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Kentucky Voters Turn Back Republicans’ Right to Work Push

Rep. Gerald Watkins, USW Local 550 photo.

You have to look pretty hard to find something for unions to celebrate after the election.

But take a gander at the Bluegrass State beyond its much-publicized and hotly contested U.S. Senate race, and you’ll see where anti-union Republicans failed, big time.

The Kentucky GOP very publicly promised to put the Bluegrass State in the "right to work" column if they flipped the Democratic-majority state House of Representatives. The Republicans came up short.

While Mitch McConnell beat labor-endorsed Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the U.S. Senate battle, the state House is still Democratic and by the same 54–46 pre-election margin.

Of course, McConnell v. Grimes grabbed the lion's share of media attention nationally and statewide. Even so, the House results are good news for unions in an otherwise generally disappointing election.

With the Democrats holding onto the House, Kentucky will remain the only non-right to work state in the South. Jeff Wiggins, president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, said:

The outcome of the House races was huge for us. All that stands between us and a right to work law is that Democratic House.

The state Senate has a right to work Republican majority. Gov. Steve Beshear, a union-backed Democrat, would almost certainly veto a right to work bill. But in Kentucky, a simple majority of both houses of the legislature overrides a governor’s veto.          

The House Republican candidates united to make right to work one of their top issues. Rep. Jeff Hoover, the House minority leader, stumped the state for right to work, posing for TV and newspaper cameras with local Republican candidates in tow.

A slew of GOP radio, TV and print ads touted a right to work law. The Republicans maintained such a measure would lead to dozens of companies and thousands of good jobs coming to Kentucky.

Paducah Plumbers and Steamfitters (UA) Local 184 challenged the Republicans on some of their turf, the GOP-friendly, anti-union Paducah Sun. The newspaper endorsed McConnell. Even so, Local 184 took out a full page in the paper debunking Republican claims about right to work.

State Rep. Gerald Watkins of Paducah was one of the victorious labor-endorsed Democrats. "The ad was great and strong union support really helped me," said Watkins, one of the pro-union incumbents the GOP targeted for defeat.

Wiggins, who is also president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9447, said a Republican majority legislature wouldn’t have stopped with a right to work law.

They would have repealed our prevailing wage law, too. We’d have ended up working for less money, and our workplaces would have become less safe. The Republicans would have turned back the clock to the time of no unions and the company store.

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