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Debate over union dues intensifies

Last modified: 2/4/2011 12:00:00 AM
Union members and right-to-work activists would be justified in feeling a sense of deja vu.

The House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee yesterday held a public hearing on whether to become a right-to-work state, in which public employees cannot be compelled to join a union or pay union dues. The same arguments have been presented to the same committee year after year as far back as the 1970s, according to the state's labor commissioner.

But rather than the 50 people who attended last year's hearing, there were close to 300. While a similar bill last year attracted little press coverage, this year's hearing was preceded by a union-sponsored press conference, after which the entire State House press corps descended on Representatives Hall.

The difference is a Republican-dominated Legislature that in the first month of the session has already clashed with organized labor on the 'evergreen clause' and on a plan to reform the New Hampshire Retirement System. Union activists worry that the perennial right-to-work bill has the momentum to pass this time.

'I just think there's so many unknown people in the New Hampshire Legislature this time around,' said Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, pointing to the 157 freshman House members.

MacKenzie said right-to-work legislation has been introduced in several states this year. He said right-to-work activists saw an opportunity with the Legislature considering numerous bills that could hurt workers - repealing the state minimum wage, lowering pensions and getting rid of the automatic continuation of pay increases provided by evergreen clauses in contracts.

'There's an assault on workers in general,' MacKenzie said. 'Some people suggest a national strategy. People saw an opportunity, thought it was time to move.'

The Republican House leadership, which has pushed pension reform and repeal of the evergreen clause, is sympathetic to the right-to-work legislation but has not taken a final position.

'There is substantial and energetic support within the Republican caucus for the concept of right to work, and leadership is committed to promoting the interests of the caucus and committed to any legislation that will improve New Hampshire's business climate and create jobs,' said House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, a Salem Republican. 'When the legislation comes out of committee and we see how it looks once the public hearing and executive session process is complete, House majority leadership will make a final decision on how to proceed, but we are generally and instinctively supportive.'

The Legislature will likely need a two-thirds majority to see the bill become law. While Democratic Gov. John Lynch has not explicitly promised a veto, Lynch wrote to the House committee that he opposes the legislation.

'This bill would undercut the collective bargaining process in New Hampshire,' Lynch said. 'Over the years, our State Legislature has consistently recognized the good relationship that exists between management and labor in New Hampshire by rejecting this type of legislation and allowing individual businesses and their workers to determine their own labor agreements.'

Sponsors of right-to-work legislation paint it as an issue of freedom for employees. Today, unions and employers can negotiate a clause that requires all employees of an organization to pay some money to a union, regardless of whether they joined, as a fee for services.

'No one should be forced to contribute or pay dues to an organization they don't belong to, whether a church, Boy Scouts or a labor union,' said Rep. Will Smith, a New Castle Republican and the bill's prime sponsor.

Smith said businesses looking to relocate are more likely to move to right-to-work states because unions in those states are likely to make 'more reasonable demands' on employers.

'Right to work has been shown to bolster job creation and personal income growth,' Smith said.

Co-sponsor Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, said forcing people to pay for union benefits amounts to extortion.

'Walking into companies and forcing people to give up their money, that's a mandate,' Baldasaro said. 'If someone doesn't want to be a member of a union, this is a free country.'

Rep. Carl Seidel, a Nashua Republican, said the state's 'Live Free or Die' motto should apply to the right of an employee to deal directly with their employer.

'(This bill) allows the union to form without any intimidation from employers or others,' Seidel said. 'It should allow the employee to choose whether to join a union without intimidation from others.'

Pamela Ean, a Concord teacher and former Republican candidate for state representative, said she objected to joining a teachers union because of her religion - and was forced to pay 70 percent of union dues to a charity of the union's choice.

'I'm an individual. I'm not a collectivist,' Ean said. 'I fight my own battles. I do not need anybody to do that for me.'

But union members say the legislation amounts to 'union-busting,' or in MacKenzie's words, an attempt to 'throw unions into chaos.' Currently, federal law requires unions to represent nonmembers in grievances. Union workers say it is only fair for employees covered by a contract to pay the costs of negotiating and enforcing that contract.

'This bill creates an unfair situation,' said Brian Pike, who works for the state Department of Transportation and is a director of the State Employees' Association. Pike said current law does not force anyone to join a union - merely to pay their fair share for the benefits they receive.

Union workers as varied as construction workers to airline pilots and nurses to firefighters attended a press conference and the hearing as part of a 'Labor Lobby Day' organized by the AFL-CIO, with a host of other unions. Bob Martel, a retired construction worker from Dunbarton, said current law lets employers and employees negotiate their own contracts, which can include provisions requiring nonunion members to pay fees.

With a right-to-work law barring such agreements, Martel said, 'Government is inserting itself in business practice.'

Martel and others pointed to statistics showing that average wages and income in non-right-to-work states are higher than average wages in right-to-work states. They said there is no evidence that a right-to-work-law creates jobs.

'It's not worth tampering with something that's already working in New Hampshire,' Martel said.

Several workers talked about the benefits unions gave them - ranging from better working conditions for nurses to safer environments for firefighters.

Labor Commissioner George Copadis testified that in six years of business outreach, not a single company raised the issue of right to work.

'It never came up between myself and any business owner in the state,' Copadis said.

The committee is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday. It will then go to the full House.

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


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