Whitesburg KY

Separating myth from fact in debate over right-to-work

An example of how political myths evolve to simplify a complex issue …

If one were to believe its advocates, so-called right-to-work laws are just the panacea for Kentucky’s ailing economy.

Anytime someone starts claiming a simple fix to a complex issue, it is a good idea to look at some of his or her claims.

Right-to-work laws allow workers in a unionized workplace to opt out of joining a union and paying union dues, but in most cases still reap the benefits won through union representation. These laws have been around since the 1940s. Texas was the first in 1943. The majority of states with similar laws enacted them in the 1940s and ’50s, primarily in the South. But with recent victories for advocates — most notably Indiana and Michigan becoming the 23rd and 24th states, respectively, to pass the laws in 2012 — there has been a renewed push by advocacy groups.

Some who favor the laws have gone so far as to claim that Bardstown lost out on landing a major industrial employer to Tennessee recently because Kentucky is not a “right-to-work” state. But that claim is tenuous at best.

That claim first cropped up on the media radar in a column by Jim Waters of the conservative Bluegrass Institute of Public Policy. In his Bluegrass Beacon column titled “‘Business-friendly’ and ‘right-to-work’ are no coincidence,” Waters intimated that the firearms manufacturer Beretta chose Tennessee over Kentucky because of our southern neighbor’s right-to-work laws, “despite the fact that the company apparently was offered land here at no cost, incentives that would allow it to operate free of state taxes for 15 years and local property taxes for 30 years, and more than $1 million in cash for infrastructure development.”

While Waters did not name Bardstown specifically, the editorial page of the Bowling Green Daily News connected the dots in an editorial this month praising Warren County’s Fiscal Court vote to make it the first “right-to-work” county. When the Standard questioned the Daily News as to where the paper received its information, it credited Waters and Scott Jennings, a conservative consultant based in Louisville.

However, those who were in direct contact with company officials during the unsuccessful courtship told the Standard that right-to-work never came up during their discussions.

“They wanted a little more land than what we had in our industrial park and they said that Tennessee was much more gun-friendly with their gun laws. In our meetings with the company officials, right-to-work was never discussed,” Nelson County Economic Development Agency President Kim Huston told the Standard.

Nelson County Judge/Executive Dean Watts confirmed Huston’s account. In fact, Watts said the only company he can recall asking about the issue was Flower Foods, which located in Bardstown anyway.

The Beretta claim is another example of how political myths evolve to simplify a complex issue, and on its face is counter intuitive of at least one oft-cited justification for the laws.

A common argument advocates make for the laws is that companies and site selectors do not even consider Kentucky because it is not rightto work. But surely Beretta officials knew Kentucky’s labor laws before it entered negotiations with local and state officials. If right-to-work was an issue, then Beretta would never have even considered Bardstown.

There are numerous claims on both sides. Business groups claim right-to-work states have recovered more quickly from the Great Recession. Opponents, most notably organized labor, point to states that have been right-to-work for a generation and have lower worker wages and household incomes.

The truth of the matter is it can be very difficult to find recent, credible independent studies. And those that are out there mostly say that most of the justifications that each side point toward are influenced by factors that are unique to the states studied.

But nuance is not exactly in fashion in today’s polarized political climate. Advocates on both sides of many issues instead cherry-pick facts and numbers to support their predetermined conclusions.

That’s how myths become perception.

Meanwhile, workers’ wages remain stagnant, big business breaks profit records year after year, CEOs and top management get larger bonuses, and unions resist adapting to today’s economy.

— Kentucky Standard, Bardstown

Leave a Reply