Labor's Winter of Discontent in Kentucky? Maybe Not

Despite the departure of four of their own, Kentucky House Democrats should be able to keep the Republican "right to work" wolf away from organized labor’s door. Prevailing wage repeal, another long-cherished Republican goal, also faces an unlikely future in the South's only Democratic-majority legislative chamber.

For several years, the House has been labor’s last hope against a right to work law and against prevailing wage repeal. In Kentucky, a simple majority of the House and Senate overrides a governor’s veto. Before Nov. 3, the Democrats had a 54–46 edge. After tea party Republican Matt Bevin was elected governor, state Reps. Denver Butler of Louisville and Jim Gooch of Providence switched to the GOP.

In addition, Rep. John Tilley (D-Hopkinsville) resigned to head Bevin's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and Rep. Tanya Pullin (D-South Shore) stepped down to become an administrative law judge.

At the same time, a pair of Republicans had to surrender their seats because they won constitutional offices on Nov. 3. Rep. Mike Harmon (R-Danville) is the new state auditor, and Rep. Ryan Quarles (R-Georgetown) is now agriculture commissioner.

Bevin set March 8 as the date for special elections to replace Tilley, Pullin, Harmon and Quarles. Until the vote, the Democrats will stay on top, 50–46.

Of course, Bevin makes no bones about his deep disdain for unions. He campaigned in favor of right to work and against prevailing wage. The GOP-majority Senate reflects the governor’s rabidly anti-union views.

Yet odds are the union-busting wolf will be howling in frustration in the woods when the Legislature adjourns and departs Frankfort, the state capital, in the spring. Here’s why:

  • The most the GOP can hope for after the special elections is a 50–50 tie. Also, the House Republican leaders can’t count on every GOP member to toe the party line on right to work and prevailing wage. While the Democrats seem solidly anti-right to work and pro-prevailing wage, a handful of House Republicans have sided with unions and the Democrats on the two issues.
  • Time is against Bevin and his party, too. In the House, Feb. 19 is the last day for bill requests and Feb. 29 is the last day for new bills.
  • If the Republicans push right to work or prevailing wage repeal bills before those February deadlines, both measures almost certainly will die in the House Labor and Industry Committee. The chair is Rep. Rick Nelson (D-Middlesboro), one of the strongest pro-union Democrats in Frankfort.

So this might not be labor’s winter of discontent in the Bluegrass State after all.