'Union busting' excites ire

Last modified: 3/25/2011 12:00:00 AM
As the legislative budget assistant tried to talk about revenue figures, chants drifted in through the open window. "What's disgusting? Union busting!"

Several hundred union workers flooded the Legislative Office Building yesterday to protest an amendment to the state budget bill that would put employees' benefits and wages at the will of their employers when a contract expires.

The amendment, proposed Tuesday evening, states that after a contract expires, employees "shall become at-will employees whose salaries, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment shall be at the discretion of the employer."

Yesterday, House Finance Committee members voted 16-9 to keep the amendment in the budget bill, with three Republicans joining Democrats in opposing it. The vote was met by jeers and chants from the activists who spilled out of the House Finance Committee hearing room, down the stairs and outside the Legislative Office Building.

"It's union-busting," said Nashua firefighter Will Oleksak. "It's going to take away all our rights. Employers can do whatever they want."

"They're trying to take collective bargaining rights from hardworking people," said Paul Canning, director of organizing for an International Union of Painters and Allied Trades chapter in Brentwood. "It's ridiculous to try to put it through the budget. . . . They should be ashamed of themselves."

The amendment was proposed by Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, who said the bill would speed up negotiations by giving unions an incentive to bargain.

"The purpose of this is to eliminate the evergreen clause, which allowed employees to continue working, continue to get pay, get health benefits even though they cost more, get pension benefits even though they cost more, with no incentive on the part of employees to attempt to compromise," Kurk said.

Under the amendment, cities and towns would not be allowed to negotiate an evergreen clause to continue benefits past a contract's expiration.

Democrats and union members say the bill would remove collective bargaining rights entirely, since employers would have no incentive to bargain.

"They stripped collective bargaining rights of working people," said Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO.

But amendment supporters say while it is possible for employers to wait until a contract ends, employers will not do that.

"It doesn't end collective bargaining as we know it," said Finance Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican. "(Employers) still have a task to do, are committed to provide services. (Workers) will do the same job, get the same pay because it's too difficult to change it."

Senate Democratic Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord said the amendment "punishes New Hampshire families already struggling in these tough economic times," while House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli called the amendment "offensive and irresponsible."

Meanwhile, House Speaker William O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, supported the amendment and said it "levels the playing field between the taxpayers and public employee unions."

State GOP Chairman Jack Kimball praised lawmakers for standing on the principle "that public and private workers should be treated fairly and equally."

The party politics was not lost on protesters.

"I'm a lifelong Republican, and I'll be voting Democrat in the next election," said Roy Brill, who works for the state Department of Corrections.

As emotions ran high, union members occasionally heckled the committee, stifled by Weyler's threats to clear the room.

At one point, Weyler called for security to eject a protester who made noise, and MacKenzie put up his hands, as if inviting officials to handcuff him.

"You'll have to take us all out by hand," MacKenzie yelled. "You should be embarrassed."

"I'm not embarrassed. Shut up!" Weyler yelled back.

Democratic Rep. Randy Foose of New London urged protesters to respect the committee chairman and the political process.

"I remind all of us the reason we're in this position today is because of elections that occurred in November," Foose said.

As protesters left after the vote, several firefighters got into a shouting match with Manchester Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, who supported Kurk's amendment.

"Enjoy your seats," protesters yelled. "We're taking them away."

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


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