The national spotlight has focused on Wisconsin’s push to become the nation’s 25th right-to-work state.

Reporters have paid much less attention to an equally important story in Kentucky: the rapid expansion of local right-to-work laws.

Kentucky—like many states—delegates its localities “home rule” powers. Counties can regulate extensively so long as they do not contravene state law. On Dec. 19, Warren County, Kentucky (the Bowling Green area) used its home rule authority to pass a local right-to-work ordinance.

Over the next ten weeks, nine more counties followed suit. Another six counties have preliminarily passed right-to-work laws that now await final votes to take effect. Almost 800,000 Kentuckians live in counties that are or will soon become right-to-work.

The local push took off once it became clear Kentucky’s legislature would not make union dues voluntary statewide. As one of us (James Sherk) and our Heritage colleague Andrew Kloster explained in a Backgrounder last year, the counties have good legal arguments for their authority to do this. However, until now few localities have tried to pass local right-to-work laws.

The United Auto Workers has filed suit in federal court against these ordinances. They argue federal law only allows states—not localities—to prohibit forced union dues. Legal scholars disagree, but the case is now before a district judge. Protect My Check—a new conservative nonprofit—is representing the counties pro bono. Both sides expect the judge to rule sometime in the summer.

The media has passed over these innovative county-level efforts, but that will probably change if the court rules in their favor. A favorable ruling would encourage localities in many more states to bypass state-level opposition to voluntary dues.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has already proposed local right-to-work. Ohio and Pennsylvania grant their localities similar powers. A movement that started with one Kentucky county may soon resonate nationwide.


Graphic: John Fleming

Graphic: John Fleming