Kentucky Supreme Court upholds GOP law curbing power of labor unions to collect dues

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A divided Kentucky Supreme Court upheld Thursday a law that severely curbs the power of labor unions to collect dues from workers, handing a victory to Gov. Matt Bevin and the Republican-led legislature that approved the law in January 2017.

The law, passed in the first week that Republican’s controlled the Kentucky General Assembly as union members descended on the Capitol to protest, prevents unions from requiring all employees in a unionized workplace to pay dues.

The unions argued the law is unconstitutional because it treats union employees differently than others; that it violated a provision of the Kentucky Constitution dealing with regulation of unions; and that it was taking private property without just compensation.

(Related: Why right-to-work is wrong)

In a majority opinion supported by four of seven justices, Justice Larry VanMeter dismissed those arguments, concluding that the Kentucky Constitution grants the legislature power to regulate unions.

“Based on the foregoing reasons, we hold that the Unions’ constitutional challenges to the Act are without merit,” wrote Vanmeter, the newest member of the court. “In this area of economic legislation, the legislature and the executive branch make the policy, not the courts.”

The decision is a major victory for Bevin, who has touted the “right-to-work” law as a key factor in helping him recruit businesses to Kentucky. He often cites Braidy Industries, which plans to build an aluminum mill near Ashland, saying the company wouldn’t have agreed to build in Kentucky without the law.

Passing legislation aimed at weakening the power of unions was one of the top priorities for Republicans when they took control of the state House for the first time in nearly 100 years. Since then, Republican leaders have touted the law on the campaign trail as a significant accomplishment that has helped grow Kentucky’s economy.

Bill Londrigan, president of Kentucky State AFL-CIO, said he doesn’t think the court’s decision will weaken unions in the state, but he predicted it will undermine unions’ ability to provide services to their members.

He and others have said the law will create free-riders — people who get the benefits of union bargaining power without paying for it.

“It has the impact of creating divisions,” Londrigan said. “And that’s part of its purpose.”

The court split 4-3 with VanMeter, John Minton, Elizabeth Hughes and Daniel Venters upholding the law. Justices Michelle Keller, Samuel Wright and Bill Cunningham dissented.

The court affirmed the decision of Franklin Circuit Court, where Justice Thomas Wingate dismissed the complaint.

Kentucky joins several states — Indiana, Wisconsin and Oklahoma — where union challenges to similar laws have recently failed.

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Cross-posted from the Herald-Leader via the Kentucky Press News Service.

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