Kentucky's share of union workers hits 20-year low

23 January 2020 - Chris Otts (WDRB)

The share of Kentucky workers belonging to unions has reached a record low three years after the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a right-to-work law.

Federal data released Wednesday show 8% of Kentucky workers belonged to unions in 2019, the lowest since U.S. Department of Labor began keeping state-by-state figures in 2000.

It was the third consecutive year that Kentucky’s union membership rate dropped at a faster rate than the nation as a whole – declines that coincide with the state’s adoption of right to work in the first week of 2017.

Right-to-work laws prohibit workers at organized workplaces from being forced to financially support the union that represents them through paycheck deductions. Such laws are common in conservative states. 

Mike Clark, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky, said there may be a number of explanations for Kentucky’s declining union membership, such as industries where unions are less prevalent growing at faster rates than traditional union sectors like manufacturing, construction and government.

But the right-to-work law is “the likely candidate” to explain at least some of decline, he said.

“That seems to be the thing that’s really changed” in recent years, Clark said.

Union membership has been on the decline nationally for decades, especially in the private sector, where only 6.2% of nationwide workers belonged to unions, according to the labor department.

States neighboring Kentucky – including right-to-work Indiana and Tennessee, and Illinois and Ohio, which are not right-to-work – also saw declines in their union membership rates in 2019, according to the data.

Bill Londrigan, head of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, a union umbrella group, said last year that Kentucky’s declining union membership might have more to do with the closing of manufacturing shops, such as the American Greetings factory in Bardstown that shuttered in 2018.

To that end, the federal data show a similar decline in the share of Kentucky workers who are represented by unions (9.5%) in their jobs – regardless of whether the workers are members of that union.

When lawmakers debated right-to-work three years ago, some supporters said the policy might actually lead to more union jobs in the Bluegrass State because the economy would accelerate, benefiting workers regardless of their union status.

But the federal data show the number union workers in Kentucky – 144,000 in 2019 – is down 24% since 2016.