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Unions occupy State House

Last modified: 1/20/2012 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire's union workers descended on Concord yesterday to defend themselves from renewed attempts by Republican lawmakers to strip their bargaining power.

The House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services committee heard testimony on a full day of union-weakening bills inside Representatives Hall, where firefighters, teachers and other public employees filled the 400 floor seats after the crowd proved too large for a hearing room across the street.

Last year, the House's prolonged threat to override Gov. John Lynch's veto of a so-called right-to-work bill, which would have prevented unions from collecting partial dues from non-members, made union activists a near-constant presence at the State House. House Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Republican from Mont Vernon, waited months as he sought the two-thirds majority to override Lynch's veto before the bill was killed in November.

Any political fallout from the right-to-work effort did not dissuade the Republican majority from again targeting unions when the Legislature reopened earlier this month. On the second day of the 2012 session, the House passed a bill - again without a veto-proof majority - that was essentially right-to-work legislation that only affected state employees.

Yesterday, a slate of seven bills included measures that chipped away at various aspects of union power and the collective bargaining process - such as preventing employers from withholding union dues from employees' wages and requiring that legislators be appointed to the state's advisory committee on collective bargaining - as well as bolder approaches that sought to dismantle central functions of organized labor.

Many in attendance waited all day for House Bill 1645, which would effectively prohibit public employees from bargaining collectively. Republican Rep. George Lambert of Litchfield, one of the bill's two sponsors, said the legislation went further than he intended and said he would propose an amendment to correct a "classic freshman mistake."

The bill's other sponsor, Rep. Andrew Manuse, a Republican from Derry, did not back down from the attempt to repeal provisions giving public employees the right to bargain collectively. Manuse said he is philosophically opposed to public sector unions and, in support of his position, read a quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, someone who was "clearly not anti-union and probably has the respect of many of the detractors of this bill."

"All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management," Manuse quoted Roosevelt in his 1937 letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Manuse then said he doesn't think public sector employees should be considered taxpayers because their salaries are paid for by taxpayers. He described a situation in which a public sector employee makes $100 but pays $10 in taxes.

"That still requires $90 out of the tax base to pay these public workers' salaries," he said, nearly drowned out by laughter from the union members surrounding him. State Employees' Association President Diana Lacey later said if she is not considered a taxpayer, she should be refunded about a quarter-million dollars she has paid in taxes over the years.

Rep. Shawn Jasper, a Hudson Republican who serves as Majority Whip, spoke directly after Manuse. Jasper said he was only representing himself, and not the House's Republican leadership, in opposition to the bill. He pulled on his experience negotiating public employee contracts as a town selectman, saying he "would never take away (unions') ability to negotiate with us."

"We all need to be able to join together in groups," Jasper said. "That's as old as society."

Ben Dick, president of the Manchester teachers union and a registered Republican, said he is proof both those sympathies "can coexist." He said legislation threatening public sector unions also threatens the Republican Party platform.

"How can the party claim to be true to its people when it isn't true to itself?" Dick asked. "If the New Hampshire Legislature eliminates collective bargaining for all public employees, it violates its core belief in limited government."

Testimony by pro-union commenters was often punctuated by loud applause. Dave Lang, president of the state firefighters union, at one point asked those in attendance to show their support by standing silently.

Yesterday's hearings were not followed by votes. The committee must eventually decide whether to recommend the union bills for passage by the full House.

Instead, the day served as an early-session rallying point for the state's unions. Outside O'Brien's office, a handful of protesters from the Occupy New Hampshire movement gathered to show pro-labor solidarity. And about midday, hundreds gathered for a fiery speech on the State House steps by Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents nearly 300,000 professional firefighters and emergency medical personnel throughout the United States and in Canada.

Schaitberger compared the New Hampshire anti-union movement to similar efforts in other states, including heated battles in Ohio and Wisconsin.

"This is a coordinated, orchestrated, well-financed, disciplined effort to get rid of us," he said, later adding "They want a short-term victory. . . . I'll tell you what: We'll see them at the ballot box."

In attendance for the Schaitberger speech were Democratic congressional candidate Ann McLane Kuster of Hopkinton and former congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat from Rochester.

Afterward, Kuster said November's election will be about supporting working families so they can pursue the American dream.

"I think it's going to be a big theme of the election in the fall at all levels of who do you stand with: Do you stand with the 99 percent or are you all about the 1 percent that is not giving people a fair shake?" she said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)


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