Union rally for IUE-CWA at GE Appliance Park

Workers at GE Appliance Park rallied ahead contract negotiations in 2015 in a march organized by IUE-CWA Local 761.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The percentage of Kentucky workers belonging to unions declined again in 2018, the second year of the state’s right-to-work environment.

Federal statistics released Friday show 8.9 percent of Kentucky workers belonged to unions last year, down from 9.6 percent in 2017.

For the second year, the decline in the Bluegrass State was sharper than in the nation as a whole. The union membership in the U.S. dropped from 10.7 percent in 2017 to 10.5 percent in 2018.

Republicans fast-tracked the right-to-work law in January 2017 during their first week of complete control of Kentucky state government following the 2016 election.

The law forbids employees at union-represented workplaces from being forced to financially support the union through paycheck deductions.

In Indiana, which passed a right-to-work law in 2012, the rate of union membership was 8.8 percent in 2018, basically unchanged from 8.9 percent in 2017.

Bill Londrigan, director of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for the state’s unions, said the decline in the state’s union membership rate has more to do with job losses at union workplaces than with workers dropping their memberships.

American Greetings, for example, said last year it would close its Bardstown greetings cards plant – where rank-and-file workers were represented by Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville – laying off about 450 in all.

“When you look at the overall picture, there is a lot to do with plant closures and loss of work here,” Londrigan said. “… We have had very few reports of loss of membership by any of the unions that are affiliated with the AFL-CIO.”

The union membership statistics are derived from a monthly survey of about 60,000 households nationwide conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mike Clark, an economist and associate director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky, noted that union membership has declined over the long term in the U.S., though Kentucky's drop has been more pronounced in the last two years.

Clark said union-heavy sectors like construction and manufacturing haven't been growing as strongly in Kentucky as other sectors, like professional services and healthcare. And government employment -- where union penetration is strongest -- is on the decline in the state, he said.

Clark said right to work could also be a factor, but "We don’t really know to what extent it had an impact."

To be sure, Kentucky workers weren’t forced to join unions before right-to-work, but they could be required to pay fees that were similar to union dues to cover their “fair share” of collective bargaining and representation.

And even two years after passage, Kentucky’s right-to-work law is not fully implemented.

That’s because it only becomes effective as collective bargaining agreements are signed or extended.

Labor contracts that were in place before the law was passed in January 2017 – such as the one covering some 13,000 UAW workers at Ford’s two Louisville plants – are still subject to the old rules.

But the new data also shows a drop in the percentage of Kentucky workers “represented by unions,” a figure that includes those whose jobs are subject to collective bargaining but who do not belong to the union.

In 2018, 11.4 percent of Kentucky workers were represented by unions, down from 12.8 percent in 2017.

That decline was also significantly larger than in the nation as whole, where 11.7 percent of workers were represented by unions in 2018, down from 11.9 percent in 2017.

In another blow to unions, the Supreme Court decided in June that government workers cannot be forced to support unions even in states without right-to-work laws.

Londrigan said it’s still too soon to say whether the so-called Janus decision has had an impact in Kentucky.  

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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Chris Otts reports for WDRB.com about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and cotts@wdrb.com.