Six weeks ago, a Kentucky county passed a right-to-work ordinance in hopes of attracting new businesses. It already appears to be working.
Warren County, Ky., adopted the countywide right-to-work ordinance on Dec. 19, after it became clear the state wasn’t going to move in that direction. Right-to-work laws prevent unions from having workers fired for not paying union dues. The Kentucky Legislature enacted home rule in 1978, leaving it up to local communities to make such decision.
“When our local leaders came to us and said without right to work we are sending away 75 percent of out-of-town job prospects, I knew we had to act,” said Warren County Attorney Amy Milliken. “Since we passed the ordinance, in the past six weeks, we’ve had two site selectors and one international site selector.”
Milliken, a self-identified Democrat, spoke at a Heritage Foundation event this week about right-to-work laws and their impact on unions. She was joined by James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation, and Perry Bowman, a United Auto Workers member and founder of Union Conservatives.
While Bowman focused on the statewide fight for a right-to-work law in Michigan, Milliken talked about her own efforts at the country level.
“I am very proud of Warren County,” Milliken told the audience after listing several statistics. She discussed the unique ability that counties have in Kentucky to take such actions.
The state legislature enacted home rule in 1978 because “they knew [counties] were best suited to handle what our constituents needed,” Milliken said.
After the panel, Milliken addressed her current fight against the Democratic-controlled Legislature in Frankfort and Attorney General Jack Conway.
In an interview with The Daily Signal, Milliken said, “[Conway] has painted himself into a corner. While arguing against home rule in Warren County, he now faces a different problem for Jefferson [County].”
“Jefferson wants a local ordinance on minimum wage,” she said. “Is the attorney general going to fight against that?”
Milliken said several other counties are following suit. She predicted more than “one million Kentuckians will be under right-to-work laws soon,” she said
She also stressed that her goal is not anti-union. “This ordinance forces unions to go back to their original functions, not what it has become today.”
In Michigan, the fight for a right-to-work law played out at the state level. According to Bowman, the new Michigan law, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, R-Mich., in 2012, took away the compulsory dues for workers. With its removal, workers can choose whether to join unions or bargain with management independently.
“It is time for unions to embrace free-market principles and reorganize to be more service based than a mandate,” Bowman, the UAW worker, told the Heritage audience.
Bowman blasted what he believed to be outdated practices on unions’ behalf. Demonstrating his point, Bowman focused on the Michigan Education Association in his home state.
“Teachers unions used taxpayer money to deny their members freedom of choice,” he said.
Heritage expert Sherk released a report finding that unions charge higher dues and give their top officers larger salaries when they can force workers to pay dues.
“When their customers have no choice about paying unions don’t make satisfying them their first priority,” Sherk says, noting in the study that “Union financial reports reveal that they charge workers roughly 10 percent higher dues and pay their full-time top officers $20,000 more annually in states with compulsory dues.”
Sherk’s report argued that with right-to-work laws, unions must earn workers’ support through voluntary dues. This requires them to compete for workers’ dollars, which leads to lower dues and pressures unions to hold down costs—including officer salaries.
“I’m an economist, and I find the notion that getting rid of unions’ monopoly power would hurt workers bizarre,” Sherk added.
Sherk summed up his thoughts stating he “didn’t think that union officers are selfish,” but that monopolies tend to put their institutional interests ahead of their customers. Sherk added that “it is the customers’ freedom not to buy their product that drives businesses—and unions—to put the customer first.”