Hundreds of union members turned up to the State House on Tuesday to oppose a controversial right-to-work bill, loudly cheering fellow workers’ remarks and at times jeering those who advocated the bill’s passage.
The proposal’s lively first public hearing lasted more than four hours in a packed Representatives Hall. When it ended, the Senate Commerce Committee took less than hour to endorse the bill in a 3-2 vote along party lines.
After dozens of failed attempts over the last three decades, right-to-work has its best shot at passage this year with Republicans in control of the House, Senate and corner office.
“The New Hampshire Right to Work Act” would prohibit public and private sector unions from charging nonmembers fees for negotiating on their behalf.
The hearing drew several business executives, who said making New Hampshire the first right-to-work state in New England would be a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting new companies. Republican bill sponsors, some of whom are union members, argued that workers shouldn’t have to pay dues to get a job.
But union leaders and members countered that workers should pay for the benefits gained through collective bargaining. They warned right-to-work would erode union funding and, as a result, fair working conditions and wages.
At times, testimony became tense, and even personal.
Republican committee member Andy Sanborn accused the head of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO of “basically threatening” him at his business over a decade ago. “Was that freedom?” the Bedford senator asked Glenn Bracket.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, senator,” Bracket responded. “The only interaction we had is I bought a truck off of you.”
Some people erupted in boos when a leader of the Virginia-based National Right to Work Committee equated non-union member dues to being kidnapped in a cab and forced to pay the bill.
Committee Chairman Dan Innis, a Seacoast Republican, frequently asked the audience to stop the outbursts, at one point saying he would call a recess so people could “cool off” if the interruptions continued.
The bill would affect dues unions can collect.
Under current law, employees don’t have to join a union, but some contracts require nonmembers to pay so-called “fair share” fees. The money covers the costs of negotiating and enforcing a contract, but not the union’s lobbying or political activities. Typically, the sum amounts to 50 to 75 percent of full-member dues, union heads said.
The bill would ban those nonmember fees, a proposition union members called unfair and inappropriate for the state to legislative.
“This is not right-to-work; this is right-to-freeload,” said Bob Joseph, a retired state employee from New Hampton. “Employees can have the benefits and wages discussed and arranged and negotiated for nothing. That’s not right.”
More than half the states in America have right-to-work laws on the books, but none in New England.
A vice president from Sturm, Ruger & Co. testified that the firearm manufacturer had expanded outside its New Hampshire plant in part because the state didn’t have right-to-work.
“If New Hampshire wants to be a serious contender for new jobs, passing this bill will move it one step closer to achieving that laudable goal,” said Tom Sullivan, who oversees the company’s Newport operations.
Both sides presented competing evidence and disagreed over the proposal on wages. Proponents said right-to-work states experience higher wages, while union members said its implementation in New Hampshire would drive down pay. More than 100 people signed up to testify, and the majority were union members opposing right-to-work. The state employees’ union put out an alert to members Monday calling on them to show up to the hearing.
New Hampshire is the least unionized state in the region, according to federal labor statistics. Union members make up a little less than 10 percent of the state’s workforce, a number that declined slightly between 2010 and 2015.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has pledged to sign right-to-work legislation.
Lawmakers have debated right-to-work dating back to the mid-1980s. The man who introduced the state’s right-to-work bill showed up Tuesday and voiced strong opposition to the policy he once championed.
“I have heard everything. … The fact remains this bill is not in the best interest of this state,” said Mark Hounsell, a former state senator who is now on the state labor relations board. “There’s time when you can fix your mistakes. I have spent 32 years trying to fix this one.”
(This post has been updated. Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)