LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky's gubernatorial candidates drove home their differences Tuesday on whether public employees should
have collective bargaining rights to negotiate labor contracts.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who is seeking a second term in the Nov. 6 election, said he supported extending collective bargaining rights to all police and firefighters in the state. Fletcher said he still opposes extending such bargaining rights to all public employees and supports legislation that would make Kentucky a "right to work" state.
"You're talking about negotiating life-and-death issues," Fletcher told a group of about 70 active and retired professional firefighters from whom he was seeking a campaign endorsement. "And that's why I've taken a very strong stand on this and making sure that you all have that right."
His Democratic opponent, Steve Beshear, said all public employees should have such negotiating options. Beyond firefighters and police officers, Beshear said, people in other public sector professions such as teachers or state employees should also be granted collective bargaining power.
"That system works," Beshear said later at a news conference where he outlined his economic development, ethics and energy proposals. "It works in other states, and I have confidence that it will work in Kentucky."
During his first term, Fletcher has pushed for a proposal known as "right to work," which essentially would open union workplaces to nonunion workers. Union members swarmed the Capitol after Fletcher identified the proposal among his top legislative priorities in the 2006 legislative session.
Right to work opponents have said such legislation would only deteriorate and divide union workplaces.
Fletcher, shortly after taking office in 2003, rescinded an executive order from former Gov. Paul Patton that established an advisory council allowing employees to vote to be represented by a union for bargaining on workplace conditions.
On Tuesday, Fletcher acknowledged to the firefighters group that other unions have opposition to him. Nevertheless, Fletcher said, he supported firefighters and police on the collective bargaining issue.
"I have not supported collective bargaining for public employees across the board ...," Fletcher said. "But people that put their life on the line is a different issue."
Brandon Gray, a firefighter from Independence, Ky., questioned Fletcher about his support of the right to work issue. Gray, who said he's a registered Republican, said he differed with Fletcher on organized labor issues.
"How can you say you support collective bargaining when you introduce a bill that's essentially going to get rid of it?" Gray said later.
Kentucky has missed opportunities to land businesses because it hasn't passed such legislation, Fletcher said. Right to work legislation shouldn't affect firefighters or police officers and could increase union membership in the long term, Fletcher said.
"Fifty percent of the companies that are looking at Kentucky put us on the no-call list because of the right to work," Fletcher said.
Beshear claimed the companies Fletcher may have been referring to did not pay high wages and benefits.
"He's come out to make Kentucky a right to work state, which would obviously obliterate any union contracts to start with. So, to me, that is a very strong inconsistency," Beshear said. "Kentucky should not be a right to work state."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)