Angry labor union members on Saturday said they don’t know how they became public enemy No. 1 in Kentucky’s 2017 legislative session.
Hundreds of workers in boots and heavy coats poured onto every public floor of the state Capitol to loudly protest final passage of three bills that they say will weaken unions and reduce construction workers’ wages.
“It’s an attack on the working people,” said Chris Kendall, 44, a member of Local 184 of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union in Paducah.
“It’s almost like we’re the enemy somehow, that it’s the politicians against us,” Kendall said. “And all we’re trying to do is earn an honest day’s wage.”
Said Bruce Rowe, a Pike County truck driver who belongs to Local 14581 of United Steelworkers, “This will just be awful for our communities. Once you cut our pay, your tax base goes down, and we’ve got less money to spend at Wal-Mart and buying cars and getting groceries for our families and shoes for our kids.”
House Bill 1 will let workers avoid paying union dues even if they get the benefits of a union-negotiated workplace contract. House Bill 3 will repeal the prevailing wage, a minimum salary paid to construction workers on local government projects. And Senate Bill 6 will require workers to “opt in” to having union dues withheld from their paychecks.
Taken together, these bills will make life tougher for blue-collar workers in Kentucky, protesters said Saturday.
“These are just union-busting bills. They’re not going to improve the economy any. They just bust up the unions and make it harder for workers to be represented,” said Vernon Soder, 42, a member of Local 20 of the International Union of Elevator Contractors in Louisville.
The union workers said they already represent a small and shrinking part of the state’s labor pool. Union members made up 11 percent of the workforce in Kentucky in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Why would they want any more of our pie? Why do they need to break us up any more?” Kendall said. “There’s not even many union jobs available. You have to really want one to get one because they’re so competitive.”
Repealing the prevailing wage, which guarantees a base rate of $20 to $30 an hour for skilled construction workers depending on their job and location, will cut workers’ pay nearly in half, Kendall said.
“The prevailing wage is a minimum wage for skilled workers,” Kendall said. “If you do away with that, that’s gonna cut the pay of all your skilled workers, union and non-union, on public construction projects and private. It’ll just come down to where you have the illegals and other unskilled labor doing the work as cheaply as possible, and it won’t be half as good.”
Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, said some union members who came to the Capitol in recent days to protest legislation are social conservatives who voted for Republican politicians. Now they’re watching a newly Republican-led legislature pass measures that will cut their paychecks, Londrigan said.
“Believe me, we’re well aware that many of our members went to the polls last November and voted the straight Republican ticket to elect Donald Trump, not thinking about who else they were putting into local and state office and how that was going to impact their families,” Londrigan said in an interview.
“So that’s why we’re bringing them up here now, so they can see the consequences of their actions,” Londrigan said. “And maybe the next time they will believe their unions when we tell them to vote for their own economic interests.”