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Gubernatorial hopefuls back right-to-work

Last modified: 2/10/2012 12:00:00 AM
Another attempt to implement a right-to-work law in New Hampshire was debated before the House labor committee yesterday, this time with the Republican candidates for governor making their voices heard on the issue.

House Bill 1677 would prevent unions from collecting partial dues from nonmembers, while lifting a requirement that public sector unions represent employees who decide not to join. Supporters say it allows workers a choice of whether to become a union employee, while unions say the bill is a mechanism to erode collective bargaining power and create cheap labor.

"Why do we have to do this? We spent all of last year on this bill and it was shot down," said Ed Foley, the business representative for New Hampshire's sheet metal union who presented letters from five contractors opposing the bill. "(House Bill) 1677 is the same as (House Bill) 474. If it quacks like a duck, it walks like a duck and it stinks like a duck, it's a duck."

Yesterday's hearing brought a couple hundred union supporters to Representatives Hall, where testimony went on for over four hours. Republican gubernatorial candidates Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith spoke up in favor of the bill, which is also backed by the House's Republican leadership. Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney who narrowly lost the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010, said he supports right-to-work "for purposes of distinguishing our state, for purposes of marketing our state."

"I think New Hampshire would do better than it has done historically by making it more flexible for people to come to the workplace, to elect not to become part of a union and contribute to that work force," Lamontagne said.

Lamontagne was followed by Smith, former executive director of the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action. Smith said he voted in favor of an unsuccessful right-to-work bill in 1997, when he was a member of the House.

"As you know, the right-to-work legislation has been debated in this body for quite some time and, simply put, I believe its time has come," he said.

Smith said he doesn't expect right-to-work to be a "magic bullet" to immediately bring jobs to the state.

"There are many other variables in addition to right-to-work, such as our corporate tax rate, energy rates, health care premiums and so on, that companies look at when determining where the best place is to do business," he said. That said, being the only right-to-work state north of Virginia would "significantly enhance our economic and business creation advantage in the region."

Last year, the right-to-work effort was stymied by a veto from Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who said "states should not interfere with the rights of businesses and their employees to freely negotiate contracts." The House failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override Lynch's veto.

With a few technical tweaks, the thrust of House Bill 1677 is the same as the bill that failed last year. A statement from House Speaker Bill O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican, referenced a decision last week by Caterpillar Inc. to close a manufacturing plant in Canada - putting about 500 employees out of work - with plans to move the operation to Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed right-to-work into law earlier this month.

"We know that the argument that right-to-work won't create jobs is 100 percent fiction," O'Brien said. "The evidence is staring us directly in the face."

A slew of union workers and representatives testified against the bill. A retired public school teacher from Westmoreland said switching from a private, Catholic school to a unionized public school "allowed me to make a living."

"What are we trying to become - the Mississippi and Alabama of the Northeast?" he asked. "I don't get that. I just don't. We should be proud that we're in the Northeast of the United States and one of the backbones of New England, and that we support workers' rights."

Mark MacKenzie, president of the state AFL-CIO, sought to dispel the connection between job growth and right-to-work states. South Carolina has an unemployment rate nearly double that of New Hampshire, he said, and job growth in Texas has been largely due to more government jobs.

"If you were thinking of this in terms of economic development, please look at those figures and look at them closely. Because we're doing pretty good in New Hampshire. We're doing pretty good without right-to-work in New Hampshire," MacKenzie said.

Felicia Augevich, a union representative at FairPoint Communications, said employees showed flexibility in contracting with the communications company to help pull it out of bankruptcy. She asked lawmakers to "please stay out of our business and not interfere with our collective bargaining."

"I ask you as a committee to please, finally put this bill to rest," Augevich said. "We're tired of hearing about it. We're doing just fine without you."

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


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