In 2017, the State of Kentucky enacted a right-to-work law, which, as you will recall from our prior posts (see here), bars employees from being required as a condition of employment to belong or financially contribute to a labor union. (Kentucky was the 27th US state to pass a right-to-work law; in 2017, Missouri also passed a right-to-work law, but it was rejected by Missouri voters in August 2018.) Upon the Kentucky law’s passage, representatives of the General Drivers, Warehouseman, and Helpers Local Union No. 89 and the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, Affiliated Union (together the “Unions”) swiftly filed a lawsuit challenging its validity under Kentucky’s state constitution. In November 2018, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued its opinion upholding the law.
Among other things, the Unions asserted in their lawsuit that the Kentucky Right To Work Act (codified at Kentucky Revised Statute 336.130(3)) violated the Kentucky state constitution’s provisions providing for equal protection and prohibiting special legislation because it unfairly discriminates against unions as compared to other organizations in the state. (In Kentucky, special legislation is considered a law that unfairly targets or benefits specific people, organizations, or localities.) The Unions also argued that because federal law requires them to represent non-members, the state right-to-work law, which prohibits them from requiring these non-members to pay union dues, constitutes an illegal requirement that they provide a service without just compensation.
After noting that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that right-to-work laws generally do not violate the United States Constitution’s equal protection provisions, the Kentucky Supreme Court rejected the Unions’ state-law equal protection argument, finding that labor unions are not a historically suspect class (such as race or religion) and the law intends to serve a valid, rational purpose of State economic growth. The Court also dashed the Unions’ argument that the law improperly requires them to provide a service without compensation. The Court explained that unions are only required to represent non-members and members alike when a union is the exclusive bargaining agent for a bargaining unit. Bargaining agent exclusivity is not required by law, and the Court noted that unions regularly seek this designation – even in right-to-work states – because of the significant benefits gained through being the sole agent for negotiations on behalf of employees, including the benefits of increased knowledge and influence over the processes employers use to administer employment matters such as pay, discipline, and hiring. The Court held that these benefits adequately compensates the union for its services on behalf of non-member employees, notwithstanding the lack of dues.
Proponents of the law expect the right-to-work law will encourage job growth and business development within Kentucky.