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Right-to-work bill gets panel's okay

Last modified: 2/9/2011 12:00:00 AM
A House committee yesterday recommended turning New Hampshire into a right-to-work state, in which employees cannot be compelled to join a union or pay union dues.

The committee also recommended a major change to the right-to-work bill. Under an amendment proposed by House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee Chairman Rep. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican, unions representing public employees would no longer be required to represent non-union members in grievances or in bargaining.

Supporters of the amendment said it addresses concerns about 'freeloaders,' individuals who receive union benefits but do not pay union dues. But opponents said the amendment raises a host of other issues - such as the possibility of multiple unions representing a small group of employees.

'It took a bad piece of legislation and made it worse,' said Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO.

The labor committee voted 11-6 to adopt the amendment and 10-7 to recommend that the full right-to-work bill ought to pass. Three Republicans joined all four committee Democrats in opposing it. The bill will now go to the full House. If it becomes law, New Hampshire would become the 23rd right-to-work state.

Nearly 300 people attended a public hearing on the bill last week, with testimony lasting eight hours. One major concern from union members was that state and federal law requires that unions represent all employees, whether or not they join the union. That led unions to require nonmembers to pay a fee to cover the costs of those benefits - for example, the cost of negotiating a contract. In a right-to-work state, unions cannot charge those fees.

Daniels said his amendment addresses concerns about freeloaders by stating that anyone who does not join a union would not receive union benefits. Daniels said the employer would set wages and benefits for non-union employees. Federal law would still require unions in private companies to represent all employees. The amendment would only apply to public employees, who are governed by state law.

'We heard over and over its unfair to expect unions to represent people who do not pay their fair share,' said Rep. Tammy Simmons, a Manchester Republican. 'In light of the testimony, we addressed the freeloaders. People are free to make choices now for their individual life and for their own good.'

Some committee members said they worried about employees doing the same job being paid different wages. As a fire captain, Rep. Andrew White, a Lebanon Democrat, said he has seen unions create harmony in a workplace - which is vital in a dangerous situation.

'People live or die because they work together,' White said. 'To break this up legislatively makes no sense, to divide public employees just because we can.'

Several representatives said Daniels's amendment substantially changes the intent of the bill and should be subject to a public hearing, or at least to further analysis in a subcommittee.

White said he wanted to know if public employees who declined to join an existing union would be allowed to create a new union. 'Think about the collective bargaining nightmare that would be,' White said.

Rep. Jeff Goley, a Manchester Democrat, said freeloaders would still exist, because nonmembers could join a union only once they needed representation. He also questioned who would pay the additional costs if a nonmember joined a union and became eligible for more expensive benefits after a town approved its budget. Manchester Republican Rep. William Infantine, who supported the bill, said he wanted to know whether public employees who do not join a union would still be eligible for the state pension plan.

Amendment supporters said any outstanding issues could be fixed through floor amendments or in the Senate.

Supporters of the right-to-work bill painted it as a way to create jobs. House Speaker William O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, called right-to-work an 'economic growth strategy.'

'Passing right-to-work will help grow good, new jobs here in New Hampshire,' O'Brien said. 'This bill will make our state more attractive to many employers to move and grow here.'

John Kalb, executive director of New England Citizens for Right to Work, said the bill was about individual freedom and would also help the state's economy.

'Pro-forced unionism legislators will either have to vote for the New Hampshire right-to-work bill or face the wrath of the overwhelming majority of their constituents who oppose forced unionism,' Kalb said.

But at the hearing, several representatives questioned whether the bill would create jobs. Rep. Charles Weed, a Keene Democrat, pointed out that Daniels's amendment only affects public employers - not the private employers the state hopes to attract.

Daniels responded that the primary purpose of the bill was not to create jobs, but to provide freedom of choice regarding whether to join a labor union.

The committee also recommended repealing the state's 'evergreen clause,' which allows public employees to get raises based on years of experience according to the terms of their previous contract, even if they have not negotiated a new contract. The vote was 13-4 along party lines, with Republicans supporting it.

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)


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