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Right to Work bill plays big

Last modified: 10/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Some issues are presidential primary perennials: taxes, jobs, foreign policy.

This time around, many candidates for the Republican nomination are making sure New Hampshire voters know where they stand on an issue even political insiders are surprised to see popping up: the so-called Right to Work legislation.

The issue has sprouted on the state level several times in the past decade, but 'it's not the kind of issue that most people are going to be aware of,' said Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Why would a state policy issue be taking up space in the presidential primary conversation? Because while most people might not know or care to know all the details of Right to Work - laws that excuse non-union members from paying dues - it could strike a chord with the right people for Republican candidates looking to cement support, Smith and other political observers said.

The law prohibits unions from charging non-members for dues, if those employees work under the same conditions of a contract the union negotiated.

If non-members no longer have to pay for those benefits, 'who voluntarily is going to contribute to the union?' said Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College.

'The last thing you want is when a small number of people are paying but everybody is benefiting,' he said. 'But at the same time, it's very appealing in a 'live free or die' state, where we don't like being told we have to do anything.'

This spring, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a Right to Work bill but legislators haven't overridden Gov. John Lynch's veto, despite Republican leadership saying that's a top priority. Wednesday is the next, and potentially last, meeting of the full House when an override vote could occur before the end of the legislative year.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have both added their voices to the discussion about whether New Hampshire should adopt the law.

In August, Romney urged state lawmakers, including the governor, to 'do whatever is necessary to make New Hampshire a right-to-work state.'

At his first town hall in the Granite State, Perry said 'Right to Work is not an anti-union bill, it is a pro-jobs bill. . . . And our friends who have chosen to be in unions, they'll have more access to more jobs.'

And at the end of last month, Texas Congressman Ron Paul sent a fundraising letter to New Hampshire residents proclaiming his support for a national law and endorsing state-level efforts.

'Passing a National Right to Work law . . . will help shrink Big Government,' Paul wrote, followed by 'I was very happy to see that the New Hampshire General Court is still battling for passage of a state Right to Work law (and) my hope is Right to Work will become reality in New Hampshire in the near future.'

Paul and Perry's home state of Texas has Right to Work legislation on the books, which they partially credit for the state's recent job growth.

Texas, and the 21 other states with right-to-work laws, have lower unemployment rates and have experienced more job growth in recent years than the rest of the country, proponents say.

A household survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics this summer showed that Right to Work states gained 3.6 million jobs during the past decade, while the other 28 lost 900,000 jobs.

More people might be working, opponents say, but they are working for lower wages and fewer benefits.

According to an Economic Policy Institute paper from February, wages in states with Right to Work laws are 3.2 percent lower than in those without - even when adjusted for jobs and costs of living - and the rates of employer-sponsored health insurance and pension plans are lower as well (by 2.6 and 4.8 percentage points, respectively).

Lesperance said while voters might not understand the fine details of the proposed laws, the name alone is reason enough for conservative candidates to adopt the issue.

'I don't know that many people really get the policy side of it, and because New Hampshire's not experiencing the kind of unemployment Nevada is, it might not play as big or as important a role in the conversation here, but if you tell someone 'I'm for your right to work,' well. . . that resonates.'

The issue might be particularly important for Paul, said Dante Scala, head of the political science department at UNH.

Best known for his longtime opposition to the Federal Reserve and other fiscal issues, coming out in favor of Right to Work gives him a platform to connect with Republican voters outside his base, Scala said.

'This is the key test for him this time around, to somehow expand upon that pool of loyal supports which represent roughly 10 percent of the Republican primary electorate,' he said. 'Is there a way to expand on that, to reach out to those sorts of voters who don't fall into the Ron Paul camp already, on an issue that allows him to connect in a way that is consistent with his own ideology?'

As far as potential downsides, supporting Right to Work doesn't have many, Scala said.

'New Hampshire is not a notably strong union state, and it's unlikely you're going to see a lot of union households voting in the Republican primary. I see it more as candidates seizing an opportunity to score points for their own conservatism, knowing it's an issue here lately.'

The issue hasn't been as unilaterally positive for Romney. Union officials and other candidates have bashed him on his stance in favor of the legislation, calling it opportunistic, and 'flip-flopping,' since he never supported or proposed the legislation while serving as governor of Massachusetts.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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