Right-to-work laws are being hotly contested in many states. Union advocates argue that employees who work in unionized workplaces should have to share the cost of union representation. Nevertheless, since 2012, six new states have enacted right-to-work laws. In November 2018, despite being bitterly divided, the state Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s right-to-work law by a 4-3 vote, making Kentucky the 27th state in the country to have a right-to-work law on its books.
What Is “Right-To-Work?”
In general, state right-to-work laws pertain to labor unions and workers at a company. Specifically, the “right-to-work” means that employees are entitled to work in unionized workplaces without actually joining the union or paying regular union dues. Employees also may cancel their union membership at any time, without losing their jobs.
Union advocates typically argue that right-to-work laws financially weaken unions, which must represent the rights of all employees within a bargaining unit, even though those employees are not required to pay union dues. It is important to note that Kentucky’s right-to-work law does not prevent employees from joining or supporting unions—it just prohibits requiring them to do so.
How Does It Work?
Like other laws of its kind, the “Kentucky Right to Work Act” covers most public and private employers in prohibiting any requirement that an employee join or remain a union member as a condition of being hired or remaining employed. It also prohibits requiring any employee to pay dues, fees, assessments or similar charges to a labor organization and prohibits requiring any employee to make payments to charities in lieu of payments to labor organizations.
Kentucky’s law has a few special provisions that apply only to public-sector employees. For instance, it prohibits deducting dues and similar payments from public-sector employees’ pay without written consent and allows them to easily withdraw consent. It also prohibits public-sector employees from engaging in strikes or other work stoppages (private-sector employees remain free to do so).
The law does not apply to labor agreements entered prior to January 9, 2017, but it does apply to extensions and renewals of contracts made from that date forward. The law expressly prohibits local governments from enacting inconsistent legislation, so cities, counties or other municipalities are not permitted to pass their own measures contradicting the state’s right-to-work law.
What Does This Mean for Kentucky Employers?
Now that Kentucky’s right-to-work law is final, it is time to ensure full compliance. If you are about to negotiate a union contract, you must ensure that the final agreement does not run afoul of the right-to-work law. This includes existing contracts that are being renewed, renegotiated or extended. If you have union contracts that include mandatory union membership and dues payment, make a note to remove such language when the contract comes up for renegotiation.
Be sure to educate your supervisors and higher-level managers regarding the law to ensure no one violates employees’ rights. For instance, if an employee resigns from union membership, the employee will remain fully covered by any bargaining contract negotiated between the employer and the union, and the union will remain obligated to represent the employee. Any benefits provided to the employee pursuant to the bargaining contract (e.g., wages, seniority, vacations, pension and health insurance) will not be affected by the employee’s resignation from the union.
Finally, be aware that even though the “union shop” is now prohibited, many contracts will still have dues-checkoff provisions that require you to withhold union dues from employees’ paychecks in accordance with written dues authorization cards signed by employees. However, it is important for employees to be informed about their rights to revoke their written authorization cards at least annually.
Chantell Foley is an attorney in the Louisville, Kentucky, office of Fisher Phillips. Her practice is exclusively devoted to representing employers in matters of labor and employment law. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 561-3969.