By Steve Bittenbender
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers in Kentucky passed a bill on Saturday making it the 27th U.S. state to allow workers the right to work in union-represented shops and receive union-negotiated benefits without paying dues to the representing body.
Republican lawmakers in a handful of states have passed similar so called "right-to-work" and anti-union laws in recent years. Supporters say the measures spur economic growth while opponents cast the laws as assaults on organized labor and blue-collar workers that limit union revenues.
The effort to pass the legislation in Kentucky came two months after Republicans won control of the state's General Assembly for the first time since 1921. Republicans now control both chambers in the state's legislature and the governor's office.
A Kentucky Senate committee on Friday passed the "right-to-work" bill, sending it to the full Senate, which passed it during a rare Saturday session.
"I personally have no problem with an individual opting to be part of a labor union ... but government shouldn't stand in the way of someone who opts not to join a union," said Speaker of the House Jeff Hoover in a statement earlier this week.
It is widely expected that Republican Governor Matt Bevin will sign the bill into law in the coming days. If so, Kentucky will immediately become the 27th state and last Southern state to enact "right-to-work" legislation.
The state Senate also passed an ultrasound abortion bill that was approved by the House on Thursday.
Supporters of the "right-to-work" measure say it will make Kentucky more competitive with neighboring states with similar laws in attracting new business.
Kentucky has been unable to pass "right-to-work" legislation in the past because of its strong union ties across the state, labor leaders said. The Republican-led state Senate had passed similar bills in recent years, but House Democrats refused to hear the bills.
"The future of the fight is in, as best we can, trying to stop the erosion of wages, benefits and safety," said Caitlin Lally, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227 in Louisville and vice president of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council.
Hundreds of Democrats heeded their party leaders' call for a protest and packed the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort on Saturday.
"Politicians didn’t create the labor movement, and politicians won’t destroy the labor movement," said DeLane Adams, spokesman for the AFL-CIO Southern regional office.
(Reporting by Steve Bitternbender in Louisville; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Chris Reese)