"Right to work" legislation attempt returns to New Hampshire Legislature

  • Workers International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 3 protest outside the State House in advance of voting on right to work legislation in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. House lawmakers have killed the union-targeting legislation after a Republican-on-Republican debate. The outcome marks a defeat for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who called right to work a top priority and had urged members of his party to get in line. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 1/26/2021 5:39:28 PM

Four years after falling short, the push for a right-to-work law in New Hampshire is back. 

A group of Republican senators and representatives are advocating for legislation to prohibit mandatory union dues for employees in the private sector. And this year, they're attempting to bring the bill over the finish line.

Senate Bill 61 would create a new chapter of New Hampshire law dedicated to cementing “freedom of choice” – allowing workers at private companies the right to choose to join unions or choose not to join and not to contribute to them.

The bill would prohibit collective  bargaining agreements between unions and employers that require employees to contribute union dues. Those dues have been long defended by unions as necessary reimbursement for the representation that unions provide the workforce. But right-to-work supporters argue that those agreements keep employees beholden to union bosses and scare away major corporations from states that allow them.

Public sector workers are already exempt from automatic union dues after the 2018 Supreme Court decision of Janus v. AFSCME. But that decision, which overturned court precedent, does not apply to private sector unions. SB 61 would apply that prohibition to the private sector by directly prohibiting collective bargaining contracts from including mandatory union fees for workers.

Efforts to pass “right-to-work” laws in other states have been bitter, divisive affairs pitting powerful unions against corporate interests. So far New Hampshire’s is no exception. At a hearing for SB 61 Tuesday, advocates for the policy clashed with a broad array of union heads and employees who testified in opposition to the change.

To right-to-work supporters, SB 61 is about fairness to individuals.

“This bill would guarantee workers the right to decide for themselves,” said McKayne Boedeker, the executive director of New England Citizens for Right to Work, a political action committee.

Boedeker argued that when polled, employees liked the concept of choosing whether to join a union. And he argued that without right-to-work law, unions would not have an incentive to convince workers to join them.

“The fact is good unions don’t need forced dues, and bad unions don’t deserve them,” he said.

But according to supporters of unions, a right-to-work law has one main aim: to weaken unions everywhere.

“Union density in this country is at an all-time low,” said John Buonopane, a representative with the United Steelworkers Union. “One of the reasons for this: right-to-work laws and other anti-employment laws. People don’t want this legislation.”

Supporters of the bill say that passing right-to-work legislation will open New Hampshire up to major business investment – investment they say avoids the state due to its present union landscape. That’s Sen. John Reagan’s argument, who introduced the bill in a short speech Tuesday.

“The tremendous number of people against this are riled up by union leaders, and the people who would benefit from this don’t know who they are,” the Deerfield Republican said Tuesday. “Because they haven’t received an offer from a better job. They haven’t seen a new employer come into this state.”

Opponents disagree, arguing any weakening of unions would reduce benefits for employees, making the state less attractive to move to. To Buonopane, a right-to-work law wouldn’t attract the type of jobs that the state needs.

Then there were the arguments around fairness.

For Janice Kelbe, a retired postal worker from Hooksett, the benefits to the job were why she chose it so many years ago, as a single mother. At the Postal Service, there were two types of postal worker, casual clerks and full-time workers.

“Nobody was knocking the door down to become a casual,” she said. What they wanted were career jobs, the jobs with union negotiated benefits.”

To Kelbe, the advantages of having union-negotiated benefits are advantages worth paying for. In the Postal Service, workers always had the option to opt out of paying union dues. She recalled a colleague who didn’t do so, but benefited from union representation during a personal arbitration effort nonetheless.

Allowing workers to do that without paying dues, she argued, would be unfair.

“Those who tell you they want nothing to do with a union are not telling the whole truth,” Kelbe said. “What they do want is the benefits that are achieved by the union, and that’s why they have a job in that workplace.”

At the outset of the hearing, Reagan sought to head off anticipated arguments for Granite State workers.

“I know we’re going to hear all these frontline workers crying the blues...” he said. “We’ve heard these pleas and moaning and groaning about all the disadvantages from a right-to-work bill, but I’ve never seen it happening.”

Assistant Attorney Gregory Albert expressed different concerns. Speaking for the Department of Justice about the office’s duty to investigate violations within the bill, noting the resource strains on the Department of Justice. The law would require the department to enter into investigations, which he said would violate separation of powers.

The fight for and against right-to-work is expected to draw in piles of outside money to political action committees. And it comes four years after the last push, in 2017, during Gov. Chris Sununu’s first months in office as governor. Back then, the effort narrowly fell short in the Republican-led House, failing to win over enough support from the moderate wing of the party.

This time, with support of top Republican Senate leadership, right-to-know supporters are hoping the legislative momentum will materialize.

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