is completely unfounded in that no worker can be compelled to be a union member.”

Anna Baumann, research and policy associate at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said that Kentucky is actually outpacing right-to-work states in recovering from the 2007 recession.

The state has recovered 97 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, followed by right-to-work states Indiana at 95 percent, Tennessee at 91 percent and Virginia at 84 percent, she said.

“In addition to using the Great Recession as a benchmark, we can also look at manufacturing employment growth since states passed their right-to-work,” Baumann said. “For instance, since Indiana became a right-to-work state in February of 2012, manufacturing employment has grown in that state by 8 percent compared to 13 percent in Kentucky since the same time.”

Despite the lopsided outcome in Wednesday’s vote, some Democrats voiced their displeasure in the right-to-work bill when casting their votes against HB 1. Republicans, by contrast, simply cast their votes in favor of the measure.

Unions and collective bargaining “produce better wages and better benefits for the working-class men and women,” said Rep. Alan Gentry, D-Louisville.

“I’m all in on workforce development issues, especially as it relates to training skilled labor,” he said. “However, I’m all out on any legislation that fuels the continued decline of effective wages and benefits of our working men and women.”

HB 3 also passed with wide support on the committee.

The legislation would repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, and architect Tim Lucas said that could save about 10 percent on construction costs for public works projects.

He cited a study by the Legislative Research Commission that prevailing wage laws caused labor costs to increase by about 24 percent .

“Once you compare that to the overall cost, you’re looking at approximately 10 to 12 percent,” said Lucas, of Lucas P-12 Education Planning.

Bill Finn, state director for the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council, countered the construction workers would suffer if prevailing wage is repealed and that overall costs wouldn’t be affected much.

“More than 6,000 blue-collar construction workers will lose their health care, and more than 10,000 will lose their pensions,” he said. “More than 5,700 construction workers will fall below the poverty line due to the wage cut. Without health insurance, these workers will ultimately rely on public assistance.”


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