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I was wrong on right-to-work

Last modified: 5/12/2011 12:00:00 AM
Before I had a change of heart on the importance of workers' rights to form unions and collectively bargain for wages and benefits, I was a sponsor of right-to-work legislation in the New Hampshire Senate - legislation which has come back to the Legislature and I now strongly oppose.

On May 4 the House and Senate agreed on the final language of House Bill 474, the so-called right-to-work legislation. Yesterday, Gov. John Lynch vetoed the bill. He recognizes that the title and description of the bill is misleading and is meant to hide the true intent and the dangers enactment would facilitate.

Who would ever oppose a person's right to work? This right is as basic and American as the freedom of speech or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The title of the bill states, 'An Act relative to freedom of choice on whether to join a labor union.' Contrary to what the title suggests, the right to work already exists, and the freedom of choice the bill concerns itself with is already established. The truth is that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no collective bargaining agreement can require anyone to join a union.

Likewise, the bill's misleading analysis reads, 'This bill prohibits collective bargaining agreements that require employees to join a labor union.' Again, the truth is it is already against federal law for anyone to be required to join a labor union.

It should be noted that the bill's sponsors choose the language of both the title and the analysis. It is clear to see that at the very beginning of the bill the proponents have inserted misleading and wily language.

Currently, workers who belong to a union work alongside non-union workers. Current law mandates that all employees of a business have the right to all the benefits of collective bargaining agreements.

That is to say, a non-union worker enjoys all that a collective bargaining agreement provides a union worker. A non-union worker is not required to pay union dues or to contribute to political funds or political activities. The truth is all political contributions even from union members are voluntary.

If a non-union worker is in need of contract enforcement services the union is required by law to provide the necessary support in the same manner a union worker would receive. For this, some workers pay agency fees (only if such provisions are agreed to by the employer) to cover the expenses relating solely to negotiations and contract enforcement. The truth is non-union workers benefit from a union's presence in the workplace.

Union busting

So what is the real reason this bill is being pushed so hard by its supporters? The truth is the bill has nothing to do with a person's right to work and it has everything to do with eliminating the right for workers to collectively bargain. The truth is the reason for its enactment is to eliminate unions.

I maintain the bill is about union busting from personal experience. In 1985 as a member of the Senate I sponsored right-to-work legislation. My sponsorship provided me access to the intents and strategies of the Virginia-based National Right to Work Committee. The NRW committee believes that if it can pass certain provisions state by state it will effectively cause the demise of unions nationwide. Currently there are 22 states that have passed right-to-work legislation; not a single one is in the Northeast. Oklahoma was the last state to pass such a law, which it did in 2001.

The dangers and pitfalls of HB 474 are numerous and serious. If the bill passes, it will be a short time before we will experience the painful truth that right-to-work actually means right-to-work-for-less.

Labor unions have served New Hampshire's middle class well. It has been union initiatives that produced a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, vacations and holidays, sick days, safe workplaces, health benefits, retirement and pensions and many other worker benefits. To weaken unions is to weaken New Hampshire's economy and weaken our middle class.

If enacted, HB 474 will drive down wages and benefits and the entire economy will suffer. On average, union workers earn 28 percent more in wages and benefits than non-union workers. The truth is, on average, women union workers earn 34 percent more in wages and benefits than non-union women workers.

Workers in states with right-to-work laws earn $5,500 less per year than workers currently earn in New Hampshire.

Government meddling

Why the Legislature would insert itself into contractual relationships between business and workers seems unexplainable. This sort of government intrusion and unnecessary government regulation is contrary to the conservative makeup of the current body.

Do not believe for a moment this Legislature cares at all about workers' rights - it does not. The only plausible explanation is that these lawmakers want to diminish the effectiveness of organized labor. Pure and simple.

House Speaker Bill O'Brien and his strong arm-twisting is now working overtime to override the governor's veto. The speaker is known to remove committee assignments as punishment to those representatives who do not toe the speaker's line.

Thankfully there are still a group of noble Republicans who remain unmoved by his threats and his bullying. These brave souls may be enough to stop this assault on New Hampshire's middle class. Let us all hope so.

(Mark Hounsell served in the New Hampshire Senate from 1984-88.)


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