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Fight over right-to-work begins anew, but with more favorable odds

  • The State House dome is seen on Nov. 18, 2016, as the restoration project nears completion. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The familiar debate over whether to make New Hampshire the 28th right-work-state begins today. But unlike past efforts, Republicans now control the House, Senate and governor’s office, giving the proposal the best shot at passage it’s had in years.

“The New Hampshire Right to Work Act” will have its first public hearing at the State House this afternoon. The bill bans unions from charging nonmembers the cost for bargaining on their behalf.

It would apply to the private and public sectors, meaning it would affect state employees and public school teachers whose unions are among the biggest in the New Hampshire. The largest, NEA-New Hampshire, represents more than 17,000 public school district employees statewide.

The right-to-work debate is already gearing up to be charged and partisan. Opponents showed up at the State House on inauguration day to protest the policy, which Gov. Chris Sununu has pledged to sign. Critics argue right-to-work erodes organized labor and cuts wages, while supporters say the measure will attract business and drive economic growth.

The fight has proven divisive in other states, like Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced a recall election in 2012 after signing a law that cut most collective bargaining rights for public employees. Half the country has right-to-work laws in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. If passed here, New Hampshire would be the first state in New England to put the policy on its books.

It’s not clear how many unions are in New Hampshire – the state’s employment security and labor departments don’t track that information. Federal labor statistics show New Hampshire is the least unionized state in New England. Union members make up just under 10 percent of the state’s workforce, a number that has declined slightly between 2010 and 2015. Roughly 6 percent of unionized workers are in the public sector, according to Rich Gulla, head of the biggest union of state employees.

The bill would prohibit labor contracts that require employees to join or contribute to a union. Currently, non-union members in unionized workplaces typically pay what’s called a “fair share fee.” It covers the cost of collective bargaining, but not any of the union’s lobbying or political activity. The idea is that if the union negotiates a pay raise, nonmembers still get the benefits, according to organized labor leaders.

But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Reagan, said he objects that “people should have to pay to have a job.”

Reagan is an unexpected spokesman for right-to-work. The Deerfield Republican has been a due-paying union member since he was 14 years old. A retired Baltimore firefighter, Reagan still pays $228 annually.

“I don’t have any objection to people belonging to unions,” he said. “You can’t make the payment of a fee to the union a condition of employment, which is an extortion.”

Gulla, who leads the 12,000-member State Employees’ Association, said there are more serious issues for the state to focus on than right-to-work.

“This is being driven from out-of-state interests,” he said. “This is the ninth time we have seen this type of action, and it’s the same old, same old.”

The right-to-work bill will be heard at 1 p.m. in the Senate Commerce Committee, which is headed by two freshman members who are both co-sponsors of the policy. Freshman Sen. Scott McGilvray, a Democrat who heads the NEA, said he will vote on the bill, but not testify against it during hearings.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)